Remembering Guy Stern

War hero, scholar, Holocaust survivor, media star: Stern lived a long and meaningful life, but his service as a “Ritchie boy” during World War II earned him late-in-life fame.
Professor and World War II hero Guy Stern died at 101 last December. // Photograph by Deborah Filler

Several years ago, Guy Stern decided to write his memoir. He asked his wife, Susanna Piontek Stern, what she thought. “I only said, ‘You know, if you want to do it, you should not wait much longer because you’re already in your 90s.’”

The book was published in 2020. Stern passed away last December at the age of 101, but he left a rollicking record of his astonishing life. He called it Invisible Ink, a reference to advice his father gave him growing up in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s: “Stay hidden till we can emerge again and show ourselves as the individuals we are.”

Yet Stern was hardly invisible. Indeed, he seemed to squeeze several high-profile lifetimes’ worth of experience into one, though it was two years and change during World War II that brought him wider acclaim.

Guy Stern was born Günther Stern in Hildesheim, Germany, in 1922. As Hitler rose to power, the town’s small Jewish population saw their friends turn against them, felt the coming threat. At age 15, Stern left Germany for St. Louis to live with an aunt and uncle.

Highly resilient and with a knack for English, the young émigré did well in school and had started college the year prior when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Stern was drafted, made a naturalized citizen, and selected for a top-secret intelligence program designed to create German-speaking interrogators. He and 20,000 other young men, about 10% German-born Jewish refugees, trained at Camp Ritchie in Maryland — thus the nickname “Ritchie Boys.”

On June 9, 1944, three days after D-Day, Stern and his unit landed on a Normandy beach strewn with corpses. For the remaining year of war and six months after, he moved around the Western Front extracting information from German prisoners of war that would help the Allied forces. Stern was inventive and clever, impersonating a Russian officer to intimidate the POWs into talking, for they feared Siberian prison camps above all.

The Ritchie Boys accounted for more than half of the combat intelligence gathered during the war, and Stern’s detailed intelligence reports helped earn him a Bronze Star. At war’s end, he witnessed the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp and returned to his hometown. But his family was gone, murdered by Nazis.

From left: Stern, Walter Sears, and Fred Howard (all Ritchie Boys) celebrate V.E. Day in Germany, May 8, 1945. // Photograph from the book “Invisible Ink”

Stern put the war behind him. He got his degrees from Columbia University and Hofstra College (now University) and became a highly respected professor of German literature and culture at universities in the U.S. and guest taught in Germany. In 1978, he came to Wayne State University as provost, the chief academic officer, but resigned two years later after refusing to implement draconian budget cuts. He remained at WSU as a distinguished professor, a title he held until retiring from teaching in 2003, at age 81.

For the last two decades of his life, he devoted himself to The Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills and directed the center’s International Institute for the Righteous, highlighting acts of altruism and personal bravery that saved Jewish lives.

And then life took another turn. In 2004, a documentary called The Ritchie Boys, featuring Stern, lifted the lid on the once-secretive unit. In a Walter Mitty-style twist, some people were surprised by the mild-mannered professor’s previous life.

“He rarely in my experience got very specific or personal about [his service] in his teaching or even in conversation,” recalls Donald Haase, who studied under Stern at the University of Cincinnati, where Stern was a graduate dean, and taught alongside him at WSU. “It was known he’d lost his family, but Guy never dwelled on those things.” Then, “stories started to emerge about Guy’s and others’ experiences in the Ritchie Boys, and that was a revelation to many of us who worked with him.” Awards rained down, including France’s Knight of the Legion of Honor medal, though Stern found it oddly amusing “that two and a half years of my much earlier life should reverberate into my 90s.”

In 2022, at the age of 99, Stern starred in a 60 Minutes episode as one of the last surviving Ritchie Boys. The same year, Stern featured prominently in Ken Burns’s 2022 documentary miniseries The U.S. and the Holocaust. His spritely, age-defying demeanor — he swam every morning before work — enhanced his appeal. “He had so much energy, it was unbelievable,” says his wife, who is about 40 years his junior. They met in 2004 during one of his many lecture tours in Germany. “He enjoyed being in the limelight a lot.”

Every week, the Sterns attended a Torah class at Temple Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in West Bloomfield. “His faith came through in his determination to make something of himself and to teach what had occurred and to share enlightenment. Never to take the blessing of his own life for granted and to prove to the world he had something to offer,” says Rabbi Michael Moskowitz, who led the classes. “It carried him to that age, wanting to make the most of every single day. The blessing that he had in his life was something he could never take for granted.”

Stern passed away on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day and the first night of Hanukkah. He was buried the next day at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly. “He felt a strong connection and bond to other veterans; it was very important to him,” Susanna says. “In the end, that’s where he wanted to be.” And in Hildesheim, the German town that had once turned its back on him, flags were flown at half-mast in his honor.

This story originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on May 6.