How a story of Holocaust rescue on the North Dakota prairie speaks to broader issues of historical representation
On a recent icy Monday evening, nearly four hundred people packed a theater in downtown Grand Forks, North Dakota, to watch the world premiere of a documentary and panel discussion about the Holocaust. The Mission of Herman Stern tells the story of a Jewish North Dakotan who brought 125 Jewish refugees from Europe to the United States during the 1930s and World War II. As one of the event’s organizers and the moderator of the panel, I had sat for an interview with a local news station earlier in the day. The reporter asked me a question that has lingered in my mind ever since, especially given the unexpectedly large audience: Why should people care about a documentary on the Holocaust?
An Army of One
The film answers the question by arguing that the actions of Herman Stern teach us that one person can make a difference if that person is driven by proper character. Such an approach, which emphasizes the power of the individual, is a theme common in popular representations of the Holocaust as well as many other historical events. While The Mission of Herman Stern is a specific film about a specific person, the issues that it raises speak to a rich array of broader issues. The documentary is effective in several respects, particularly its recognition of antisemitism in the United States and compelling incorporation of interviews with several of the Jewish people that Stern saved. With a runtime of around thirty minutes, the filmmakers created the documentary for several purposes. Teachers could show it in class periods of fifty minutes and it comes with a curriculum aimed at middle and secondary-school students. It could also potentially appear on public television, which occurred with the filmmaker’s previous work on the civil rights movement, The Road to Little Rock.
The Mission of Herman Stern’s strongest point is that people are alive today thanks to the efforts of Stern and his wife, Adeline, whom the film refers to as his partner. Indeed, there is evidence that people from Adeline’s side of the family requested her help, although that aspect is, unfortunately, not explored in the documentary. The couple dramatically affected the lives of many people. Michael Stern put it this way in the 2016 interview with Art Phillips, the film’s writer and director: “If it wasn’t for Herman Stern I would not be here today.” This sentiment was widely shared by the people that the Sterns saved. “The little things he did for people, including my parents is just unreal. Because if it wasn’t for what he had done, I would not be around today,” a grateful Herb Jonas told Phillips.
While the film’s focus on the lasting impact of Stern’s actions is powerful, its greatest drawback is its focus on the agency of the individual rather than the structures that forced Stern’s actions in the first place. Indeed, individual agency is its primary message in describing Stern’s actions: “The rescue of many….an army of one.”
The flyer used in the promotional materials for the premier of The Mission of Herman Stern
Many, if not most, historians of fascism and the Holocaust would be cautious about instrumentalizing history in this manner. Indeed, they would argue that the event was so large and horrific in scope that it is dangerous to distill into a simplistic slogan. For instance, the category of rescue is important although exceptional, and thus should not obscure the much more representative categories of perpetrator and bystander. Indeed, narratives that celebrate rescue often lead people to identify with the rescuers rather than the perpetrators or bystanders even though history reveals the unsettling fact that most of us would have ended up in the latter two categories. Historians would also argue that the historical reality of the Holocaust is one of terror and violence perpetrated by Nazi Germany and the many governments throughout Europe that collaborated with Nazism. Consequently, it is misleading to use the Holocaust as a tale of hope and human resilience against Nazi evil. Again, a historically accurate approach to the Holocaust would emphasize the human tendency towards indifference, conformity, violence, and brutality. But would people have turned out to watch this type of documentary?
The Difficulties of Rescue
I became involved in organizing the film’s premiere as a faculty member of the University of North Dakota’s Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. UND provided significant financial support to help the film get made, which was why Grand Forks hosted the event. It is clear that UND administrators were willing to help finance the documentary while in the midst the worst budget crisis in the university’s history because it connected North Dakota to a major historical event and allowed the university to associate with the nearly universally admired topic of Holocaust rescue. Stern’s story is clearly of interest to many.
As the film shows, Herman Stern was born in Germany in 1887 and immigrated to North Dakota in 1903. He eventually settled in Valley City and ran Strauss Clothing, a prominent company that under Stern’s ownership and management opened stores throughout the state. Many people reminisced that they “bought their first suit” from Stern, who developed a reputation for honesty and integrity. His prominence as a businessman allowed him to enter into North Dakota’s elite, including a friendship with the infamously isolationist antisemite, Senator Gerald Nye. These connections would play a key role in Stern’s ability to bring people over from Europe.
The film avoids a chronological narrative of how Stern’s relatives came to see him as someone who could help them, although other sources reveal that the first people who Stern rescued from Germany were his niece and nephew in 1934, one year after the Nazi party was elected to power in Germany. As Nazi persecution of Jewish people increased in Germany during the 1930s, appeals from his family members grew. By 1937, Stern had helped dozens more, some of whom were distant family members of family members that Stern had never met.
