Frank Stern, Holocaust survivor who told thousands about his experience, dies at 93

By Chicago 5 Min Read

Frank Stern shared his story of surviving the Holocaust hundreds of times in communities all over the Chicago area.

He often started the story in November of 1938 as he was riding a street car to grade school in Frankfurt, Germany, and saw fire engines around the city’s largest synagogue.

“To an 8-year-old boy, fire engines are very interesting,” Stern recalled in an interview with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

He had no idea the Nazis had launched a series of attacks on Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues that became known as Kristallnacht or “Night of Broken Glass.”

A custodian at his school told him to go home, school was closed for the day.

Members of the Gestapo were banging on his family’s apartment door within hours. His family began planning that day to leave the country.

Mr. Stern recalled being spit on and kicked and called a “dirty Jew” as antisemitism rose.

Mr. Stern told his tale in numerous informal settings as well as before audiences at churches, schools and community organizations as a volunteer speaker with the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.

He also had been a volunteer docent at the museum since it opened in Skokie in 2009.

His main message: “Argue till the cows come home … that’s normal. The one thing you are not permitted to do is to dehumanize somebody. You may not consider somebody vermin, somebody less than human, because dehumanization is the first step towards genocide, and that is not permissible.”

Mr. Stern died Oct. 28 from natural causes. He was 93.

His family traveled first to Switzerland, then to England, before setting up a new life in New York City.

His father, Sali Stern, was a traveling salesman. His mother, Recha Stern, did embroidery work.

Mr. Stern met his future wife, Ruth Stern, when they were both 16 and working as counselors at a summer camp in New York.

She, too, was raised in Germany. Her family escaped as soon as the Nazis came to power.

Mr. Stern attended City College of New York and studied economics at Columbia University. The couple later moved to Illinois, where they raised three daughters in Glencoe before downsizing to a home in Highland Park.

“His memories were crystal clear, he never forgot anything,” said Mr. Stern’s daughter, Debbie Stern.

Mr. Stern worked as an economist for a railroad company and as a controller for a small plastics firm, his daughter said.

Longtime friend Sheldon Rosenfeld often took Mr. Stern sailing as a guest on his boat and said Mr. Stern enjoyed a strong embrace and lovingly kidding and teasing his friends.

“He gave me a big hug all the time, like a big smothering hug, put both arms around me. He was a great guy,” he said.

“He was kind of larger than life,” said Amanda Friedeman, associate director of education at the Holocaust Museum. “He was tall and broad and had a big booming voice and a very thick Frankfurt accent. If he walked into a room you knew it, but he was a big teddy bear, quick to crack a joke and connect with people.”

Mr. Stern, who loved reading and travel, acknowledged how incredibly lucky he and his family were to avoid a lot of the suffering that so many families endured during the Holocaust, friends said.

“He wanted people to know and understand what had happened in Germany and to fight antisemitism and to treat all people fairly and nicely,” Rosenfeld said.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Stern is survived by his wife and his daughters Naomi Davenport and Charlotte Stern, as well as eight grandchildren.

Services have been held.

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