Guy Stern

"Be sure you can think on your own, learn how to think critically.  I would like you learn and be really proficient about critical thinking.  What we have seen and still see in our times is a complete defiance of logical and even inspired thought.  So many take simply what they hear or what they are propagandized with as true news or true insights.  Learn your own way of taking apart the news and information with which you are fed with in this age of information technology.... (continued below)"

Name at birth
Gunther Stern
Date of birth
Where were you born?
Name of father, occupation
Julius, clothes merchant
Maiden name of mother, occupation
Hedwig Silberberg, homemaker, helped father in the store
Immediate family (names, birth order)
Parents, me, Werner, Eleonore
How many in entire extended family?
About 25-28
Who survived the Holocaust?
My mother's sister-in-law, Henny and her daughter, Marianne; my father's brother and sister and her children were able to get to Palestine, and myself
I grew up in my home town, Hildesheim and went to a Jewish elementary school.  There were about thirty kids; all instructed in same classroom by a master teacher who kept us all busy.  At ten, I went to a Protestant school, Andreas Oberreal gymnasium.  I was there until I was 15 when 
I was taken out of school, in anticipation of my being able to immigrate to America to St. Louis, Missouri.  I had an uncle, my mother’s brother, Benno Silberberg living in St. Louis, Missouri.  He immigrated to America at an early age.  My uncle was able to furnish an affidavit for me.  He was able to get his fellow union members, friends and relatives to lend him money to swell his banking account to show that he was financially stable.   He had to pay them all back after a week.  
I graduated from Soldan High School in St. Louis.  I arrived in New York as part of a children’s group.  Since my English was good they sent me by train to St. Louis via Chicago.  A whole delegation of my family picked me at Union Station in St. Louis.  
My father lost a lot of his customers because they were either scared off by Nazis or they were anti-Semites anyway.  The rationing of food was slighter for us than for the Christian families.  The playmates that I had, no longer were my playmates.  My closest friend didn’t dare greet me except surreptitiously.  At school, we three Jewish kids were thrown entirely on own resources, we could play only with each other, my closest friend we used to go rowing together was propagandized and turned from a protector of us and a good friend into the worse attacker, making snide remarks even during class sessions. 
The change started very slowly. 1933 was still a passable year.  In 1934, the persecution began.  In 1934, for example, the board of directors of the athletic club to which I belonged told us regretfully that they had orders from above that said that no Jew could be a member of a German athletic club, and so therefore I was no longer a member.  
It was a gym and soccer club.  I was pretty good as an athlete.  A Jewish sports club arose that was run by the German Jewish war veterans of World War I.  It was an outlet for us for some time.  We could no longer go to the swimming pool, which was the first discrimination law that really hit us.
One evening my father was beaten as he took mail to the postal box.  He was blackmailed by an SS leader not start a prosecution against the identified villains.  The restrictions became ever more stringent. For example, our housemate could no longer work for us after the Nuremberg laws came in.  My parents realized we had to try to get out.  They thought that I being the oldest son should be the pioneer and try to help us get out of Germany when I was in America.  This was 1937.  
1936 was more somewhat restrained year.  The Olympics were in Germany.  During these years, I also joined two Jewish youth groups, hiking and biking. 
When I was somewhat established in St. Louis, five days after my arrival in St. Louis, I was sitting in an American high school, Soldan high school was top notch with excellent teachers which was an almost as good as a prep school.  
I started scouting someone for someone who had the means to furnish affidavits for my family in Germany. This was from 1937-1939.  I almost succeeded.  I soon realized my uncle could not sustain me very well even the help of a Jewish relief agency in St. Louis.  A teacher helped me find a job in lunchroom my high school and then I got a job working as a busboy at the Chase hotel.  
I got a better job working at the Jefferson Hotel in downtown St. Louis.  To save money, I frequently hitchhiked to work.  Once a very fancy car picked me up, I of course figured this man must be fairly wealthy.  Then prompted by a question of his, I started to tell him my story.  I told him that my parents had to get out of Germany but had no affidavit.  So much to my delight and surprise, he said “well I could do that.”  
Here now is the tragic turning point in my life because of a completely, uninformed, insensitive, pettifogging lawyer. The Jewish community of St. Louis had found a lawyer who would do pro bono work for us immigrants. This potential sponsor of my family and I went down to see this lawyer. The lawyer asked my-would be sponsor some questions and the man said yes I have the money to provide, I can furnish those papers.  The lawyer asked him what is your occupation and he said well I’m a gambler.  The lawyer with his insensitivity said well then we can’t take you as a sponsor because the laws of the United States said that it has to be well-established citizen to provide an affidavit.  
