DR. GUY STERN 9.20.09

Guy Stern has an honorary doctorate from Hofstra University, numerous awards for his books and articles on German literature and culture, a Grand Order of Merit and Goethe Award from the Federal Republic of Germany.  He’s also the interim director for the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.

And yet, the single document that remains closest to his heart, even after seventy-two years?  The visa he received from his native Germany in 1937, at a time when few Jews were being allowed to leave the country.

“Without that piece of paper,” Stern says with a deep sigh, “I don’t see how I could have survived the War.  It was my escape route—the last ray of hope that I had.”

The accuracy of such a grim sentiment is hardly in doubt; born in Hildesheim, Germany in 1922, he arrived in St. Louis shortly after the visa was issued, and though he continued to provide affidavits for the rest of his family in an attempt to bring them to the United States, the climate in Nazi Germany had by then grown so precarious that the ‘escape route’ was effectively eliminated. 

As a result, his brother, sister, parents and grandmother perished in the Holocaust.

He did not learn of their fate until after the war.  Inducted in the U.S. Army in 1942, he was assigned to Camp Ritchie and became a POW interrogator.  Three days after  D-Day, he arrived in Normandy and began interrogating German prisoners, ultimately receiving a Bronze Star for his methods of mass interrogation which included posing as a Russian commissar—a threatening role since the German POWs had a deeply entrenched fear of falling into Russian hands.  “Along with Fred Howard, who played the part of a friendlier American soldier, we acted like the classic ‘Good cop/bad cop’.  It was ironic, because Fred was far tougher than I.”

Stern’s tales of the front are filled with so many fascinating twists and turns that you’d swear it was the stuff of movies.  And, in fact, ‘The Ritchie Boys’ was made in 2004 by German film-maker Christian Bauer. Finding himself with so much unused material, Bauer decided to collaborate with Rebekka Geopfert to put the collected material into a book.

It is a film that Bauer had spent fifteen years trying to produce, and was grateful that the original Ritchie Boys are still around to tell their stories:
“For me and most other Germans, they came as liberators. I’m ashamed that Germans drove them out of the country in which they were born. I mourn the families they lost in the Holocaust. I hope that you will love each one of them as much as I do - for what they went through, and for the difference they made. For their courage, their charm, their wit, and for the intensity with which they tell us about their fight.”

“I want to celebrate them,” Bauer adds.  “They were not victims, they were victors!”




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