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Published: Friday, 9/18/2009

War's path leads him to direct Holocaust center

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. - Guy Stern, who has been known to generations of students as a warm, witty, and somewhat elfin German professor, started a new career this winter, one he never expected.

He is the interim director of one of Michigan's most impressive but least-known cultural jewels: the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. The first free-standing center of its kind in the nation, it is also still one of the most impressive in the nation, with the huge U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum its only real rival. Mr. Stern won't be in the office today, however. This is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and he'll be welcoming in 5770.

But he also will be reflecting on the 6 million Jews who lost so many new years, and the odd quirks of fate that led him to a life in Detroit, first teaching the language of those who murdered his family, then devoting his later years to trying to make this center relevant to a wider audience.

Some of the thousands of students he has inspired at schools from Denison University in Ohio to Wayne State University knew that their distinguished professor had been Marlene Dietrich's driver when she was touring the front late in World War II. Some knew of his close friendship with Lotte Lenya. But almost none knew there had once been a boy named Guenther, who was fascinated by all things American and came to St. Louis as a teenager in 1937. That wasn't easy then; you had to have evidence that someone of means would sponsor you. Guenther's uncle, a mostly unemployed baker, borrowed money to seem prosperous.

Once the boy got here, he was determined to find a way to get his parents and sister to join him. For they were Jewish, and trapped in Nazi Germany. Thanks to bureaucracy and "a very stupid lawyer," his efforts failed. He ran out of time. He joined army intelligence and was decorated for interrogating Nazi war criminals. When the war ended he learned his family had been shipped to the Warsaw Ghetto, and terrible death.

That boy was Guy Stern. When the war was over, he faced a dilemma. His professor at Columbia University told him he had the makings of a brilliant German scholar. But how he could do that?

How could he make a career studying the language and the literature of the people who had murdered his family? He agonized over this, and made a decision. He would not allow the evildoers to own the language that was also his mother tongue. "I thought if I don't choose to follow the talent I have, then I would be doing the task of the Nazis on my own." He also realized he must not hate the Germans as a people. "I could not do the same thing as the Nazis and tar-brush an entire people on a collective basis."

Nor could he let the world forget. When an inspired rabbi named Charles Rosenzveig founded the Holocaust Memorial Center, Mr. Stern took charge of part of it, the International Institute of the Righteous, which honors those who saved or tried to save at least one person, often endangering themselves in the process. Then, in December, the rabbi suddenly died.

The board asked Mr. Stern if he would serve as director, at least on an interim basis. First, he said no. Then he reconsidered. "After all, I am only 87," he said with a droll little smile. So, he said, "if that is what the board wishes, I will try to do my best." Most people think he has done wonders.

The center, which is in part an exceptionally rich museum of Jewish history, draws about 100,000 visitors a year, and, thanks in large part to a dedicated corps of volunteers, manages on a budget of about $1 million.

"What I want to do is broaden its appeal," he said. Last spring, he brought Tibor Rubin to speak; he is the only Nazi concentration camp survivor ever to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. In the spring, the newly appointed Roman Catholic Archbishop of Detroit, Allen Vigneron, is to appear.

Mr. Stern seems to have the energy of a man half his age, partly perhaps because he recently married a German writer who is "half my age and twice as smart." But he knows there will be a time when the last survivor is no more. What he wants to do is make sure the Holocaust Center is still thriving and relevant, even when there is no one who can remember the horror. Visiting this magnificent center would be an excellent place for those of any religion or background to start.

The Holocaust Memorial Center is at 28123 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills, just north of Twelve Mile Road. Take the Orchard Lake Road exit off I-696. Admission is free; there are guided tours. It is closed most legal and Jewish holidays. Call for hours; 248-553-2400.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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