He had no idea what was working in Germany against them and was only giving small talk on U.S. regulations.  I didn’t quite know that word, I asked if we could use a euphemism for that word and he said and deceive the U.S. government.  That was the turning point in my life.
I was lucky in terms of my own immigration.  I was in the region where the American counsel in our territory in Hamburg, Germany was a very well meaning diplomat, Malcolm C. Boyd.  He was an experienced diplomat and could have seen right through the deceptive move of my uncle in St. Louis who was an unemployed baker and allowed me in.  And I think my family would have been allowed through too.  The U.S. diplomatic service at that time had orders to allow in as few Jews in as possible.  He could have kept me out.  In contrast the lawyer in St. Louis, who was Jewish, said this gambler was not eligible.
My family was deported along with the rest of the Jewish population of Hildesheim to the Warsaw ghetto. For a time, I got letters from them from the Warsaw ghetto but then their traces were lost.  This was in 1939.  I still have their letters from the Warsaw Ghetto.
I found a fellow refugee somewhat younger than me in the United States.  He had in his possession a one minute film of deportation of Jews from Germany. He sent it to me but I could not look at it.  I asked my wife if she would look at it.  She said that there are two scenes where the entire family is in it.  I have not been able to look at it.
Of the deportation of the Jews from Germany and he was out maybe encouraging sent that to us and I said to my wife Susannah, would you look at that whether my family is in it, she said sure, she said “there are two scenes where I see the entire family”.  I have not been able to force myself yet to look at this.  
I am in St. Louis, and I must say I made very good progress at the high school and the teachers and principals were just princes.  They were very nice to me, I took part in extra curricular activities, I was on the swimming squad, the high school newspaper, and I graduated in June 39 from Soldan.
Then for one year I worked particularly hard and so that I would have some background to go to college.  And, so I had a stroke of good luck, because jobs even for a busboy at the time were hard to get.  I went to a hotel right next to campus, the Melbourne Hotel, and I talked to the head waiter of the Piccadilly room, one of the dining rooms, I told him I wanted to get into St. Louis University and I could do it time wise if I worked at the Melbourne and then I could rush across the street to class.  
And that is exactly what I did.  Sometimes even when the guests at lunch time lingered I would walk into classes in my busboy uniform.  St. Louis U was just as good to me as Soldan had been.  The priests were very nice and there were teachers who also took an interest in me, I had my lower division courses; freshman and sophomore until 1939, I graduated in1940, I worked 1941-1943.  
I was at St. Louis U and then after Pearl Harbor and I remember I had a Sunday job way out in South St. Louis.  So on this fateful day that will live in infamy a friend of mine also had graduated to being a waiter there, we drove to South St. Louis – the owner of the restaurant was standing at the door and he said no one will be at the restaurant today.  Turn back, go back home.  That was Pearl Harbor.  
After Pearl Harbor I saw a poster at St. Louis U, if you have language and culture skills you may want to enlist in Navy intelligence.  So I went downtown to St. Louis recruiting office, the recruiting sergeant said you are not American born, I am sorry but Naval intelligence only takes native Americans.  
A couple of months later I got my draft notice.  I went to Jefferson Barracks and there was inducted, shipped at first to Camp Barclay Texas for basic training, then one day while I was still in basic, I was called to company headquarters.  I must say that prior to that day there was a mass ceremony of foreign soldiers being given their citizenship in Abilene, Texas.  Then one day called to the company headquarters, the lieutenant saying Private Stern you are shipping out.  I said may I ask where you are going.  He said no, the orders are sealed.  But after three hours on the train that we put you on, you can open your orders so you can know where you are going.  
In 1943 I landed in Camp Ritchie, Maryland, which was the military intelligence training center.  There I was given an entirely different kind of basic.  It was a complete training of all phases of military intelligence capped by a final exam, which was one of the most rigorous tests I have ever gone through.  Depending on how you passed and conducted yourself, you were jumped in ratings.  
From one day to the next I went from Private to Staff Sergeant.  Before this promotion we were all shipped to Louisiana for maneuvers.  There, we practiced our interrogation skills of the Blue Army, we were the Red Army, you know, it was maneuvers; that was the first instance of becoming the interrogator of prisoners we had taken of the opposing force. 
Then, we were assigned two interrogation teams consisting of 6 personnel, two officers, four enlisted men, and we were shipped via Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn to a fruit boat, which the Australians put at our disposal.  We were shipped to England; a somewhat perilous journey, because the German U-Boats were still operating the convoys.
I’m in England and after a while, we were shipped to intelligence personnel to Broadway, England for further training and, then, assigned to field units for the upcoming invasion, and, my team, team 41, was assigned to first army headquarters and our first stop was Bristol England. 
