Season 3, Episode 4 - Retired distinguished professor, provost Guy Stern on turning 100 years old, surviving the Holocaust, WWII heroism, more

Former Wayne State University Provost and Distinguished Professor Guy Stern — who recently turned 100 years old — reflects on his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, World War II veteran, scholar, administrator and community pillar.

About

Gunther "Guy" Stern was born Jan. 14, 1922 in Hildesheim, Germany. He was the only member of his five-person family to escape to the United States in 1937, where he was assisted by an aunt and uncle in St. Louis and an American-Jewish agency. Later, despite his best efforts, he was unable to secure passage overseas for the rest of his family and learned that his whole family had been deported to the Warsaw Ghetto, where they died.

Stern began studying romance languages in 1940, later studying German. In 1942, he volunteered for naval intelligence but was initially rejected because he was not born in the United States; he was subsequently drafted in 1943. In 1944, he landed in Normandy three days after D-Day as a member of the Ritchie Boys: a special military intelligence unit composed mainly of German, Austrian and Czech refugees and immigrants to the United States, mostly of Jewish descent. Part of Stern's duty was the interrogation of German prisoners of war and defectors. He was member of IPW Team 37, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.

Following the war, Stern returned to his studies, earning a bachelor of arts in romance languages in 1948 from Hofstra University, and then a master of arts in Germanistics in 1950 as well as a Ph.D. in 1953 from Columbia University. After teaching at Columbia, he received an assistant professorship at Denison University, and was later named professor and head of the German language and literature at the University of Cincinnati. Stern later became head of the German and Slavic studies department at the University of Maryland. Until his retirement in 2003, he served as a distinguished professor of German literature and cultural history at Wayne State University and intermittently as senior vice president and provost. He was also a visiting scholar at the German universities of Freiburg im Breisgau, Frankfurt am Main, Leipzig, Potsdam and Munich.

Stern is currently the director of The Harry and Wanda Zekelman International Institute of the Righteous at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. He is one of the founders of the Lessing Society at the University of Cincinnati, acting as its president from 1975 until 1977. As an author and editor, Stern has published several books and compilations on German literary history, focusing primarily on literature on emigration and immigration. In 1998, he gave a lecture at the 60th anniversary of the Kristallnacht at the German parliament Bundestag in Bonn.

Stern has been honored with several awards throughout his life, among them the Great Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1987 and the Goethe Medal in 1989. He has also received an honorary doctorate from Hofstra University.

Stern is married to the German author Susanna Piontek. He turned 100 on Jan. 14, 2022.

Additional resources

Learn more about Stern's memoir, Invisible Ink: wsupress.wayne.edu/books/detail/invisible-ink

Read about Stern's work at Wayne State: clasprofiles.wayne.edu/profile/ad5422

Watch a CBS News report about Stern: cbsnews.com/news/ritchie-boy-guy-stern-world-war-ii-2022-01-02

Watch the 60 Minutes segment on the Ritchie Boys: youtube.com/watch?v=nFwnh1eG6BI

Learn more about the Zekelman Holocaust Center: holocaustcenter.org

Transcript

Announcer:                   Welcome to Today@Wayne. A podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community with news announcements, information and current events discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission. Today@Wayne serves as the perfect form for our campus to begin a conversation or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.

Darrell Dawsey:             Welcome to the Today@Wayne Podcast. I'm Darrel Dawsey. A man many people call a living legend turned a hundred years old recently, yet another milestone achievement for Guy Stern. A retired Wayne State professor who's lived a life that seems ripped from movies. A former refugee from Nazi Germany, Stern later helped fight the Axis power when he joined the U.S. army in 1943 as one of the Ritchie Boys. A special unit of approximately 9000, mostly Jewish refugees who were trained to gather intelligence.

                                    He earned a bronze star for a service. Years later, Stern became a globally respected scholar in German literature and is credited with having co-created the academic discipline of exile studies which highlights the contributions of authors, poets, playwrights, and others who have been forced to leave the country of their birth. After that he joined the administration at Wayne State serving as provost, senior vice president and eventually distinguished professor of German literature and cultural history. He recently released his memoir Invisible Ink and remains active in the community, largely through his service at the Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills. And he's here with us today to talk about his amazing life. We want to say welcome, Guy Stern. How are you today Guy?