While the documentary states that Stern brought people over by learning how to navigate the State Department’s labyrinthine network of visa requirements by exploiting a provision that allowed students to come to the United States with a sponsor, the reality was a bit more complex. Indeed, on this critical point – how Stern brought people over – the film could go into more detail since paperwork was a life and death matter. In the 1930s, as German Jews fled Germany to other European countries and the Third Reich expanded its borders, a refugee crisis developed. In response, many countries, including the United States and Canada, restricted the ability of refugees to immigrate. Stern appears to have been, in reality, more ingenious than his portrayal in the documentary. He wrote multiple affidavits of support in addition to student-sponsorship to get visas for his relatives and people they knew. Stern even saved one relative who was imprisoned at Dachau in 1938 after Kristallnacht by sending an affidavit to the German government promising that Stern could support him financially. In another case, Stern convinced a North Dakota farmer to write letters of support promising jobs to the people that the farmer sponsored. Stern made so many visa requests that the State Department grew suspicious of his activities and required additional information from him. He thus provided testimonies attesting to his character, including from Senator Nye.
Left unmentioned by the documentary is that many people in the United States attempted to save loved ones using the same methods as Stern, some successfully others less so. Between 1933 and 1941, around 110,000 Jewish refugees came to the United States from Nazi-occupied territory. Immigration requirements were so tight that most refugees could only come with the support of a family member who (like Stern) acted as a financial sponsor. Moreover, U.S. immigration policy established quotas each year for the number of visas available for people from different countries. Germany had the second highest allocation of visas (25,957, behind only Great Britain), which, given Stern’s German origins, put him at an advantage.
A major difference between Stern and other Jewish people in the United States who sought to bring relatives over, presumably, is that most people were not in the privileged position of having a powerful advocate in the U.S. Senate. And Stern only had Nye’s support because of the Senator’s respect for Stern’s business credentials. Nye saw no contradiction in supporting isolationism and attempting to restrict immigration while helping Stern out. After pressing for neutrality acts in the 1930s, Nye helped to establish the America First Committee in 1940, which epitomized the most extreme politics in the United States at the time by claiming that an international Jewish conspiracy was pushing the U.S. into war.
Such antisemitism and isolationism reflected why the State Department increased its barriers to immigration, particularly when World War II and the Holocaust began in 1939. For example, in a private memo that reflected antisemitism and xenophobia in the State Department, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long wrote the following in June 1940:
We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort of various administrative devises which would postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.
Because the film is not organized chronologically, it is difficult for the viewer to determine how many people Stern rescued in the 1930s and how many he rescued during the Holocaust itself. The question of chronology is important because, as Long’s memo shows, the noose tightened as time went on, and if Stern was decreasingly effective in helping Jewish people to immigrate, the film’s emphasis on his agency would be undermined. Moreover, Long’s memo clearly shows how a powerful senator could pull a few strings and get a file to move more quickly through the State Department’s bureaucracy.
Perhaps most disturbingly, given the quota situation and increasing number of refugees, if Nye was able to get Stern’s relatives moved up the list, it likely came at the expense of others who would have been pushed off of it. And it was anti-immigrant isolationists like Nye who supported the highly restrictive quotas that were a product of the 1924 Immigration Act in the first place. Such complexities are not explored in the film. Many people who were desperate to save their family members exhibited the same dedication and character as Stern, but lacked the political connections necessary to overcome impossible bureaucratic hurdles. This is not to diminish Stern’s actions, but to contextualize them – many Americans acted as tirelessly as Stern did but to no avail because they lacked the clout that he had earned. Did they fail because they lacked Stern’s character and drive? Should their profession have been in business?
The film thus misses some opportunities, including delving into Adeline’s role in rescue (and avoiding the highly problematic tendency to overlook women’s role in history) and offering a more incisive analysis of how Stern’s elite status opened opportunities for rescue. Rather than explore these important issues, the film emphasizes the significance of Stern’s status as a businessman. Perhaps the best example of this is the inclusion of an interview with Andy Peterson, the President of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, who insisted that Stern’s identity as a businessman drove his decision-making. Celebrating capitalism by tying it to Holocaust rescue is perhaps the most questionable aspect of the film, as the audience is left with a neoliberal message that any individual can work hard enough to accumulate the wealth necessary to climb the ladder and make a difference in society.
