On his way to Opelika, Heinz Stern became Henry. He was only five years old in 1937 when he and his family of six immigrated to America on what was to be the last sanctioned ship departure of Jews from Germany until the end of the war. The rest of the family disappeared without a trace, and young Henry had no way of knowing that the next sixty years of his life would be devoted to searching for clues to discover whether any other family members had survived the atrocities of the war waged against the Jewish people.
The journey to Opelika began in 1935 when Henry’s Great Uncle Julius and Aunt Amelia Hagedorn visited them in their hometown of Westheim. Their American relatives were alarmed by the increasing persecution of the Jews. They convinced Henry’s family to come to America, to Opelika, Alabama, where they lived. However, because there were restrictions on what Jews could take out of the country, Henry’s father spent two years disposing of property and valuables – converting them to cash to finance the trip.
Henry recalls how warmly they were greeted by the townspeople of Opelika. Upon their arrival, the Mayor presented the family with a proclamation welcoming them to the city. Particularly touching was local school teacher, Louise Tollison, who reached out to the children by studying German prior to their arrival in order to communicate with them. Opelika opened its arms to embrace the Sterns – valuing them in a way that was in sharp contrast to their brutal treatment at the hands of Nazi Germany.
Henry attended school in Opelika and returned there after attending Auburn University and serving a term in the Navy. He settled down, marrying Roslyn Brock and rearing two children. He worked as a retailer and developer and ultimately was employed by the Opelika Chamber of Commerce until his retirement.
Even as he enjoyed his family and his community, Henry spent countless hours desperately searching for any family members who might still be alive. Finally, in 2004, his search yielded a wonderful discovery – his cousin Fred Hertz was living in Durham, N.C.
“Can you imagine feeling so alone on earth your whole life and then six decades later finding the only other branch of your family tree to survive a brutal war and genocide?”
Addendum: Henry Stern passed away on July 17, 2014.