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Holocaust survivor Ben Stern, 102, helped thwart neo-Nazi rally in Skokie

Not one to be intimidated, he was among those in the large Jewish community to lead the charge to shut down an impending march in 1977.

Protesters, many of them Jewish, gather for an anti-neo-Nazi demonstration in front of Skokie Village Hall outside Chicago in May 1977. Credit: Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
Protesters, many of them Jewish, gather for an anti-neo-Nazi demonstration in front of Skokie Village Hall outside Chicago in May 1977. Credit: Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

Ben Stern, one of a number of vocal Jewish community members who led activism in his hometown of Skokie, Ill., that led to a landmark civil-liberties case in 1977, died on Feb. 28 102 from congestive heart failure at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 102 years old.

Stern was born Bendit Sztern in Warsaw on Sept. 21, 1921, to a large Orthodox Jewish family who operated a general store. The Germans invaded Poland in the fall of 1939, and about a year later, he and his family were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto.

Holocaust Survivor Ben Stern as a Child
Ben Stern as a child. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Nazis killed his parents, sister and six of his seven brothers over the course of World War II and the Holocaust. Stern survived for years in concentration camps.

He was one of the few survivors of a forced march from Buchenwald to the Tyrolian Mountains near the Austrian border and eventually liberated by the U.S. Army on May 3, 1945, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Stern met Helen (Chaya Kielmanowicz), another Warsaw survivor, in a displaced persons camp; they married and moved to America in 1946, settling in Skokie to run a chain of Chicago-are laundromats. They raised three children in a community comprised of an estimated 6,000 Holocaust survivors.

In 1977, a group of neo-Nazis announced plans to hold a rally in the Chicago suburb. Not one to be intimidated in his new hometown, Stern helped lead the charge to try and shut down the demonstration, defying the advice of his rabbi. During a service at the synagogue, upon hearing the leadership’s suggestion that Jews simply ignore the impending marchers, Stern reportedly arose and said, “No, rabbi! We will not stay home and close the windows. We will not let them march. Not here, not now, not in America!”

The confrontation led to a Supreme Court case in which the antisemites received the support of the American Civil Liberties Union. While the justices eventually determined that the First Amendment protected the rally, the neo-Nazis ultimately chose to relocate their demonstration to Chicago, fearing a large counter-demonstration.

Stern was predeceased by his wife, who died in 2018. In addition to his children, Stern is survived by seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

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