Antisemitism as Proof of Character
One reason that UND supported The Mission of Herman Stern was the opportunity to partner with local schools through the curriculum that accompanied the film. In introducing the film the night of the premier, UND’s president, Mark Kennedy, praised its curricular component to the audience, which included deans, prominent business owners, the press, and former congressman Earl Pomeroy. Developed by the filmmakers, the curriculum’s objective was to use the documentary to “provide historical content for teachers to use to teach students enduring lessons of character, ethical behavior, courage, service, determination, and doing the right thing.” If filmmakers believed that people would care about a Holocaust documentary by using the event as a character lesson, that raises the question of how other people living during Stern’s time viewed the issue of character.
For many in the 1930s, antisemitism was a matter of character. According to a poll in 1939, 53 percent of Americans believed that Jewish people were different and that they needed to be restricted. Three years later the U.S. government had confirmed that it was Nazi policy to kill all Jewish people in Europe, yet a public opinion poll conducted at the same time revealed that Americans believed that Jews as a group constituted the third largest “threat” to the United States, behind only the country’s wartime enemies of Germans and Japanese.
Such attitudes were cultivated during the 1930s by people such as Gerald Nye and his fellow America Firster, the infamous Father Charles Coughlin. Coughlin was born in Canada but was a naturalized U.S. citizen who used his Michigan-based radio program to reach tens of millions of people. He bemoaned a world in crisis that was threatened by the selfish interests of international bankers and communists. Playing upon nasty stereotypes of Jewish people as naturally greedy, skilled at financial transactions, and in control of world banks, Coughlin claimed that capitalism was destroying opportunities for hard working Americans. The problem was worsened, he argued, by the fact that so many communists were Jews: “German Jews are today suffering persecution because for 15 years after the Great War Germany was prostrated by Communism, headed by Jews under direction of Moscow,” Coughlin’s newspaper wrote in December, 1938. It added, “Anti-Semitism is spreading in America because the people sense a closely interwoven relationship between Communism and Jewry. It is known that the Soviet leaders of Russia dictate the policies of the Communist Party in the United States. It is also known that the Comintern is predominantly Jewish in personnel.”
For Coughlin and his millions of supporters, not only did antisemitism and anti-communism go hand-in-hand, but they were the key to social justice and human rights. Indeed, the newspaper that spewed virulent antisemitism was called Social Justice, and one of the founding principles of a powerful group that Coughlin led was human rights. In founding the National Union for Social Justice in November, 1934, Coughlin argued that the group stood for “the principle that human rights must take precedence over financial rights…these rights far outweigh in the scales of justice either political rights or so-called constitutional rights.” For Coughlin, “human rights” meant avoiding the horrors of war, which he claimed were brought about by greedy financiers (i.e. Jews) looking to profit off of the blood of hard-working people (Christians). Instead, a man (he makes no mention of women) should have a right to his property, his farm, his work, and his dignity in pursuing a peaceful life of tranquillity, all of which were values that communists supposedly disdained due to their class-based worldview that emphasized conflict.
A page from the December 8, 1938, issue of Father Coughlin’s Social Justice magazine. Note the intersection of social justice, an emphasis on character (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked), and support for Coughlin’s radio program, which was the most important disseminator of virulent antisemitic rhetoric in the United States in the 1930s.
Herman Stern and Character
Focusing only on character makes it difficult to distinguish between the attitudes of a Charles Coughlin and those of a Herman Stern. In the panel discussion that followed the film, the message upon which all three panelists agreed was that the film teaches us that one person can make a difference. This is certainly true. But because the film emphasizes the actions of the individual by focusing on “doing the right thing,” it discounts the political environment that influenced Coughlin’s and Stern’s actions. Both men would have claimed that they were acting according to the values that the film and its curriculum celebrate: ethical behavior, courage, service, and determination. Coughlin’s millions of supporters believed as much. Yet only the actions of Stern put him on the right side of history. While the message of the film is that one person can make a difference if driven by proper character, a more useful question would be: in what circumstances is it possible for one person to make a difference?
One reason that the documentary leans so heavily on the concept of character is that Stern himself made it central to his life. He created a booklet of values that he passed out to people, including employees at the clothing stores that he owned. I myself received a copy at the premier. Making no mention of his actions during the 1930s and 1940s, the booklet includes seventeen rules that, according to Stern, helps one to achieve “pride of accomplishment.” The following is a sampling:
Be Strong in Character
Develop a Charming Personality
Develop Initiative, Be Resourceful
Each rule comes with a short series of instructions. In explaining the significance of character, for instance, Stern writes, “Without strength of character, we are a ship without a rudder, lost in the sea of no return. Character is developed in our early years through guidance of parents, teachers and the early cultivations of religious training and reverence to God. Your character is manufactured by the performance of daily duties and especially through self-discipline.” In asserting the primacy of family and God, Stern proclaims a relatively rigid path towards strengthening one’s character. Such a path sheds light on how Nye came to respect Stern.
