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The timeless lessons of Herman Stern

By now many North Dakotans are familiar with at least the outlines of the impressive life of Herman Stern. Stern immigrated to the state at the age of 16 from Germany. He became successful in the men’s clothing business, ultimately owning a chain of Strauss Men’s Clothing stores from his base in Valley City. He helped found what has become the Greater North Dakota Chamber as well as the United Way and Boy Scouts in North Dakota, and started the Valley City Winter Show, an agricultural expo. For these many contributions he was posthumously awarded the Roughrider Award, North Dakota’s highest honor, in 2014. But today Stern, who died in 1980, is probably best known for his tireless efforts to help Jewish refugees escape from Nazi Germany to the safe shores of the United States.

He is credited with saving 125 Jews by helping them to flee Germany during the 1930s, as Hitler and his fellow Nazis rose to power and began targeting Jews for oppression. To accomplish that, he had to overcome huge obstacles, including

a callous bureaucracy that required burdensome paperwork and financial sponsorship – forcing him to repeatedly run a red-tape gauntlet. The story is told well in a new documentary, “The Mission of Herman Stern,” by Video Arts Studios in Fargo. An important message from the film is the broader context here in the United States that made Stern’s humanitarian efforts so noteworthy, and so difficult.

During the 1930s, the United States was struggling through the Great Depression, which thrust millions of people into desperate poverty. Partly as a result, it also was a time of ugly bigotry, including anti-semitism. Despite escalating atrocities by Nazi Germany – and the outbreak of World War II when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 – isolationist voices arguing that the U.S. should stay out of the war. One of the loudest and most influential voices was a U.S. Senator from North Dakota, Gerald Nye. Nye and some of the other isolationists were accused of holding anti-semitic views, including the belief there was a Jewish conspiracy trying to push the U.S. into entering the war.

Despite his views, Nye ended up becoming an important ally for Stern, helping to obtain entry for Jewish refugees by cutting through red tape. Of course, because of Stern’s reputation as an upstanding citizen and successful businessman, he was a difficult man to say no to. But it’s also true that Nye didn’t allow his biases to stand in the way of a selfless man on a mission to save others.

It’s impossible to watch “The Mission of Herman Stern” without seeing parallels between the bigotry that Stern had to overcome in the 1930s and the anti-semitism and other forms of ugly bias that have once again become more prevalent in American politics and society. But the story of Herman Stern demonstrates that the determination of one man can make a tremendous difference, and can inspire others to do the right thing, discovering what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels” of their nature.