A lucky man
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A lucky man

Holocaust refugee, artist Herb Stern’s Tenafly show will support his shul

“Vermont Barn with Flag II,” 2010
“Vermont Barn with Flag II,” 2010

Herb Stern — now 91 and still a successful and flourishing artist — owes a lot to his father, Jacob.

While some might attribute the elder Stern’s narrow escape from the Nazis to luck, his son is confident that it was due in part to smart thinking. Arrested in Frankfurt on Kristallnacht and brought to a local armory together with other Jews swept up in the raid, Jacob Stern found a way out.

“They were standing for 16 hours,” Herb Stern of Englewood said. “They didn’t know what would happen, but they knew they were under arrest. He had the foresight to move himself to one side, positioning himself so that if something came up, he could leave.”

Mr. Stern knows this from a taped interview with his mother, Nora, that his wife, Margot Stern, made.

Herb Stern

As it happened, Jacob Stern was standing next to a blind man, “and the Nazis didn’t want to deal with handicapped people,” Herb Stern said. “They asked for a volunteer to take him back, and my father volunteered. I remember the night he brought him to our house. I was 8 at the time. He fed him, housed him, and the next morning brought him to the railroad station and got him on his way.” Knowing his father, Mr. Stern said, he’s sure he took care to give the man some guidance.

His father was told to return to the armory, but “One of the Gestapo officers said to him, ‘Mr. Stern, you best get yourself out of Germany or we’ll arrest you immediately,” his son said. Fortunately, he had already had the foresight to arrange for visas and book passage out of the country.

“He left my mother and the four kids to pack up,” recalled Herb, who had three older brothers. “He was smart enough to know they had to get out of there.” His father left immediately for London, where he was taken in by a cousin, and then arranged for Nora and the boys to follow. In December 1938 — “still in the year of Kristallnacht” — the entire family set sail for the United States.

Herb describes his father as a good businessman and a good father. His mother, he said, “was intellectual, the person who, from childhood, was the smartest one in her class. She was also a trained cook.” Her parents owned the only kosher hotel in Frankfurt, and Nora and her sisters learned to cook in the hotel’s kitchen.

“Rosh Hashana — Zochreynu”

In the United States — more specifically, in Washington Heights, where many German Jewish refugees settled — Herb made many acquaintances, primarily through his synagogue youth group. “I went to grammar school and high school,” he said. “I was so happy to be here, so relieved. Even as a teenager I refused to speak German.” But his parents spoke German, so he had to speak it. He recalls that life was not always easy. “We were the Germans, and Americans were fighting Germany in a war.”

His high school of choice was the Bronx High School of Science — and he got in. “It was top-rated, and they had some kind of drafting in the curriculum,” he said. “I always liked art and drawing, though I had never had formal art instruction. I thought it would be a way to make money.” He was focused on making a living. He had no interest in joining his father and uncle, who had started an artificial flower business.

“I try to picture myself in my father’s shoes,” Herb said. “He was older. He married late. He came here in his 50s with practically nothing. Yet he found a way to work; he was an optimist, a happy man who knew he was lucky. I have such admiration for him.”

The younger Mr. Stern is lucky as well. He’s been married to Margot since 1953 — this after a two-year stint in the Marine Corp — and the couple has two children and five grandchildren. Jacqueline, a cellist and music teacher, is married to Michael Blady, and Michael, a geneticist, is married to Kathy Rosenbluh. Herb and Margo have five grandchildren — Yaakov, Merav, Miriam, Ilana, and Deborah.

Now living in Englewood after more than 50 years in Teaneck, Mr. Stern plays tennis, belongs to three congregations, and is able to produce the art he loves.

“Cape Trees”

But he has been lucky in other ways as well, both professionally and extra-professionally. Professionally, as a graduate of the New York School of Applied Arts and Sciences, Mr. Stern went on to become art director and designer at several ad agencies and studios, joining Ziff-Davis Publishing as art director in 1968 and retiring from that company in 1999 as creative director.

But clearly, he wanted more. In the early 1960s, he took painting and printmaking courses at the Art Center of Northern New Jersey, working in media ranging from watercolor, to oil, to acrylics, and learning the skills of silk screen, etching, and lithography. He opened his own art studio in 1961, and he continues to fill it with his own paintings, prints, and papercuts. He has exhibited his work in dozens of solo and group shows throughout Bergen County and will soon launch an exhibition at the Tenafly Public Library.

Once he became more involved in the fine arts, “I started doing some things for the shul,” Mr. Stern said —the Jewish Center of Teaneck — “particularly the parochet and a Holocaust memorial. I did a substantial number of things.” He started making papercuts in the late 1990s. “It’s a Jewish craft to start with, and a logical way of expressing myself,” he said. “I did a series of cuts on the various holidays.” Some of that work will be included in the Tenafly show.

He and his wife still are members of the Jewish Center, “though our real focus in now Englewood,” where they belong to Congregation Shomrei Emunah, an Orthodox shul, and Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, the egalitarian Conservative synagogue to which his daughter belongs. “We toggle between them,” Mr. Stern said.

“Fenced Off,” 2009

“I still play tennis, though I move slower,” he continued. His fellow players are in their 80s and 90s — “we all have aches and pains,” he said. He also belongs to a book group, which tackles books “with some kind of Jewish connection, like ‘The Last King of Shanghai.’”

The idea for the Tenafly exhibit “came from me,” he said. “I’ve been painting for a long time and have gathered a lot of pieces of artwork. Some are in exhibits and some have been bought. Others accumulate. Before too long, you want to give them into the hands of people who will put them on the wall.” After offering them first to family, he offered much of the rest to Kol HaNeshamah, suggesting it might want to use them for a fundraiser. The synagogue’s leaders “came up with the suggestion of a show at the library, an opportunity for people to see the art and decide whether to buy it. It will include three different media: watercolors, mostly landscapes, a series of Judaica paper cuts, and prints and etchings.”

He is not “driven” to produce art, Mr. Stern said, “but I enjoy it. It helps me create something, and that is a satisfaction, whether it hangs or sells. The fact that I put it together is satisfactory for me. I work in my own time and space and it lets me do what I want, with no one looking over my shoulder” — the difference, he said, between fine art and commercial art. He’s now working on “papercuts on a large scale, 3 to 4 feet. Some will be on biblical subjects and themes; some lean over to the abstract.”

What is not abstract is his clear pride in his family. Does art run in the family? “My daughter is a cellist, and one of my granddaughters, Ilana, is an artist living in Brooklyn,” he said. So yes.

A lucky family indeed.

Mr. Stern’s work will be on view and for sale at the Tenafly Public Library from March 6 to April 30.

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