Auburn Family

Auburn and Opelika Say Goodbye to a Treasure: Henry Stern, The Boy in the Back Row

Kate Asbury Larkin shared this message on Facebook on Thursday, July 17, 2014.

Opelika lost a jewel this morning. Henry Stern, or "Big Henry," as he was affectionately called by his children, Ginger and J, was an historian of all things Opelika, and one of the last known Holocaust survivors east of the Mississippi River. Below is a story written for East Alabama Living magazine (Fall, 2008) by my very own Anna Asbury Larkin. It started as an OHS 10th grade history paper and was rewritten as a feature for the magazine. I still get chills every time I read it. All is well now, Mr. Henry; all is well.  

Here is Anna Asbury Larkin's article about Big Henry.  Anna is currently a student at Auburn University and a 2008 graduate of Opelika High School. Kate is a regular contributor to East Alabama Living magazine and the Outreach Coordinator for the Auburn University Office of Alumni Affairs.

The Boy on the Back Row
Almost 70 Years After Escaping the Holocaust, Henry Stern Locates Surviving Family
By: Anna Asbury Larkin

At age five, most children know nothing of religious persecution, seeing soldiers march in front of their homes, or moving to a foreign country where no one speaks their language, but for Henry Stern, that’s exactly what his young life was like. Growing up as a Jewish boy in Germany during Hitler’s reign, Henry’s life wasn’t easy; Jew’s in the country were being deported to concentration camps, ghettos, and other countries. His life changed drastically due to World War II and the Holocaust; he moved to America, faced challenges in a new country, and lost family members.

Born Heinz Julius Stern to Arnold and Hedwig Stern on September 4, 1931, his parents and older sister, Hannalora lived in Westheim, Westfalen, Germany; the only Jewish family in a small town with only a depot, a creamery, and a few shops.

When the family went outside, they were required to wear the yellow Star of David pinned to their clothing to identify them as Jews. Heinz’s great-aunt and great-uncle, Julius and Amelia Hagedorn, a highly respected businessman who owned a department store in Opelika, Alabama, came to visit and tried desperately to persuade Heinz’s mother and father to join them in America. However, the Sterns wouldn’t leave until almost a year later when the Hagedorns sent six ship tickets for the family to get to America.

Over the next six months, the Sterns sold all of their possessions and bought new goods to be sent to the States since the family was only allowed to travel with ten dollars. Then, on June 16, 1937, the six Sterns went to Hamburg, Germany for a family farewell with cousins and other relatives.

Just a few minutes before boarding the ship, a photograph was taken of all the family members in attendance at the farewell and along with 330 other passengers, the Sterns boarded the S.S. Washington, the last ship of Jews to legally leave Germany.

On June 24, 1937, Heinz walked out on deck to find a crowd of people staring off into the distance as the Statue of Liberty stood directly in front of them.

“It was probably the most beautiful sight I had ever seen,” Henry remembers.

Once off the ship, the family stayed in a hotel for three nights before boarding the New York Crescent train to Opelika.

“While we were on the train, my sister and I were told we needed to Americanize our names,” Stern said. “That’s when Hannalora became just Lora and I became Henry.”

The family received a hero-like welcome when they arrived in Opelika on June 27, 1937. Met at the Opelika Depot by city Mayor John Crawsley who presented the family with a proclamation welcoming them to the United States , the Sterns were then escorted by police to Julius and Amelia Hagedorn’s home on Third Avenue as citizens lined the streets to cheer the family’s arrival.

Henry’s first week in the United States was confusing, at best. He had never been free to go outside and play, he didn’t have to wear the Star of David, and he could even play with other children – concepts as foreign as the country he now called home. The merchandise his parents shipped to America arrived in boxcars and was immediately sold to buy items for their new home. Henry and Lora made new friends, the first being Judson and Anna Salter (Asbury), who lived up the street and who remain dear friends today. 

It was difficult at first since Henry and Lora didn’t speak any English, but local school teacher, Louise Tollison, had heard about the family coming to America, so she brushed up on her German and began teaching English to the children. Ruth Meadows taught the adults by using a Sears-Roebuck catalog.; they would point to an item and Mrs. Meadows would translate.

