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Man with a 'Mission': How Herman Stern saved more than 120 Jews from the Holocaust

John Stern, representing the living family members, looks at the painting of his grandfather Herman Stern, who was chosen as the 40th recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Fargo. Then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple, North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger and Merl Paaverud, director of the State Historical Society, were on stage to unveil the portrait. Forum News Service file photo.1 / 2
Herman Stern in the 1970s. Special to Forum News Service.2 / 2

FARGO — In 2014, when Herman Stern was posthumously awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award — the highest honor for a North Dakotan — he was celebrated as a businessman and a civic leader. He ran Strauss clothing store for years, promoted the Boy Scouts of America and established chapters in the Red River Valley, founded what would become the United Way and oversaw the formative years of the North Dakota Winter Show.

What may have come as a surprise to some was how he saved over 120 Jews from Germany as Adolf Hitler rose to power.

One of those surprised to learn about Stern as a Holocaust savior was Fargo filmmaker Art Phillips, who decided then and there he had to make a documentary about him.

"This is a story that needs to be told, needs to be in the community, it needs to be a program in the schools," Phillips says.

His movie, "The Mission of Herman Stern," makes its Fargo premiere Tuesday, Nov. 14, at the Fargo Theatre.

The filmmaker created a 32-minute documentary and accompanying curriculum that he plans to make available to schools across the state. He did the same thing with his 2013 documentary, "The Road to Little Rock," about Fargo-based Ronald Davies, the federal judge who ordered schools in Little Rock, Ark., to integrate in 1957.

"These guys like Judge Davies and Herman Stern — these guys are North Dakota heroes," Phillips says. "To me, these are stories that need to be told."

It was a story Stern seldom, if ever, told himself, says John Stern, Herman's grandson.

"That's not something that was talked about or celebrated in any way in the family. That was just Grandpa," says John, who took over Straus and ran it with his brother Rick until they retired in 2015.

The Stern family helped Phillips with information and photos, but didn't have a hand in the production of the movie. John has already seen it, however, as he took a copy to show his cousin Michel, who lives out east and told his story for the cameras.

His story was like many others Herman Stern helped save. As Hitler and his nationalist movement rose to power, Jews grew concerned and wrote relatives in a safer country seeking jobs and a place to stay.

Herman Stern received many correspondences from relatives and others, and used his political connections to slowly move them to the United States. Some came to work in the Straus stores, while others never got past New York.

Stern stayed in touch with those for whom he arranged safe passage. He would even visit those who stayed in New York while on business trips and see how they were acclimating.

"Instead of just bringing them over, he cared about them and was checking up on them," Phillips says.

Phillips used Terry Shoptaugh's 2008 book, "You Have Been Kind Enough to Assist Me: Herman Stern and the Jewish Refugee Crisis," as source material for his movie, as well as reading letters sent to Herman in his archives, housed at the University of North Dakota.

Phillips says there will be a panel discussion following the screening featuring himself, Shoptaugh and Carl Oberholzer, who co-wrote the movie.

Herman died in 1980 and many of the survivors he helped relocate passed away over the years, so Phillips had to travel to New York for some of their accounts. It was an experience Phillips, whose father was Jewish, says was profound.

"Life-changing. That's the only word to describe it," he says about hearing survivors' tales of fleeing what was becoming Nazi Germany. "Just hearing them talk about that was an amazing, wonderful experience for me. We hear about the Holocaust and we've read about it, but to talk to people who had actually gotten out is unbelievable."

Phillips says Stern's story serves as more than just a history lesson, but rather a life lesson.

"One of the takeaways from this project is that one person can make a difference," he says.

If You Go

What: "The Mission of Herman Stern"

When: 7 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 14

Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway

Info: Admission is free and open to the public. https://www.themissionofhermanstern.org/.

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