Bristol England was the headquarters was General Bradley, frequently visited by General Eisenhower.  Our task at Bristol was planning the invasion and I hasten to add, our part was very minor, but we saw the planning operation in a public school, which is really a private school in England, in Bristol, so called, “Clifton School”. 
There, what our task was, was to plan the prisoner of war enclosures in detail, the American troops, the interrogators the MPs, what would be the stations in route to Paris, and so it was top, top secret, and what had happened in Bristol, even though we had gotten top clearance, prior to being shipped to Ritchie, we had to undergo an even far more rigorous investigation and then, we were given a super secret title or clearance which was called be the curios name of Bigot. 
So we were allowed to go into the planning rooms at Clifton School. The School had been yielded to the American forces and the high school kids were given another school and we were given this whole big territory, it looks like a college campus and if you’re interested, I tell you that I was back at Bristol this past summer. And I found out that a cousin of mine had graduated from Clifton School. That’s where we were during the war. So he reported it to the head of the board of governors of that school. 
So he got in touch with me and asked if I would give a lecture or several lectures at Bristol because now I could tell them what went on behind those heavily guarded doors. The clearance was so tight that even if you left the map room, and came back five minutes later, for obvious reasons the MP checked you completely once more, that is how tight the security was.  You know the Germans even though they had spies never found out our plans for the invasion.  
The invasion occurred, I was still in Bristol, we were incidentally quartered because of our secrecy surrounding us, we were quartered with private families, not in a garrison or anything like that, in Bristol and then one day came the news of the invasion.  Several of our team immediately shipped out, got on a landing craft but I was assigned to not go before D plus 3, the third day after the invasion.  
So one afternoon I was at an improvised movie house, in a tent in a army movie house, suddenly the lights came on and it said the following personnel will immediately report to their vehicles, we had waterproofed ours and proceed as you are told when you come to your marshalling area.  That afternoon still we drove to South Hampton where we all were masked for the invasion and the next morning we all or maybe it still was in the evening, it was still in the evening, we shipped over and arrived on the Omaha Beach and five minutes after our arrival one of my fellow team members who had shipped in on D plus 1 called out Hey Stern get over here, we have too many prisoners to interrogate.  So within minutes of my arrival I was interrogating a German field artillery Sgt.  It was my first interrogation.  
I started interrogating on D plus 3 in Normandy, Omaha Beach and I didn’t cease interrogating until we met the Russians at the Elbe River, so I would say I probably got over thousands and I in fact invented a method of mass interrogation toward the end of the war, because there was some urgent information that higher headquarters had demanded of us.  
It was not our job to interrogate war criminals or crimes against humanity; our job was to answer questions.  We particularly, I was put in charge of the so called survey section, was promoted to Master Sergeant.  And we answered all questionnaires that came from higher headquarters.  They could be on German supply lines; they could be from our medical corps, whether there were any diseases we had to watch out for coming in contact with German prisoners or there would be questions on the German railroad system and tunnel, how we could thwart them.  
The most demanding interrogations came from our air force who wanted to know the effect of our bombing, they didn’t have aerial photography.  Secondly what targets would still be worth while to hit.  So this was the most difficult interrogation because there was no deception possible of the prisoner.  Because if you ask for land marks or the factory, even the most naive would know why we wanted to know.  
So, we devised a new type of interrogation where I disguised myself as a Russian Commissar and playing on the German fear of captivity by the Russians, they were in part victims of their own propaganda.  The German propaganda told them when you fall into Russian hands it is probably curtains.  I had taken uniform parts from German prisoners who had taken this as trophies and from liberated Russian Prisoners of War.  
I put on a fancy uniform and also had a sign on my interrogation tent in three languages, “Commiassar Krukof,” liason officer and inside my tent was a picture of Comrade Stalin which he had supposedly autographed, but in reality one of my buddies who knew Russian had signed it for him.   
Because they were obviously reluctant to give us bombing targets because in a factory which we wanted to hit, they may have their father working in there or their sweetheart or relatives or friends.  So, they refused at first to give us the information.  
But the fear of Russian captivity broke them most of the time.  They were scared.  Then towards the end of the war, we hit, I hit out on my own because higher headquarters wanted to know the make- up of the latest German troops that were coming at the end of the war, they drafted anybody and every male that could walk.  
So towards the end of the war our higher headquarters wanted to know what was the capability of these makeshift troops.  The lame and hurt and the stomach – they even had as stomach battalion because they had their special diets.  
