Next Thursday, April 19, marks National Holocaust Remembrance Day, a time when as a nation we are supposed to come together to memorialize and remember the lives of the more than six million Jews (and five million others) who died in the terrible murders enacted by Germany’s Nazi regime.
Here in East Alabama, we have only one living Holocaust survivor: Opelika Observer editorial board member and longtime Opelikan Henry J. Stern.
Stern and his immediate family immigrated to the U.S. legally in 1937. While he and few others escaped the horrible fate of the concentration camps, other family members were not so lucky.
Stern searched for 60 years to locate any family members he could, sometimes flipping through phone books and calling any Sterns he might see in his journeys throughout the country.
Finally, thanks to the help of a website, Stern located a living relative, a cousin, Fred Hertz, living in Durham, North Carolina.
Stern and Hertz were able to meet and reminisce with one another, before Hertz sadly lost his life.
Now, there is one less person left to tell the tale of an eyewitness, one less one who was there.
We do an excellent job of educating the public about the Holocaust as a historical event, framing it through facts and figures and painting it as a major part of the effects of World War II and the Nazi regime.
Middle school and high school classes read pieces of literature like “The Diary of Anne Frank” or Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” providing narrative accounts of some of the atrocities committed on European Jews by the Nazis.
While this education is admirable, we feel nothing best resonates with people more than anecdotal evidence – having something happen to someone they know.
With his visit to Opelika Middle School this week, Henry Stern has insured another group of students will spend the rest of their lives knowing they knew East Alabama’s last Holocaust survivor.
They’ve heard his story, shook his hand and had him sign a memento.
Thanks to Stern’s generous donation of a DVD of his various interviews and other artistic materials, Stern has insured that future generations of Opelika students will have the same opportunity to “meet” Henry Stern, even if the man himself has passed on.
With each passing year, we lose more Holocaust survivors, finding fewer and fewer people left to tell the first-hand tales people so desperately need to hear.
There will be those who will attempt to deny the Holocaust, saying that such an evil would be unthinkable for man to commit upon man.
While such acts are inhumanely evil, they did happen, and six million Jewish lives lost can not and will not ever be denied.
If we are ever allowed to forget or deny those events happened, they might be allowed to happen again.
God forbid we ever forget. Never again.
We must fight prejudice and intolerance where we find it, and snuff out ignorance with knowledge.
We all feel blessed to know and work with Henry Stern, as many of you do, too.
He’s an Opelika institution, a friend and generous benefactor to numerous causes and charities.
He’s a self-named “good ol’ redneck from Alabama,” which ain’t bad for a boy born Heinz Julius Stern in Germany.
He’s a Holocaust survivor, one whose story will continue to ring out and be told long after he is gone.
We owe it to him and so many others who didn’t make it out to make sure such horrors will never reoccur.
Six million lives lost, and countless others irrevocably damaged by the loss of kin.