Holocaust survivor Ben Stern who fought against Nazi rally in Skokie dead at 102

In 1977, when he heard a group of neo-Nazis wanted to dress up in uniforms with swastika armbands and hold a rally in Skokie, Holocaust survivor Ben Stern wasn’t having any of it.

His rabbi at Skokie Central Congregation urged Jews to “close the shutters … and let them march and pass by and get over with it,” Mr. Stern recalled in “Near Normal Man,” a documentary about his life that was made by his daughter Charlene Stern.

“I jumped up and said, ‘No, Rabbi. We will not stay home and close the windows. We will not let them march. Not here. Not now. Not in America. We will be in the streets and face it,’ ” he said. “And I heard the uproar that the people agreed with me”.

Officials in Skokie — home then to many Holocaust survivors — passed measures to ban a Nazi march and threatened to arrest marchers.

The rally, initially planned for 1977, was postponed during a months-long legal battle.

The South Side-based neo-Nazi group, the Chicago chapter of the National Socialist Party of America, was represented in court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which argued that stifling free speech in Skokie could lead to the infringement of free speech in places like the South when civil rights were on the line.

Mr. Stern, who died of heart failure at 102 on Feb. 28 at his home in Berkeley, California, wasn’t involved in the legal battle. But he worked in other ways to opposed the march. In 1978, he rented a small office on Dempster Street in the north suburb and hired the daughter of his best friend to help reach out to synagogues, churches and other organizations to collect more than 750,000 signatures to ban the proposed Nazi rally.

Mr. Stern spoke with reporters and appeared on Phil Donahue’s talk show.

After getting threatening calls at home, he bought a gun.

The legal fight to ban the Nazi group from marching went all the way to the Supreme Court before failing. And the march, now given a go-ahead, was set for June 25, 1978. But faced with a huge counter-demonstration that Mr. Stern helped organize to meet the Nazis with thousands who opposed them, it never happened.

Instead, the neo-Nazis decided to hold a demonstration outside the Kluczynski Federal Building in downtown Chicago. About 25 of them ended up holding a 10-minute rally there that drew about 3,000 counter-protesters who threw bottles, eggs, rocks and sticks and, held back by police, shouted, “Death, death, death to the Nazis!”

Quick-thinking saved him at Auschwitz

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Mr. Stern was there as his father, maternal grandmother and older brother all died of starvation in the Warsaw ghetto.

Mr. Stern ended up being held in nine concentration camps. While at Auschwitz, he was chosen by Josef Mengele, the Nazi SS officer known as the “Angel of Death,” from a line of naked prisoners to step forward and show the tattooed prisoner number on his arm to a registrar making note of which prisoners would be sent to the crematoriums the next day.

“Except, instead of showing his arm, he looked at it himself and said the number out loud, like he was doing the registrar a favor,” his daughter said. “But he changed the number by 6,000, so no other prisoner would go to the crematorium in his place. It was a split-second decision that saved his life.”

In the winter of 1945, Mr. Stern was on a forced death march toward Austria. Those who survived were forced into a barracks that German soldiers rigged with explosives before fleeing ahead of the arrival of U.S. troops. But the explosives failed to detonate, according to his daughter.

Mr. Stern weighed just 78 pounds when the American forces arrived.

Months later, he was at a camp for displaced persons when he met Chaya “Helen” Kielmanowicz, a another survivor from Warsaw. Six weeks later, they married.

Finding a way to Chicago

During a visit to the camp by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the couple met an American soldier who was accompanying her. The soldier was Jewish and from Chicago. They asked him to send a message to Kielmanowicz’s Chicago relatives, hoping they could sponsor them as immigrants to the United States.

The plan worked and, in 1946, they made their way to the United States. Mr. Stern worked as a carpenter for several years in Chicago before getting into the laundromat business. With several partners, he ultimately owned about 12 laundromats in the Chicago area.

Mr. Stern was born Bendit Sztern on Sept. 21, 1921, in Poland. He changed his name to Ben Sterm when he moved to the United States.

His father Shimon Sztern was a Jewish scholar. His mother Yentl Sztern helped run her family’s general store. The couple had three children together and brought six children to their family from previous marriages.

Everyone in the family except Mr. Stern and a half-brother who left Europe before World War II began died in the Holocaust.

“My father was liberated by the American Army, but he said he was not a free man until he let go of hatred,” Charlene Stern said. “He lost almost his whole family, his whole community. But, when I was born, he was able to let go when he saw my face and was able to live the life he wanted to live.”

Mr. Stern and his wife lived on the far South Side when he first moved to the United States. He later was a longtime resident of Skokie before moving to Northbrook, Florida and finally Berkeley in 2008 to be closer to family. His wife died in 2018.

In 2017, Mr. Stern was featured in news stories when he took on an unexpected roommate — Lea Heitfeld, a German student whose late grandparents had been Nazis. She disavowed their beliefs and was working toward an advanced degree in Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Charlene Stern said of her father: “He taught me lessons of kindness, courage and hope. I just want to tell you I’m really sad right now that he’s gone.”

Mr. Stern regularly spoke to community groups and schools.

Last year, when his daughter asked whether he was up for attending a grandson’s bar mitzvah, he responded: “For what else am I alive? I’m going.”

He even joined in the traditional Jewish circle dance, the hora.

“That was the top of the mountain for him, for sure, what a way to bookend his life,” his daughter said.

Mr. Stern’s survivors also include another daughter, Susan Stern, his son Norman Stern, seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

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