By Fred Woods
Opelika’s Jewish citizens, past and present, are an important part of Opelika’s history – and it’s future.
Hagedorn’s Dry Goods Store, the fashion center of East Alabama, was an Opelika landmark for many years. Shoppers came from miles around to buy their clothes, shoes and housewares. Hagedorn’s was on the corner of South Eighth Street and Avenue A, where Alabama Office Supply is now located.
Its founder, Julius S. Hagedorn, was a native of Westphalia, in west central Germany. In the spring of 1935, Hagedorn and his wife, Amelia, returned to Germany to visit relatives. On his return, Hagedorn gave an account of his visit to the Opelika Kiwanis Club.
“… Hitler has ruined Germany commercially as well as in other ways,” Hagedorn said. “The German people are practically slaves, with a dictator in charge, drunk with power. Germany was shackled by the Versailles Treaty [ending WWI]. This furnished Hitler, who is an opportunist, a splendid chance to exploit the condition. He quickly seized the opportunity and made the most of it by promising to restore the people to their former place in the sun. They listened to him.
“Now Hitler is rearming rapidly. The people are taxed to death: all industries are crippled because their profits are taken by the government: all the money Hitler can lay his hands on is used to build up his army.
“ There is no freedom of the press in Germany. No foreign newspaper is allowed to come into the country. The German papers print only what Hitler directs. Consequently the people are ignorant of all outside news.
“The people stand in dread and fear of the government. No one can complain of his lot. If one should say he has not enough to eat or that business is bad, he is called a “Bad Nazi” and is thrown into a concentration camp, a vile prison, from which many never return.
“All religion is overturned. Christianity, both Protestant and Roman Catholic is discarded, so is the Old Testament [the Torah]. It is now Hitler first and then God. Nearly all Jews have left Germany except the very old and some children. There is no means left for the Jews to make a living in Germany.”
Although Westphalia is a beautiful part of Germany, Hagedorn said, but for leaving his brother and sister (and their families), he was glad to leave the country. “There is such a feeling of depression and despair among the people.”
The family Julius Hagedorn went to visit in Westphalia included a brother, Joseph, a widowed sister, Rosalie Hagedorn Israelsohn, and Rosalie’s daughter, Hedwig, and Hedwig’s family. Rosalie was apparently a very astute businesswoman, operating a successful small shop selling groceries and other essentials. She operated the shop before her marriage, unusual for her time, and after the death of her husband in 1913.
In 1929 Hedwig Israelsohn married Arnold Stern of Osnabruck, who worked as a cattle trader in Westphalia. After the marriage Arnold built a shed at the rear of the house so he could kill cattle and sell the meat. Between the shop and the cattle the family earned a respectable income. In 1930 a daughter, Hannelora, was born to the Sterns and, in 1931, a son, Heinz.
After the Nazis’ rise to power in 1931, their business lost money rapidly due to boycotts of Jews and their businesses. Yet, in 1935, when the Hagedorns came from the USA to visit, the Israelsohn/Stern family could not imagine leaving their homeland. Surely conditions would improve. Julius and Amelia tried, to no avail, to convince their relatives to emigrate immediately.
One year later,when conditions worsened, when Jews were barred from participating in government, the anti-Semitic atmosphere in their town and the boycotts of Jewish businesses increased even more, the family changed their assessment of the situation. They practically gave away their house, shop and property in Westhien, Westphalia, and bought emigration goods with the proceeds.
The brother in the US, Julius Hagedorn, took care of the necessary paperwork and booking passage on the ship, the last one which the Nazis permitted to leave Germany carrying Jews. By coincidence the ship was the SS Washington, the same ship that the Hagedorns had sailed on when they visited Germany two years before.
So, in June, 1937, The Israelson/Stern family, along with Mrs. Israelson’s brother, Joseph Hagedorn, left Germany behind. The family was brought to the little town of Opelika where they were the only refugees from Nazi Germany.
The two children quickly adjusted to life in a small southern town. Hannalora’s name was americanized to Lora and Heinz’ name became Henry. And, by now, if you had not already caught on, you know we are telling the story of Henry and Lora Stern. Both went to middle school and high school in Opelika. Lora went on to the University of Alabama and then made Atlanta her home.
Henry went next door to Alabama Polytechnic Institute ( now Auburn University ), after which he joined the US Navy. After that he joined Hollingsworth, Norman and Stern, a men’s clothing store, first as an associate and then as a part-owner. After several years he tried his hand at real estate and then found his true calling as the Executive Secretary of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce where he also became, over time, Opelika’s unofficial historian.
Most of the rest of his story is well- known, including his marriage to the late Roslyn Brock Stern (a leading citizen of Opelika in her own right), their children Ginger and J. and their contributions to the community.
In 1990 Henry and his family traveled to Germany to visit his old hometown of Westhein, Westphalia, Germany. Henry says, “As I was going up the steps to go to the sitting room, I had flashbacks. Is this something I actually remember or is it something I have heard all my life and think I remember. I do not know the answer.” Remember: Henry was six years old when he left Westhein for his new hometown of Opelika.
“After the visit I was able to close that chapter of my life,” Henry said after he got back to Opelika. Henry Stern died on July 14, 2014, at the age of 82. His children, Ginger and J, live locally and love Opelika.
Author’s note: Julius Hagedorn’s assessment of conditions in Nazi Germany were right on target with all the Allied assessments made after WWII. If conditions in Nazi Germany were so clear to this German-born, but Americanized, businessman in 1935, why weren’t they clear to some of the leaders of the Allied nations, including our own?
Doubtless there are a multitude of reasons, but, for the most part the answer is, “we see what we want to see.” And we forget what we want to forget. But Opelika is fortunate that it has had leading citizens like Phillip Hagedorn to call our attention to the Holocaust and Henry Stern to remind us of its horrors.
Today the legacy of these men is carried on by outstanding teachers in the Opelika City School System such as Tricia Skelton and Kathryn Gholston who spend a portion of their summers increasing their knowledge of the Holocaust and, by incorporating this knowledge into their teaching curricula, insure that their students know of this horrific event in history.