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Symbol of Freedom

By: Mitzi J. Levin
Survivor: Stern, Henry

“It was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen,” says a smiling Henry Stern.

Even though he was only five years old, Henry knew that when he first saw the Statue of Liberty, it was indeed something special. This symbol of freedom was a welcome sight for the Stern family. It marked the end of an eight-day journey from the Nazi regime in Germany to the United States where they could live in peace and freedom and pursue their dreams.

Henry and his family arrived in the United States on June 24, 1937. Along with his parents, sister, maternal grandmother, and uncle, Henry made the voyage on the SS Washington.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the last ship of Jews to legally leave Hamburg, Germany.”

As Henry started his new life in Opelika, Alabama, he immediately experienced the wonders of his new freedom. He could go outside anytime to play with other children, and he no longer had to wear the Star of David. As small children, it was much easier for Henry and his sister to learn English and adapt to the new culture than it was for the older generations. Henry learned quickly and became a true Southerner in no time.

Yet there was always a yearning to learn the fate of family members left behind in Germany. Henry never gave up the idea that some of his family survived the Holocaust. For more than 50 years, he searched for anyone who might be alive. Hundreds of phone calls and countless Internet searches yielded no success.  Then, in 2004, a friend emailed Henry the name of a new Website. In the early morning hours, he visited the site and typed in Ida Stern, his grandmother’s name. In disbelief, he stared at the computer screen as the search result was displayed – Fred Hertz, a possible relative living in North Carolina. He quickly emailed a family photo to Fred, asking if he recognized anyone in it. A few hours later, he received a phone call in return.

“Henry, are you sitting down? I’m the boy in the back row in that photograph. I’m your cousin.”

In early 2005, with television cameras rolling, the cousins met in a tearful reunion.

“For 67 years, I never knew there was anyone out there. I’m so grateful I found someone. I still can’t get over it.”