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Commentary: Herman Stern -- a great N.D. story

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By Mark Kennedy

and Steve Hunegs

We are humbled to profile the story of Herman Stern — businessman, philanthropist, humanitarian — a great North Dakota story; an intriguing American tale; and a reflection on survival and making lives anew.

Herman Stern was a many-faceted person. He was a teenage German Jewish immigrant to our country who became a successful clothier in Fargo and Valley City. He was Mr. North Dakota — founding the statewide chamber of commerce and strongly supporting the Boy Scouts and Little League, among other endeavors. He was the first Jewish member of the Roughriders Hall of Fame.

Mr. Stern was a rescuer. He partnered with Sen. Gerald Nye to overcome the obstruction of the State Department toward Jewish immigration to the United States. Mr. Stern painstakingly worked to bring 125 German and Austrian Jews — assuming financial responsibility for them — to an American sanctuary (often North Dakota) from Nazism in the most desperate days after the Kristallnacht.

Fargo documentarian Art Phillips — who told the story of North Dakota Federal Judge Ron Davies in "The Road to Little Rock" and school desegregation in the south — has now made "The Mission of Herman Stern."

As the UND Center for Human Rights & Genocide Studies program teaches, we must learn the lessons of the Holocaust anew so we can prevent the atrocities of today.

There are other lessons generated by the Herman Stern documentary — most notably how do we understand the complexity of people? Sen. Nye was an arch-isolationist and no philo-Semite. Nevertheless, Sen. Nye intervened with American consulates and the embassy in Germany to assist Mr. Stern and the people he was trying to save.

If the partnership was mysterious, the results were manifest. People who almost certainly would have perished in the Holocaust survived and established new lives in North Dakota and beyond. For each person there is a remarkable story, and each life maintained marks the symbolic progression of the story that Art Phillips tells in "The Mission of Herman Stern."

The University of North Dakota is proud to host the Grand Forks premiere of the documentary with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC). The premiere, which is free and open to the public, is 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 6, at the Empire Arts Center.

The documentary is a thoroughly North Dakota enterprise — with premieres scheduled for Fargo (Nov. 14) and Bismarck (Nov. 19) — telling an international story which echoes nearly 80 years later. A curriculum for the North Dakota schools will accompany the documentary.

UND and the JCRC are pleased to have joined these leading North Dakota foundations and businesses in investing in the documentary: Bell Bank, Doug Burgum Family Fund, Forum Communications, George and Audry Gaukler Family Foundation, Greater North Dakota Chamber, Offutt Family Foundation, State Historical Society of North Dakota, and West Acres Development LLP.

Mark Kennedy is the 12th president of the University of North Dakota. Steve Hunegs has served as the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas since 2006.