Active Duty

At 87, he keeps the Holocaust Memorial Center relevant
Photograph by David Lewinski

Guy Stern had lived a full life when he was suddenly asked to run the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. Make that several lives.

Few of the thousands of students who took German from him or who still sometimes run into the droll, almost elfin professor in Wayne State University’s Manoogian Hall have any clue what he has done.

That, for example, he won the Bronze Star for interrogating Nazi SS war criminals during World War II. That, thanks to a baker in St. Louis, he was the only member of his family to survive the worst event in human history.

Thanks to his being in a movie, Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song, some know he spent some time with the movie star, though he is prouder of his long friendship with actress/singer Lotte Lenya.

And fewer still know that he has now embarked on a new task, one he never expected: running America’s first and, some say, most impressive Holocaust Memorial Center. The post at the center in Farmington Hills was left vacant when the founder, Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig, died suddenly last December.

Technically, Stern is the interim director. A national search is on for someone permanent. But that doesn’t mean he’s merely a caretaker.

He has been working to make the Holocaust Center more relevant to the wider community. He brought Tibor Rubin, a Nazi concentration camp survivor who went on to win the Congressional Medal of Honor in Korea, to tell his riveting story last April. Next spring, he’s having Allen Vigneron, the newly appointed Roman Catholic Archbishop of Detroit, appear.

And why shouldn’t Stern be an energetic leader?

After all, he is barely 87 years old. “True, but I have a new wife who is half my age and twice as smart,” he says, referring to Susanna Piontek, a German author who writes short stories in the O. Henry vein.

When Rosenzveig, a friend of Stern’s, built the Center, it was the first freestanding Holocaust Memorial Center in the nation — twice. “The rabbi was a great visionary,” says Selma Silverman, a Holocaust Center administrator who has been present almost since the beginning. Rosenzveig, who spent the war in a Siberian work camp, first built a memorial at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield Township. But he wanted a larger museum that would reach a wider audience.

The current building opened on the grounds of the Old Orchard Theatre in 2003. It houses the Museum of European Jewish Heritage and the International Institute of the Righteous, which honors the thousands of people who saved, or tried to save, at least one Jew, and who knowingly placed themselves in mortal danger.

Stern has been running the institute for many years. In connection with that role, he recalls a boy named Guenther, who came to St. Louis from Germany as a teen in 1937. That wasn’t easy then; you had to have evidence that someone of means would sponsor you.

Guenther’s uncle, an unemployed baker, borrowed money from friends to make it look as though he had more means than he did. When his nephew arrived, the teenage boy was determined to bring his family (parents, brother, and sister) to America to join him. One day, he met a wealthy man who said he would sponsor them, and the boy was thrilled.

“But we went to see this very stupid lawyer, and he said absolutely not. His would-be benefactor was a gambler,” Stern says. “Your sponsor needs to be a well-respected person.” Time ran out, and Guenther’s family was shipped to certain death in the Warsaw Ghetto. Today, Guenther goes by the name Guy — Guy Stern.

When the war was over, friends asked how he could go into German studies after what the Nazis had done.

“I had to face myself and my feelings,” he says. Stern agonized for a long while and finally reasoned,  “If I don’t choose to follow the talent, which I apparently have, then I would be doing the task of the Nazis on my own.”

Nor would he hate the Germans. “I would not do the same thing as the Nazis and tar-brush an entire people on a collective basis.”

However, he has done what he could to see that people did not forget. Then, in December, Rosenzveig developed lymphoma, and swiftly died.

The Holocaust Center board approached Stern. He initially declined. But, Silverman says, he replied a day later, saying, “ ‘If that is what the board wishes, I will try to do my best.’ ”

Privately, members of the Jewish community say that, while Rosenzveig was brilliant, he was not exactly a people person. To some, Stern is a breath of fresh air. His Wayne State colleagues could have told them that. His fellow German professor, Don Haase, who was a student of Stern’s 40 years ago, described his former instructor as “an internationally renowned scholar … an adept and skilled administrator.”

He adds: “My approach as an administrator was modeled in large part on having seen him in action.”

Stern came to Wayne in 1978 after calling an old friend, Tom Bonner, to congratulate him on becoming WSU’s president.

Bonner invited him to join the university. Stern agreed to serve as provost, provided he could continue in the classroom. He built programs, then returned to teaching and writing full time. Today, he holds the title of distinguished professor emeritus.

His teaching career complete, Stern now wants to ensure that the Holocaust Memorial Center stays relevant, even after the last survivor is no more.

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