Henry and Lora attended Northside Intermediate School from first through sixth grades and Henry G. Clift High School, also known as Opelika High School, from seventh to twelfth. Henry played football and basketball at OHS one year and following graduation, attended Alabama Polytechnic University (now Auburn University) where he played a year of basketball there, too. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1951 to 1954 and graduated from Auburn in 1960. In the summer of 1955, Henry met Roslyn Brock at the Opelika Tennis Center and married her on June 23, 1961. An accomplished artist, (the late) “Miss” Roslyn taught art in the Opelika City Schools for almost 40 years and the couple had two children, Virginia and Henry J. Stern, Jr.

Henry was a partner in a department store in downtown Opelika and a real estate agent before joining the Opelika Chamber of Commerce where he worked until his retirement in 1988.

During all his years in America, neither Henry nor any other family members knew the whereabouts of relatives left behind in Germany. After the war, a college friend of Henry’s went to Germany to teach and took the Stern name with him to see what he could find; the news was devastating. Most of the family had been sent to concentration camps; Henry’s maternal grandmother, Ida Hertz, and aunts and uncles Berthel Stern, Max Katz, Friedel Stern, and Siegfried Weinberg were all deported and killed in Auschwitz Camp. A cousin, Eric Weinberg was deported to Riga Concentration Camp and his aunt Erna Meyburg and Henry’s paternal grandparents were all murdered by the Nazis. The surviving family members were sent to ghettos and spent the remainder of their lives picking up the shattered pieces.

For fifty years, Henry had searched desperately for someone, anyone, from his family who may still be alive. Then, in the wee hours of November 21, 2004, Henry got a break. Unable to sleep, he got out of bed at 4:30 and sat down at his computer. A friend had emailed a link to a new website that tracks Holocaust victims and their families. After literally thousands of failures over the years, but never giving up hope, Henry typed in his grandmother’s name and amazingly, unbelievably, for the first time – something came up: a Fred Hertz in Durham, North Carolina.

Henry anxiously waited until 9:00 a.m. to call the stranger. He explained who he was and that he had spent years searching for surviving family. For some reason, to Henry this time felt different. He e-mailed Fred that last family photograph taken in 1937 just minutes before the Stern’s boarded the ship to set sail to America. He asked Fred if he recognized or could identify anyone in the picture. A short time later, the phone rang. It was Fred. He wanted to know if Henry was sitting down.

“I said I was.”

What Fred said next would send shivers down the spine and tears to the eyes of anyone who heard it.

“He said, ‘Henry, I’m in this picture. I’m the boy on the back row’,” Stern said with as much emotion today as the day his dream came true.

The boys were cousins who for over 60 years thought the other was dead. They started e-mailing constantly and spoke daily on the telephone.

“There was so much to talk about – almost 70 years of lost time,” Stern said.

Two months later, the cousins and their families would finally meet face-to-face for the first time since 1937. With television cameras rolling, the men embraced in a tearful reunion in the driveway of the Hertz home in Durham. To this family, it was much more than a reunion; it was a miracle!

“Finding Fred closed a chapter for the Stern family,” Henry said. “It was something I had prayed for for many, many years and my prayers were answered.”

For the next three years, Henry and Fred shared a lifetime of memories and stories with each other until Fred passed away in early 2008.

“There was never enough time to get all the questions answered,” Stern said. “But Fred wrote several books about the family and I will treasure those memories forever. Even though I only knew him for three short years, we shared an incredible bond; I am so grateful for our time together and I miss him so much.”
Many call the Holocaust the most heinous crime ever committed against humanity, but because of persistent relatives in Opelika, Alabama, Henry Stern escaped the atrocity and now is one of the last known survivors east of the Mississippi River.

He faced challenges in his life most could never imagine, but he has always remained positive and grounded.
“Nobody should feel they are any different than anyone else,” Stern analyzed. “Just because I was born in Germany and I’m Jewish, doesn’t make me any different.”

If Henry Stern’s mindset had been practiced over 70 years ago, perhaps the tragedy of the Holocaust would never have happened.

Editor's Note:  A full version of the longer story Anna wrote for her class is available online.  Read it here.   

Also, the video included below is from a story about Big Henry from Chattahoochee Heritage Project.  You may read that story here:  Holocaust Survivor Henry Stern. A story by Avery Cotton, Michelle Zauzig and Taylor Anderson.

Two wonderful stories about, as Kate put it so well, our jewel - Henry Stern.  

Henry, we sit respectfully in silence and remember you with love.

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