Holocaust center leader to get France’s highest honor

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The atrocities of a dark era in human history are forever etched in Guy Stern’s mind.

As a German immigrant whose family perished along with millions of people during the Holocaust, the Wayne State University professor emeritus has dedicated decades to educating the public about the time when Nazis and collaborators worked to annihilate Jewish people as well as others they considered inferior.

The 95-year-old, who directs the Harry and Wanda Zekelman International Institute of the Righteous at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, also has another unique link. During World War II, he served with the U.S. Army in Europe, working in a special military intelligence unit.

His efforts ultimately helped liberate France, and on Friday — International Holocaust Remembrance Day — he is set to receive that nation’s highest award: a Legion of Honor medal.

But Stern’s focus is on helping shape the future.

“The horror arising from hatred, discrimination and divisiveness has to be demonstrated to each generation anew, because the dangers of a reoccurrence are still with us,” he said. “We have to plant in the generations growing up that the searing consequences of such deeds stay for generations. They long outlast in many respects the terror and the dehumanization of the actual events.”

Stern plans to share that message during a ceremony Friday at the Holocaust Center, where he has held many roles since its inception.

He joins a select group to earn the accolade Napoleon Bonaparte created in 1802, said Vincent Floreani, the Chicago-based Consul General of France.

“It’s only given to those who achieve the highest deeds for France,” he said. “We want people to recognize that he is a very brave man, like other American soldiers. France is forever grateful for their courage.”

The award centers on Stern’s membership in the “Ritchie Boys,” which included Jewish soldiers and refugees who escaped Nazi-controlled Europe and returned to the continent with specialized military training.

Celebrating such a distinction helps detail experiences that went untold for years, said Eli Mayerfeld, CEO of the Holocaust Memorial Center. “His intent is to really tell his own story and for people to be able to learn about it. It’s a tremendous thing we’re going to be able to share with the public.”

Born in 1922, Stern grew up in Hildesheim, in northern Germany, where persecution was common and a Nazi boycott of Jewish stores affected his father’s clothing shop, according to a biography. When he was a teen, his uncle living in the United States helped arrange for the youth to relocate there.

Drafted in 1943, Stern was trained in interrogation and attached to the headquarters of the 106th Infantry Division, records show. Overseas, he expertly extracted information from German war prisoners: results of bombing missions, factory relocations, whether gas mask training materialized.

At times, techniques involved elaborate ruses. Stern once disguised himself as a Russian commissar “ready to take them over and send them to one of our prison camps,” he recalls. “That pushed a good number of them to reveal the information we were asked to supply.”

Stern rose to the rank of master sergeant and won a Bronze Star, he said.

Reflecting on that period, Stern insists “I really am only one person in the group of Ritchie Boys and of all the soldiers taking part in World War II. ... It was our mission to liberate Europe that was in the (clutch) of a very contemptuous dictatorship.”

But he also faced unfathomable loss. Returning to his hometown shortly after the armistice, he learned from a customs official about his family’s deaths.

“I was devastated. For a while I was not able to really absorb the information I had received,” Stern recalls. “You have onslaughts of bitterness, but I got out of that because I also heard of some people who had tried to help my family. And so you felt that mass judgment is inimical to assessing your fellow man. There’s evil and good in all societies, in all races, in all ethnic groups. So I was able to overcome that. But that came by stages.”

Stern went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees in German literature, then taught at universities in Ohio and Maryland before joining Wayne State.

Since retiring from academia, he has become a wealth of knowledge at the Holocaust Memorial Center.

“He just has so many talents. He’s a resource for so many people and a role model,” said Cheryl Guyer, the center’s development director. “With resources for our curation and archives, he’s our go-to guy. He researches for future exhibits. He’s an active translator when we have German documents. At least once a week he talks to a large school group about his experiences.”

And though Stern also still lectures, “he’s actually here most days doing research, responding to emails and interacting with staff,” Mayerfeld said. “He’s a daily inspiration — how he lives his life and how he lived his life.”

Stern also inspires the Institute of the Righteous, which highlights those who risked their lives to aid others during the Holocaust as well as figures known for heroic stances. He oversaw many displays in the blue-carpeted space, which illustrates examples of broad concepts — altruism, compassion, interdependence, prejudice — with pictures, quotes and more.

The lesson the longtime educator hopes to impart to youths unaware of the Holocaust: “Never again. Guard against the first signs of evil in your society and try to remedy its effects.”

In Stern, many can find both past and future colliding, Mayerfeld said. “It’s important that the lessons of the history of the Holocaust are used to create a call to action for the community — that people have to understand through the example of those who did risk their lives to save others, that they can learn from those lessons and put them into their everyday activities.”