So, I did something that at Richey we were told not to do which was to interrogate large numbers at the same time.  But that was the only way I could get an analysis of how well they were trained.  So for example I would ask a whole contingent of troops breaking them down into their divisions and regimens how well they were trained on the rifle, how many of them had machine gun training.  
A priority of higher headquarters was how many of them had gas masks and protective clothes.  Higher headquarters feared that as in WWI towards the end the Germans would consider gas warfare.  So, I was able to give them my first analysis and the next day I was ordered to first army headquarters, which was not all that far away, I was told to report to Ward Officer Gold, incidentally Jewish, to get a one day training in statistics so I could give statistical breakdowns.  
I think one of the reasons I was decorated toward the end of the war by General Hodges, the commanding General of first army, was my statistics proved to be absolutely accurate.  These troops were not really trained really in security and they gave me all of the information that headquarters had demanded.
I got them to talk by shouting at them with the help of a German trustee, who was about my rank, Master Sergeant.  We shouted at them all of you who have had machine gun training, raise your right hand, and they came through, see they were not really soldiers, they were last minute recruits of really not soldierly type.  
I came across a war criminal.  In fact, it was one of the first big time war criminals identified.  The matter of identifying him really went to my buddy who I did this charade of good cop, bad cop.  Fred, when I interrogated for targets, he played the good guy, taking the back of this horrible commissar, saying if they would just talk to him, he would see that shipping them to the Soviet Union would not be necessary.  
But Fred Howard and I interrogated the first major war criminal by the name of Dr. Schuebbe.  He was involved in the so called euthanasia program, and euthanasia also included many Jews simply killed for the fact that they were Jews.  He explained his activities as a necessary, pruning the German tree.  This was the first time our unit broke into print because of the top secret nature of what we did, what we did was never noticed, well except once while we were at the beaches.  I was interviewed by the St. Louis Post Dispatch, by Virginia Irvin, the star reporter at the invasion.  
The funny fact was she came to the camp and somebody said Sgt. Stern, guide the reporter.  Then we looked at each other.  Before the war, I was working at the time in downtown St. Louis at a restaurant called the Bismarck restaurant.  The Post Dispatch editorial offices were right around the corner and I waited on her numerous times.  And she wrote a story then on me for the Post Dispatch.  I still have it.  The identification of Schuebbe was covered by Time magazine in the first issue, May issue of 1945.  What I heard after the war, he had killed many Czechs.  So he was tried by the Czechs and executed.  
How did I feel interrogating this Nazi, this major Nazi, this horrible man?  I would say, by that time I was a totally professional soldier.  I mean not in the sense of a rifle man or whatever. I was a soldier and it was a job to be done.  I can say that sure, you feel outraged.  But, as that didn’t prevent making a completely professional interrogation out of it.  There is a whole story on this Schuebbe case, how we found this, how we uncovered him and stuff like that.  
Yes, there was a sense of righteous triumphant, being back in Germany, doing the work I was doing, but it is so closely knit to having done I would say, pardon me, a damn good job as a soldier.  And as the soldierly aspect was so ingrained in us by them that yes there was a personal private satisfaction but it was enveloped in that feeling you are a soldier, you are helping the right side, you are doing your job.  You did what you did, what you had to do.  I was decorated with a Bronze Star.
It was completely different after, the months after the war, I wrangled myself an assignment which gave legitimacy to a side trip to my hometown.  When I hit my hometown, that was unsettling.  I was driving the jeep and my buddy said, get off that wheel, I’m driving, you’re far too upset to drive.  That was true and that is when I heard for the first time the ultimate fate of my family.  
I came back to St. Louis after the war ended, but I had had a stroke of good luck.  During my army days, one of my superior officers was Sheppard Stone, who was the Sunday supplement editor of the New York Times.  I had told him that it had been my ambition from high school onward to be a journalist.  
He wrote, I still cherish it, a fabulous recommendation to the managing editor of the New York Times.  I sent that, I went there, I went East and sent that in and he said, my G-d, Sheppard doesn’t write recommendations like this but I can not give you a job now because we are double staffed.  
We are giving jobs back to our correspondents abroad and we have a substitute staff that carried us through these war years.  We don’t want to fire them either.  But he said stick around New York and come back about once a month which I met with him about 3 or 4 times, which I think in retrospect was really quite fabulous.  
So, I settled in New York and had my union papers as a waiter transferred to the union in New York, started working at Broadway restaurants and then when I saw that there wasn’t really much hope that I would land with the New York Times, I said I better start college again.  I enrolled at the University of Rhode Island in Hampstead. 
