Stories of V-E Day: Guy Stern

By: Brian Louwers | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published April 29, 2015

 Stern is the director of the Zekelman International Institute for the Righteous at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. He left Germany in 1937 at the age of 15 and later learned that his Jewish parents and younger siblings perished in the Warsaw ghetto or in Auschwitz.

Stern is the director of the Zekelman International Institute for the Righteous at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. He left Germany in 1937 at the age of 15 and later learned that his Jewish parents and younger siblings perished in the Warsaw ghetto or in Auschwitz.

Photo by Brian Louwers

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Editor's note: This story was included in a full-length C & G Newspapers feature commemorating the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe. The war in Europe ended with the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945. Metro Detroit residents graciously shared their stories in interviews conducted between January and April 2015. Click here for more V-E Day stories from our coverage area.

Guy Stern, 93, West Bloomfield


Guy Stern was just 15 in 1937 when a twist of fate, parental instinct, an organization’s goodwill and his uncle’s guile brought him to the United States from his home in Hildesheim, Germany. He carried a heavy burden with him. It was his important task to secure passage out of Nazi Germany for his Jewish parents and younger siblings.


“They wanted the oldest to get a chance out first, and possibly bring in the rest of the family once I arrived in the U.S.,” Stern remembered, recalling with exact detail events that would shape the rest of his life. “I went on a German ship and my father still told me, ‘Be as careful as if you were on German soil, because you are.’”


The situation had grown dire for Jewish families living under Nazi rule, and it was getting worse by the day. Stern was assaulted at school before he left the country. His friends who were not Jewish were distancing themselves from those who were. They even kicked him out of the athletic club in Hildesheim.


“One Sunday morning, the whole board of the club came to our apartment and said they had orders from high above,” Stern said. “No Jew could be a member of a German organization, particularly athletic clubs, and I was out.”


Once he arrived in St. Louis, where his uncle lived, he immediately started working to get the rest of his family out of Germany. It almost worked, but tragically the process was derailed by an attorney who was oblivious to the gravity of the situation.


“It’s one of the tragedies in my life,” Stern said. 


The last letter he received from his family was postmarked in the Warsaw ghetto.


“Of course, I’d heard enough to realize what that meant, but not really the full implications,” he said.


That was just before he was drafted into the U.S. Army and left college, six months after he tried to volunteer and was refused. He was 21 at the time, and they made him a U.S. citizen.


After basic training, he opened sealed orders that assigned him to Camp Ritchie in Maryland, home of the Army’s Military Intelligence Training Center. His language ability, cultural background and knowledge of the Nazis would prove incredibly valuable.


Stern was later sent to England and landed in Omaha Beach three days after D-Day, assigned to First Army Headquarters. The intelligence group, later known as “The Ritchie Boys,” had the important mission of establishing a network of secure enclosures for an anticipated flood of German prisoners in June 1944. Their work interrogating enemy combatants, examining captured documents and waging psychological warfare was later credited with providing 65 percent of the essential Allied intelligence.


Of course, Stern was eager and proud to be doing his part.


He remembered how he happened across the pay book of a captured German soldier he recognized from Hildesheim, from the athletic club that kicked him out. 


“I interrogated him in the dead of night. We couldn’t give our identity away,” Stern said. “He was absolutely flabbergasted how precise my interrogation was, because I knew the SOB.”


Stern said he sometimes took on the role of a Russian commissar when he questioned prisoners who were particularly reluctant to give up needed strategic information. His partner, Fred Howard, played the proverbial “good cop” in those scenes.


The focus of their interrogations expanded from strategic intelligence to evidence of war crimes in February 1945. That’s when the scale of Nazi atrocities became apparent.


“Then, talking to people who had been at the concentration camps, guards and whatever, the organized murder was clear,” Stern said.


Stern was in the German town of Bad Hersfeld interrogating prisoners on V-E Day. The work continued until the official word came that the German surrender had been finalized, and his captain said, “Stop it, fellas. Let’s celebrate!”


He has a photo of the “trustees” — prisoners who’d been cleared of any wrongdoing and those who opposed the Nazis — carrying him on their shoulders in a moment of revelry. They “organized a few bottles of German champagne,” and Stern took a swim in the local outdoor pool as the festivities continued.


“We were high,” he recalled. “We had done it. The war was over.”


But important work remained. His team was ordered to Koblenz, where they worked to discharge prisoners.


He later learned that his family either perished in the Warsaw ghetto or in Auschwitz sometime after he received that last letter.


“I would say about simultaneously with V-E Day, I knew about my family,” Stern said.


He was offered an opportunity to go to Nuremberg to work during the war crimes trials, but he declined and opted to return to college instead. 


Guy Stern graduated from Columbia University with a Ph.D. in 1953 and has taught at several institutions, including Wayne State University. He’s a world-renowned educator and an expert on 18th-century German literature, exile literature and the Holocaust. He is currently the director of the Zekelman International Institute of the Righteous at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. He married for a third time nine years ago.

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