Meet Guy Stern Aug. 19 in a virtual program of the Holocaust Memorial Center.
Gunther Stern, born in Hildesheim, Germany, in 1922, now lives in West Bloomfield, and works at the Holocaust Memorial Center. Highlights of his activities between then and now provide the material for his new memoir, Invisible Ink, published by Wayne State University Press.
Not long after the Nazis came to power in Germany in January 1933, Julius and Hedwig Stern had the foresight to try to get their oldest son, Gunther, official permission to emigrate to St. Louis. Once there, at the home of his aunt and uncle, he was expected to work to bring to the rest of the family — his parents and his younger brother and sister.
Julius warned his son to keep a low profile, to make himself unnoticeable “like invisible ink,” until the family could meet again. In 1937, Gunther faced a most fearsome hurdle: getting approval from the American Counsel General in Hamburg, Malcom Burke. Most American officials systematically denied approvals; Burke promptly stamped the forms, and Gunther went to America.
In St. Louis, he found a supportive home, an excellent high school and a way to make a living: working in restaurants, first as a busboy and then as a waiter. Also a new first name: A girlfriend called him “Guy,” a name that Americans could pronounce.
To rescue his family, the waiter recruited a wealthy restaurant patron to sponsor their immigration. The community’s immigration lawyer, however, explained that the patron’s profession, “gambler”, technically disqualified him as a sponsor. The lawyer would not even try to circumvent the law. The family remained in Germany to be murdered.
When the war began, the U.S. Army recruited Guy and other young immigrants who knew the language and culture of enemy countries. They were known as the Ritchie Boys. The Army offered citizenship to the stateless young soldier, now officially Guy Stern. In France, right after the D-Day invasion, Stern interrogated German prisoners of war about the remaining German forces.
After the war, Stern earned graduate degrees in German studies, rekindling his love of the language that had also rejected him. He loved the writers of the Enlightenment, such as Lessing, who championed reason, science, moderation, optimism and openness to foreign cultures. Stern also worked with, and wrote about, writers who had left or been driven out of the lands of their birth, and still wrote in its language.
In Invisible Ink, Stern records highlights (and some less successful moments) from his personal life and from his illustrious career as a scholar, teacher, academic administrator and promoter of culture. Stern helped found the North American Society for Exile Studies. As provost at Wayne State University, Stern was an early lecturer at the Society of Active Retirees, establishing outreach to a neglected population.
At the Holocaust Memorial Center, Stern developed a program to recognize Jewish rescuers (Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations programs do not include Jewish rescuers). He has periodically returned to Germany to teach seminars.
Though Stern has triumphs in each role, one talent comes through this book as his real superpower. Guy Stern has an awe-inspiring ability to make friends. The book abounds with tales of Stern’s adventures with famous, almost-famous and a mind-boggling number of totally obscure people — followed by stories of meeting them again, decades later, to learn more of their stories — and of his own.
Just a few years ago, Feiga Weiss, archivist and librarian at the Holocaust Memorial Center, tracked down the files at YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research), on the Thousand Children, a hush-hush project in America to bring Jewish children from Europe before World War II — including the paperwork on the rescue of Gunther Stern.
World-renowned Holocaust scholar Dr. Michael Berenbaum will interview Dr. Guy Stern in an online Zoom webinar Wednesday, Aug. 19, about Guy’s remarkable life and his new memoir. To register, visit holocaustcenter.org/August. To purchase Invisible Ink, visit holocaustcenter.org/BookOrder.