I got my Bachelors there in 1948.  I want to add that some years they back they gave me an honorary doctorate.  And then after graduating there I went for a M.A. at Columbia in German and with the ambition of going into comp literature. My professors thought I had some gift for German literature, so they persuaded me to stick with German.  I got my PhD at Columbia and then started my professional career, first teaching at Columbia then getting a professorship in Ohio, Dennison University in Grandville, Ohio.  
After Grandville, I went to University of Cincinnati, became department head.  Then I became vice president for graduate studies and research and then went to the University of Maryland as chair of German and Slavic studies.  I then got the call from my good friend from the University of Cincinnati, Thomas Bonner.  He became president of Wayne State University and wanted me as senior vice president of Wayne, so I moved from Maryland to good old Detroit.  I taught here for 25 years and having finished 50 years of teaching. 
I became distinguished professor after doing my stint as Senior Vice President for provost of academic affairs. Then I returned to the department as a distinguished professor and then also started volunteering for the Holocaust Memorial Center.  I became a board member and then Rabbi Charles Rosensveig asked me to take over the Institute of the Righteous.  When Charles died, they asked me to become interim director and then I assured them I would not take another long term administrative job so we started looking.  So then Stephen Goldman became director.  
I ought to add one episode here after coming to Detroit I married a very dear woman, she was a high school teacher at Kimball High School but had also gotten her law degree from Wayne; Judy Owens.  Then she died seven years ago of breast cancer and about a year and a half later I met a German writer, on one of my lecture tours, our two tours coalesced she was in a German town, invited by a German literary society was still in town when I came in also on a lecture tour, we met and she and I married.  She converted to Judaism, we share the Jewish experience.  I have become the translator of her German writings, her German collection of short stories is coming out in America.  Her name is Susanna Piontek, but also known as Susanna Stern.  
I was married very happily for 25 years to Judy and now I am happily married to Susanna.  
Occupation after the war
Distinguished Professor
Judy Owens (deceased); Susanna Piontek I was married to Judy Owens in 1978. Susanna and I were married in 2006. , Judy was a high school teacher; Susanna, a writer
I have a son. Mark. He stayed in Cincinnati and unfortunately it was one of those horrible things, he had a heart attack and died at home. Mark was in construction. He and his woman friend had no children.
What do you think helped you to survive?
Well, I am writing my autobiography. The title answers your question. It is called Chance Encounters. The chance encounter of this Councilor official in Hamburg rather than you know that book by Arthur Morse of why six million died, in the first edition he writes why some Councilor officials enforced every letter of the law to keep the refugees out for example. Malcom C. Boyd, in Hamburg did everything to help me. So that was a chance encounters. These chance encounters have happened all through my life, so there were people who were helpful and the chance encounter also goes for that unfortunate lawyer, Rice in St. Louis. These chance encounters for good and bad really are woven through my life. I think that is what kept me alive and avoid some of the tragedies. And of course I should add my upbringing in my parental house, they made demands of their children, they made demands and they had some of the Jewish ambitions for their children. Of course that never left me. I am not a quitter. It was a given that I would go to a good high school, I would do everything possible to be a good student and that even carried over to athletics. In all phases of my life I felt the need to do a good job. I do think I ought to add that the fact of being the sole survivor was an extra spur that I had to do well in life in order to justify my survival. Does that sound corny? Your work here, you are taking on working here on the Holocaust Memorial Center, what has that meant to you? I think here personal history coincides with philosophical deliberations. I want to keep alive the memory of those who perished or were suppressed because it is so close to the fate of my family and extended family. The second reason is that there is a certain nobility in those people I come in contact with. I don’t consider myself despite the definitions by our director here; I don’t consider myself a survivor in the narrow sense because fortunately the exposure to a camp or torture was spared me. But, I feel with those people and I find them to be extraordinary people and I think it is a great thing you are doing in working on this different phase of their commemoration through Portraits of Honor.
What message would you like to leave for future generations?
Be sure you can think on your own, learn how to think critically.  I would like you learn and be really proficient about critical thinking.  What we have seen and still see in our times is a complete defiance of logical and even inspired thought.  So many take simply what they hear or what they are propagandized with as true news or true insights.  Learn your own way of taking apart the news and information with which you are fed with in this age of information technology.  