Guy Stern:                    Thank you for having me.

Darrell Dawsey:             It's a pleasure to have you. Thanks so much for joining us. So, let's talk a little bit about your life. You recently turned 100 years old and you were just featured on 60 Minutes as one of the Ritchie Boys in World War 2. Tell us a little bit about what keeps you going. You've published your memoir, you are still working at the Zekelman Holocaust Center. What keeps you rolling, Guy? What keeps you going?

Guy Stern:                    [inaudible 00:02:17] I tell you, I'm the sole survivor from the Holocaust in my family. All my close family, my parents, my siblings was murdered during the Holocaust and so I felt that I as a sole survivor, was of necessity obliged to lead a worthwhile life and that kept me going. And then I found out that I had no monopoly on this incentive. Several of the survivors felt just as I did, and I must say then as I read about it, it was even given it a name, it was called the Survivor Syndrome. So I was not alone in this. That incentive has sustained me all my life.

Darrell Dawsey:             Now, after you left Germany, you joined the United States army and you fought. You were a part of the Ritchie Boys, you were at Fort Ritchie in Maryland. You gathered intelligence and interrogated Nazi prisoners. Was that satisfying to you in a certain way, given that you are a survivor and was it also terrifying? What was that like for you as a survivor to be able to participate and fight Nazi Germany?

Guy Stern:                    With the uniform at my becoming an American citizen. I had no hesitation. I was an American soldier doing my job that for which I was trained. So I had every incentive yes, personal as well as patriotic, to do my job. That is what really kept me going.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. Can you give us an example of an interrogation or an interview that is vivid still in your mind that still stands out?

Guy Stern:                    Yes. One of the ploys that we were taught at camp retreat, was to find a common interest with a prisoner and so my misspent early childhood as a soccer fanatic paid off. Because I found IAF when I was asked to give a survey of the German industrial leadership in the city of Dusseldorf. I found a prisoner who really was a native of Dusseldorf and lived there most of his life. And so, I started out talking about his native soccer team and I asked him, "Well look Fortuna Dusseldorf was on top of the heap at mid-season and then you got lower and lower." He answered that question draft and everything and so he completely forgot that we were wearing different uniforms. We were just two soccer fans and I was able to lead him exactly to revealing what I needed to do report to my I superiors.

Darrell Dawsey:             Wonderful, wonderful. That's an amazing story. Well, now you've lived this incredible life and you recently published Invisible Ink, which is your memoir. Tell us a little bit about what you learned as you were publishing this memoir, as you were writing this memoir and was it difficult for you as you looked back on your life?

Guy Stern:                    Well there was a lot of tragedy in my life that's quite correct. Of course it was also a spur to do your job well because I didn't know about the fate of my family. And besides doing my job, as every G.I. did in that war, I was also impelled to do what I could if I could still do something for my family.

Speaker 3:                    Talk about your book.

Darrell Dawsey:             Now you've made some amazing transitions in your life, going from soldier to academic, to university administrator. Can you talk to the people just a little bit about why you've been successful in making such dramatic transitions from point-to-point in your life?

Guy Stern:                    Well, I try to hint at it in answering your first question and that is that the incentive remained the same. I was a... Let's call it what it was, let's call it as patriot and someone who had every reason to be a good interrogator, furnish information and it remained my life.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. Let's talk a little bit about you being here. You were born in Germany, you've taught at a lot of places, Columbia, the University of Maryland, the University of Cincinnati. And yet you stay in the Detroit area. Tell us a little bit about what keeps you in the Detroit area.

Guy Stern:                    There were several reasons. One of them was that I felt a university dedicated to giving equal opportunity to everyone within its range in Detroit and beyond. Secondly, I would call [foreign language 00:09:36] because I found a woman in Detroit that I like greatly, subsequently married and that was a further incentive. And there might have been some other attractions but the service to everyone and love in addition kept me in the Detroit area even when some other offers came along often.

