FARGO — Michel Stern’s boyhood journey from Nazi-occupied France to the United States started as a passenger hidden underneath a blanket while riding on a bicycle.
He was able to make his way to Casablanca and, after a long wait in a cramped apartment, boarded a Portuguese ship to the U.S., where his Jewish family was safe from the Holocaust that killed millions during World War II, including relatives who weren’t as lucky.
It was a life-saving trip made possible by Stern’s North Dakota uncle, Herman Stern, who was
a prominent businessman and civic booster in Valley City, where he ran the Straus clothing store.
“If it wouldn’t be for Herman Stern, I wouldn’t be here today, and that’s the truth,” Michel Stern said in a new documentary, “The Mission of Herman Stern,” that will debut this fall.
Herman Stern, who died in 1980 at the age of 92, was posthumously awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award, North Dakota’s highest honor, in 2014. He was known by some as the “angel of the prairie” and was credited with quietly helping more than 125 Jews escape persecution in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1941.
Art Phillips, general manager of Video Arts Studios in Fargo, is the director and producer of the documentary. He said Herman Stern’s selfless efforts to help others is a story that deserves to be told on film.
“We just thought it was another untold story that should be told,” Phillips said. “It’s another North Dakota hero story.”
Stern was an active businessman who ran Straus men’s clothing stores and launched a winter show and the Greater North Dakota Chamber. But he kept quiet about his behind-the-scenes efforts to help Jews flee Nazi Germany.
“Grandpa didn’t like publicity,” said Rick Stern. “He thought it was bragging. He was very humble.”
Herman Stern immigrated at age 16 to North Dakota to work at the Straus Clothing Store in Casselton, which had been established by his cousin, Morris Straus. In 1910, he was named manager of the company’s store in Valley City.
After Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, anti-Semitism grew virulent. At first, Stern dismissed the worries of physical harm to Jews as exaggerated, but soon became alarmed by the reports he got from relatives.
A worried niece wrote Stern to say she wanted to come to the U.S., and Stern helped her and one of her brother’s make the trip in 1934. He began urging his brothers to leave, and two brothers took his advice and assistance.
One of them, Gustav Stern, was Michel Stern’s father. It was the beginning of what turned out to be years of sustained efforts in sponsoring Jews, many of them distant relatives, to enable them to come to the U.S.
Stern tried to help as many as he could, pledging assets from his business, his personal savings and his home to comply with the U.S. State Department’s sponsorship requirements.
“He just kept bringing them in, bringing them in,” Phillips said.
Phillips started work on the documentary in 2015. “It’s a lot of research before any of the cameras start rolling,” he said.
It took some sleuthing to find people Stern had rescued, as he had never kept a list. Phillips started with the Stern family.
Early in the project, his team traveled to New York City to interview people Stern had helped to immigrate as children -- now elderly, all said they wouldn’t have lived without his help.
“It was real important that we get it done now,” Phillips said, noting the advanced age of the surviving refugees. “They were very gracious. I can’t thank them enough.”
Phillips also searched archives, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Barnes County Historical Society Museum in Valley City, the Herman Stern collection at the University of North Dakota and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa.
“We’re getting resources from all over the place,” Phillips said.
Film footage and audio recordings of Herman Stern’s distinctive German accent also will be part of the documentary, as well as family photographs.
Terry Shoptaugh, a former archivist at Minnesota State University Moorhead, wrote a book about Stern and will be interviewed for the documentary, Phillips said. Lesson plans will be available as a study guide for middle school and high school students.
Phillips, who earlier made a documentary about the late Judge Ronald Davies and his decision to integrate schools in Little Rock, Ark., said Stern’s life story stands as a powerful example.
“He showed us that one person can truly make a difference in so many lives,” he said. “He was a remarkable man.”
How you can help:
Those involved in the documentary film, “The Mission of Herman Stern,” still are raising money to finish the project. Tax-deductible donations can be made online at www.themissionofhermanstern.org.