Be sure you can think on your own, learn how to think critically.  That is the message I gave them and I stand by it.  

I have done consulting work for the Holocaust Museum in Washington and one of the jobs or assignments consisted of making together with the historian Stephen Goodell an exhibit called Fighting the Fires of Hate, the American reaction of the Nazi book burning of 1933.  
So, I was, the exhibit was still for three years now is going through American museums and so forth and it came to the museum in Saginaw and I was invited to be a commentator on the exhibit and unbeknownst to me they had by some sort of cable arrangement had piped our discussion and my remarks into a middle school in Saginaw.  
So, at the end either the teacher or a very bright student asked me what would like us to remember. That dovetails with your question. 
I would like you learn and be really proficient about is critical thinking.  What we have seen and still see in our times is a complete defiance of logical and even inspired thought.  So many take simply what they hear or what they are propagandized with as true news or true insights.  Learn your own way of taking apart the news and information with which you are fed with in this age of information technology.  Be sure you can think on your own, learn how to think critically.  That is the message I gave them and I stand by it.  
And you base it because of how the masses just followed Nazism uncritically? 
Yes, my own conviction was nurtured by the fact that I seen the rise of dictatorships, the rise of Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, all of its features.  The simple demagoguery, I love my country, America.  I fought for it, it was a country that rescued me from the same annihilation that took my family, I love this country, but I am deeply disturbed by the lack of rationalism in our political discourse, and honesty in our political discourse. 
I see people being taken in by anything of spurious claims for advertised products, to being taken in by ideological statements by our political leaders, by our lobbyists, by the whole machinery of government.  To my recollection we have been as divided and disruptive as we are currently.  
I have now taken a smaller job because I want to get started on my autobiography.  My lifeline at an age is not quite biblical yet.
Charles Silow
Interview place:
Zekelman Holocaust Center
Interview date:

Survivor's map

Contact us

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to our email newsletter to receive updates on the latest news

thank you!

Your application is successfuly submited. We will contact you as soon as possible

thank you!

Your application is successfuly submited. Check your inbox for future updates.