For example, the rule for developing a charming personality declares, “The first impression you make on those you meet is the most important point of contact. Charming manner coupled with sincerity give us the ‘in’ that is needed to establish the basis for a natural approach.”
Pages from Stern’s booklet, which he wrote in his seventies in order to share his personal philosophy
No wonder the filmmakers believed that the head of the Greater North Dakota Chamber would make an appropriate “expert” for a documentary about the Holocaust – for Stern, business and character were intertwined. In this vein, “character” does not challenge the status quo, but rather, is conciliatory. It emphasizes the necessity for the individual to adapt to situations in which they find themselves instead of contesting them.
Caring About a Holocaust Documentary: Quintessential North Dakota
The panel discussion after the film focused on how the filmmakers made it, the broader historical context, and one political question – from a UND student – that made the panelists uncomfortable. The questioner asked the panel about historical parallels between the 1930s/1940s and the current refugee crisis, which is the worst since World War II. After a moment of silence and vague comments by two panelists, the third panelist spoke and pointed out that racism and bigotry are on the rise today in ways similar to the 1930s. The panel then pivoted back to the message of the film – that Stern embodied the best of North Dakota and that his actions remind us that one person can make a difference. The argument that Stern was quintessentially North Dakota (an idea at the center of publicity for the film) is aspirational in the sense that it insists that North Dakota is an inclusive and welcoming place, one where a Jewish German immigrant could build a life. This affirmative argument seeks to contest the idea that the state is conservative and unwelcoming – that Nye is as much of a North Dakota story as Stern, or, that the 63% of North Dakotans who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 were either indifferent to or supportive of his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric and promises.
The panel was hesitant to freely discuss political issues for several reasons, including uncertainty over how the local press would spin the evening’s events, concern about how the audience might react, and the state legislature’s hostility to higher education (evidenced through its draconian budget cuts in 2015 and 2016 and repeated intervention into UND’s affairs, including a 2011 law that unsuccessfully forced the university to keep its racist Fighting Sioux logo). However, upon watching The Mission of Herman Stern, it is difficult to determine what precisely is North Dakotan in it. Even the film’s emphasis on character is based upon a presumed universalism – that character means the same thing to everyone and that each individual has equitable access to a certain set of values. If anything, Stern’s story serves as a reminder that North Dakota is a part of the wider world: its history is world history, immigration history, Holocaust history, and fascism history. Maybe this is why so many people would care about a documentary about the Holocaust. Not because it speaks to North Dakotan identity but because it has the potential to shed an allegiance to identity by connecting the state to one of the most compelling and tragic stories in human history.
Perhaps the primary reason for the documentary’s appeal is that it resonates powerfully with the most pressing issues facing us today. North Dakota may be a conservative state, but there are nevertheless pockets of vibrant intellectualism and concern about issues at the heart of the film, particularly anti-immigrant sentiment, the rise of xenophobic nationalism, and the fate of refugees. While some in the audience were interested in issues about individual character, surely just as many are alarmed at what Trumpism is doing to our political culture. Historians of the Holocaust have written about the legitimizing capacities of government. Government leaders who use fringe language help to mainstream it, and government policies that, for example, ban Muslims on the basis that an entire religious group is prone to terrorism, contributes to unleashing anti-Muslim sentiment. It is thus not surprising that assaults against Muslims rose to their highest levels in modern history last year. Moreover, the largest number of hate crime incidences targeting religious groups were aimed at Jewish people, which is a powerful reminder that different forms of discrimination can work together. Where anti-Black racism, anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Latino/Latina animus, misogyny, and homophobia occur, antisemitism is often either bubbling below the surface or at the forefront of bigotry.
For those who consider these trends alarming and wish to contest them, would it be more effective for each person to view themselves as an “army of one” or contribute to groups organizing against the various manifestations of Trumpism’s xenophobic nationalism? Is it useful to focus on individual character and doing the right thing? Or are there broader structures at play (sexism, racism, growth in inequality) that demand a robust response beyond individual initiative? Is it possible to ignore the fact that politics – the rise of Trump and the election – are directly responsible for the marked increase in hate crimes and instead focus on an apolitical conception of character? That the documentary raises such questions speaks to its value. The Mission of Herman Stern offers us a teachable moment. It is an important story to know about and resonates with our current times, particularly if we consider the broader political and social context in which Stern’s actions occurred.
Caroline Campbell is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota and the author of Political Belief in France, 1927-1945: Gender, Empire, and Fascism in the Croix de Feu/Parti Social Français (2015).