Darrell Dawsey:             Well love is the key, that's very true. Well listen you retired from Wayne State 2003 as a distinguished professor. You'd also served as provost, you've received numerous awards and distinctions as an instructor and as a scholar. Can you tell us what are you most proud of from your time at Wayne State?

Guy Stern:                    There was several. One of them was that as provost, when there were some difficulties or differences between colleagues I could serve as a peacemaker because I had sympathy for every attitude. [inaudible 00:11:00]. I was proud of that. Secondly, I had a model from Cincinnati which was that the best scholars were united in a association and I thought we have scholars here at Wayne who are just as gifted and as productive as I've seen in my previous job. And so, I found a way to put that into practice by, together with a colleague, founding the Academy of Scholars. And that has been a very good asset and also something that has evolved through the years and something that Wayne State is still proud of.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. Now on a personal note, you work at the Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills. Tell us a little bit about why it's important, the work that you do and why it's important for folks to know about the center and to visit.

Guy Stern:                    Yes. I had several jobs there but what I'm doing now is the most rewarding. I am the director within the Holocaust Center, the so-called center for altruistics or it has several names. Here is the one important lesson that I, in doing my job, learned for myself and that is that we must just must not judge people as group but rather as individuals. It is wrong to say all Scotsmen are skinflints or every German is whatever. So I have learned not to make huge judgements but look at people for what they are personally and as individuals. Mass judgements lead us to mistakes.

Darrell Dawsey:             Very true, very, very true. Now you've had a long and illustrious career as a scholar, you've been an author, you're a husband, you're a father, decorated veteran, a pillar in the Jewish community. Is there are one of these titles that you're most proud of and why?

Guy Stern:                    That's a hard question to answer because you want to succeed in all of them and put on one man in his time, place many parts. So I feel I put on whatever hat be it a cap and gown, you put on what you are doing at the moment. And so I can't rightly choose between all of those as one outstanding one.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. I understand. Well those are all great titles. You just turned 100 years old, that's something that many of us can only dream of to be so fortunate. What is it like to celebrate turning 100 years old?

Guy Stern:                    It feels wonderful. Behind my back, some of my colleagues, my friends and well wishes, staged a... How should I call it? A show of rhetoric that praise me and I felt I had no right to put those clothes on, but it also was a very human display when people whom I have worked with all my life give testimonials. That was a wonderful display as the whole day, couple of days after my birthday was filled with reminisces and they brought up memories for me and it touched me deeply that I was being remembered by my colleagues.

Darrell Dawsey:             Well now of course because of 60 Minutes, everybody's talking about your role in World War II as one of the Ritchie Boys and that was important, but it was a short time. And so much of your life was spent as a professor of German studies, you stood in front of students for about 50 years. What is it that you would like to be remembered for as a professor, as a scholar, as a scientist?

Guy Stern:                    Yes. As a professor, I like to be remembered as a person who tried to teach, not just the specialist subject, but to teach also values. And so, I was able to weave into my lectures also something like saying, "It's important to learn as students to think for yourself. Ask when you are touched, or when people try to propaganda ask what is their motives?" That was a lesson beyond and that I think is an important part... Or, "Don't become so involved as a specialist in a certain subject that you do not see the life around you." For example, I gave a lecture after the discriminatory practices and murder in Ferguson and I was able to link my subject with the social message that had to be given.

Darrell Dawsey:             Wonderful. Well that shows that struggle helps us cross and bridge a lot of gaps and a lot of differences. Guy, I want to say thank you for taking your time to join us today. We really appreciate your history, your life, your service, your contributions to the community. We want to say thank you, again.

Guy Stern:                    And thank you once more for having me on your program.

Darrell Dawsey:             Absolutely. Thank you so much. This is Darrell Dawsey, this has been the Today@Wayne Podcast.

Announcer:                   Thanks for listening to Today@Wayne. We'd love to hear from you our campus community about other podcast ideas and topics. What compelling things are you doing to spread the good word about living, learning, working and playing like a warrior? Let us know by visiting Today@Wayne.edu

 

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