Former Wayne State provost, Holocaust survivor, war hero, Guy Stern lived an incredible life

Guy Stern, Ph.D., a World War II hero who later became a beloved educator and influential administrator at Wayne State University, died on Thursday, Dec. 7 – the 82nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 101.

Dr. Stern and his wife, Susanna Piontek Stern
Guy Stern once served as Holocaust Memorial Center Director of the International Institute of the Righteous. Here, Dr. Stern and his wife, Susanna Piontek Stern, at the museum's annual dinner.

One of the last surviving members of a secret intelligence branch of the U.S. Army known as the Ritchie Boys, Stern joined Wayne State as provost and vice president for academic affairs on Sept. 12, 1978. Twelve years later, he resigned as the university's chief academic and faculty officer and accepted a role as a distinguished professor in the Department of Romance and Germanic Languages and Literature.

“He was so full of life and he kept your attention,” said Gina Horwitz, former WSU associate director of philanthropy and alumni relations, and friend of Stern and his wife, Susanna. “I had a group of friends come to The Zekelman Holocaust Center and he gave them a private tour of the Ritchie Boys exhibit, and he was 97 or 98 years old. But you would never know it. He had such a twinkle in his eye. You knew his history and what he went through, but you never, ever saw it on the outside. He was a walking legend. How many people can really say they know an American hero? I’m proud to say that my husband, Arthur, and I got to spend 12 years with an American hero.”

Stern, who retired in 2003, taught at several universities in the United States and Germany as a professor of German studies. He is the founder of the Academy of Scholars at Wayne State, which was launched in 1979.

“I would like to extend my deepest condolences to Provost Guy Stern’s family, friends and colleagues,” said Wayne State President Kimberly Andrews Espy, Ph.D. “While I did not have the honor of meeting Provost Stern, I am told he was a remarkable leader who made significant achievements in higher education. He came to the university with boundless energy, vision, and true commitment to faculty and students.”

Born Günther Stern on Jan. 14, 1922, he was the only member of his Jewish family to escape Germany, thanks to an uncle who helped him settle in St. Louis at the age of 15. Before going on to great academic achievement as a professor and writer, Stern was moved to enlist following the Japanese’s attack on Pearl Harbor, telling CBS correspondent Jon Wertheim, “I had an immediate visceral response to that and that was this is my war for many reasons, personal of course, but also this country … I was really treated well.”

Guy Stern (left) with two other Ritchie Boys, Lieutenant Walter Sears (center) and Fred Howard (right), in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, on VE Day, May 8, 1945.
Guy Stern (left) with two other Ritchie Boys, Lieutenant Walter Sears (center) and Fred Howard (right), in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, on VE Day, May 8, 1945.

Stern joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and was assigned to the Ritchie Boys. This special military unit was a group of mostly German Jewish immigrants who had fled the Nazis and trained at Camp Ritchie in Maryland. The Ritchie Boys were responsible for gathering more than 60% of intelligence on the Western Front during World War II.

The Army used these soldiers to gather information due to their knowledge of the German language and culture. Stern interrogated German prisoners in France and Germany and received the Bronze Star for his method of mass interrogation.

Last year, Stern’s heroism was highlighted by Wertheim in an episode of 60 Minutes, as well as Ken Burns’ three-part PBS documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust.

Stephanie Williams, director of Wayne State University Press, which published Stern’s 2020 memoir, Invisible Ink, said it was an immense privilege to work on the book project.

“Guy Stern’s father once said to him, ‘You have to be like invisible ink. You will leave traces of your existence when, in better times, we can emerge again and show ourselves as the individuals we are,’” she said. “Dr. Stern carried these words and shaped himself around them. In doing so, he had an influence on family, students and colleagues across the world. But his list of accomplishments fails to capture his stalwart warmth and abiding interest in people.”

Guy Stern worked at Wayne State from 1978-2003.
Guy Stern worked at Wayne State from 1978-2003.

He first returned to his German hometown of Hildesheim at the war’s end. The city had been devastated by bombing. Stern’s efforts, before joining the Army, to have his parents and siblings emigrate to the U.S. had failed. He eventually learned his entire family perished in either the Nazi-controlled Warsaw Ghetto or the Auschwitz concentration camp. Walking the devastated streets of his hometown in 1945, he realized the world he knew would never be the same.

“I, too, was no longer the same person,” he said at a Hildesheim ceremony honoring him in 2011. “The frightened high school boy from the days of Nazi rule, Günther Stern, had become Guy Stern, an American citizen and a master sergeant of a U.S. military intelligence unit.”

Over the years, Stern became a leading global scholar in German literature, joining the faculties at Denison University, Columbia University, the University of Cincinnati, University of Maryland and Wayne State. He is credited with having co-created the academic discipline of exile studies, which highlights the contributions of authors, poets, playwrights and others who have been forced to leave the country of their birth.

“Professor Guy Stern was the mainstay of the German Studies Department for decades, a true friend and supporter of Jewish studies and the Cohn-Haddow Center, and a generous and thoughtful colleague and friend,” said Howard Lupovitch, professor of history and director of Wayne State’s Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies. “His personal experience as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and one of the Ritchie Boys gave him a real appreciation for all that is good about America, which he was always willing to fight for and never took for granted.”

Donald Haase, professor emeritus of German, knew Stern not only as a teacher and a coworker, but as a man who led a life that mattered and made a difference.

Soon after joining the army, Guy Stern at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Soon after joining the army, Guy Stern at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

“As someone who first encountered Guy Stern when I walked into my first university class as an undergraduate,” Haas said, “I can attest that he was first and foremost a teacher, dedicated to giving new generations the opportunity to learn about those who experienced exile and the Holocaust. He did not lead an inconsequential life.”

In addition to his Bronze Star, Stern’s many awards include an honorary doctorate from Hofstra University; the Grand Order of Merit and the Goethe Medal from Germany; and, in 2017, the Knight of the Legion d’Honneur medal from the French Consul General in Detroit.

Private services and a funeral with military honors were held last Friday at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, Michigan.

Instead of sending flowers or gifts, the family asks that contributions be made to the Guy Stern Endowment Fund in Exile and Holocaust Studies at Wayne State University, Fund Office, 5700 Cass Ave., Suite 1200, Detroit, MI 48202 (memo line on check: Guy Stern/CLAS #060235 or call 1-800-WSU-GIVE); Temple Shir Shalom, West Bloomfield, Michigan; Congregation T’Chiyah, Ferndale, Michigan; or The Zekelman Holocaust Center, Farmington Hills, Michigan.

Top photos: Guy Stern (left) shortly after the end of the war in 1945; and (right) during a return to his hometown of Hildesheim in 2011.

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