Home News Ben Stern, Who Opposed a Nazi Rally in Illinois, Dies at 102

Ben Stern, Who Opposed a Nazi Rally in Illinois, Dies at 102

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Ben Stern, Who Opposed a Nazi Rally in Illinois, Dies at 102

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When a band of Nazis proposed to exercise their right to free speech by staging a rally in Skokie, Ill., in 1977, Ben Stern was incensed.

A survivor of nine concentration camps, he did not understand why acolytes of Hitler could demonstrate in the United States, let alone in his predominantly Jewish adopted hometown, where many Holocaust survivors lived.

The idea of a Nazi gathering in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, was like “being put back into the concentration camp,” Mr. Stern told a local television station at the time.

The possibility of the rally preoccupied Skokie for a year and led to a First Amendment confrontation between the village and the Chicago chapter of the National Socialist Party of America, a neo-Nazi group, which was defended by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Stern became an activist, inspired in part by his disagreement with Lawrence Montrose, his beloved rabbi at Skokie Central Congregation. During Rabbi Montrose’s Yom Kippur sermon in 1977, Mr. Stern recalled, he told his congregants to “close the shutters, close the light and let them march” if the rally occurred.

“I jumped up and said, ‘No, rabbi. We will not stay home and close the windows,’” Mr. Stern said in “Near Normal Man,” a 2016 documentary produced and directed by his daughter Charlene Stern. “‘We will not let them march, not here, not now, not in America. We will be in the street and face it.’ I heard an uproar that the people agreed with me.”

Mr. Stern wrote letters to newspapers. He talked to print and TV reporters and appeared on Phil Donahue’s talk show. He received death threats and bought a gun, believing that he might need it to defend myself.

He rented an office in Skokie, where he helped organize an awareness campaign that included sending petitions to churches, synagogues and other Jewish organizations suggesting that the presence of Nazis in full uniform and shouting antisemitic slogans should be viewed as an exception to First Amendment protections. The petitions garnered tens of thousands of signatures, and copies were delivered to the Illinois Supreme Court.

But in one of several state and federal decisions in the legal battle — which ultimately reached the United States Supreme Court — the Illinois court ruled in 1978 on one of the issues that was part of the case: that Nazis had the constitutional right to display swastikas at the proposed rally.

Mr. Stern died on Feb. 28 at his home in Berkeley, Calif., where he had moved from Northbrook, Ill.. He was 102.

His daughter Charlene confirmed the death.

Mr. Stern was born Bendit Sztern on Sept. 21, 1921, in Warsaw, and moved south with his Orthodox Jewish family to Mogielnica when he was young. His father, Shimon, studied Torah and Talmud. His mother, Yentl (Provisor) Sztern, ran a general store in Mogielnica with her mother. There were nine children in his family — six from his parents’ previous marriages and three from their union.

A year after the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Mr. Stern and his family were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. While there, his father, his maternal grandmother and his older brother all died of starvation. On the day after his father’s burial, Mr. Stern recalled, he returned to the cemetery, where he found the grave dug open. Heartbroken to see his father naked, he covered his body with dirt and walked away crying.

When the ghetto was being emptied, Mr. Stern was deported to the Majdanek camp, near Lublin, Poland, and his mother and one of his brothers were deported to Treblinka, where they perished. In 1943 he was transferred to Auschwitz, where the smoke from the crematories was “the smell of human barbecue,” he told The Indianapolis News in 1978.

At Auschwitz, he was one of the inmates on a crew that was forced to build a road, which they covered with crematory ashes.

“Among the ashes, we found little bones, knuckles, different parts of the human body,” Mr. Stern said in “Near Normal Man.” The prisoners put them aside and, at the end of their workday, buried them while reciting Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer.

In April 1945, after being moved to Buchenwald, prisoners were sent on a monthlong death march toward Austria in frigid weather. He was among the few to survive long enough to be liberated by the U.S. Army. He weighed 78 pounds at the time.

After being quarantined, Mr. Stern searched towns and displaced persons camps for family members, but all of them (except an older half brother who had immigrated in the 1930s to the British mandate of Palestine) had died. But in a displaced persons camp in Bergen-Belsen, near the concentration camp of the same name, he met Chaya Kielmanowicz, and six weeks later they married.

They immigrated to the United States in 1946 and settled in Chicago, where Mr. Stern found work as a carpenter. In the 1950s, he opened a laundromat, learned to repair the machines, and eventually owned about a dozen laundromats with different partners. He retired at 85.

In 1977, he faced the threat of Nazis rallying in his midst. It was intolerable to him, to many of his fellow Skokie residents and to local governmental leaders. The village made various attempts to block the demonstration, like forcing the Nazi group to post an insurance bond that would have cost them several hundred thousand dollars.

But they failed. In June 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the village’s request for a temporary stay, clearing the path for the Nazis to demonstrate on June 25.

Ira Glasser, who became the executive director of the A.C.L.U. shortly after the case was decided, said in a phone interview that the issue was never the Nazi group but rather whether the government can “ban anybody’s free speech on public land.” He added, “If the First Amendment permitted stopping the Nazis, it would have allowed White Citizens’ Councils in Mississippi to stop civil rights demonstrations.”

Although Skokie lost the legal fight, the village was spared the Nazi rally. The group moved the event to Chicago, knowing that it if it held the rally in Skokie it would face a counterdemonstration, which Mr. Stern helped plan, that was expected to draw about 50,000 people.

In Chicago, an estimated 5,000 demonstrators turned out against the rally. Some chanted “Death, death, death to the Nazis.” The demonstration, which was held outside a federal building, included 29 Nazis and lasted 10 minutes, The Los Angeles Times reported.

“Is that all there is?” Mr. Stern asked after the rally ended.

A fictionalized version of the Skokie story was told in the 1981 television movie “Skokie,” which starred Danny Kaye as a Holocaust survivor who leads the opposition to the demonstration, and George Dzundza as Frank Collin, the Nazi group’s leader.

In addition to his daughter Charlene, Mr. Stern is survived by another daughter, Susan Stern; a son, Norman; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. His wife, who was known as Helen, died in 2018.

Mr. Stern, who over the years spoke to many groups about his experiences, marched in Berkeley in 2017 against a white supremacist rally that had already been called off by its organizers.

At the head of the march, he was flanked by three rabbis. When he asked to speak, he was helped onto a flatbed truck.

“I’m not here alone with the live people,” said Mr. Stern, who was then 95, according to KQED Radio, “but I see all the people of my past — my family, my friends who didn’t make it.”

“Today,” he added, “you prove that we stand together against the threat of racism, Nazism.”

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