Ben Stern, a Holocaust survivor who endured years in Nazi concentration camps and two death marches before settling in Skokie, Ill., where he helped rally opposition to a planned neo-Nazi demonstration in the late 1970s that produced one of the most explosive cases in First Amendment law, died Feb. 28 at 102.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter Charlene Stern. Mr. Stern had lived for decades in Illinois before moving to California to be closer to his family. He died at his home in Berkeley.

Mr. Stern, a Polish-born Jew, lost his parents, his sister and six of his seven brothers in the Holocaust. He evaded selections for the gas chambers at Auschwitz, one of numerous Nazi camps where he was imprisoned, and was marched for weeks without bread before his liberation in 1945.

With no family and no home left in Europe, Mr. Stern immigrated to the United States in 1946 with his wife, a fellow survivor he had met in a displaced-persons camps. Despite speaking no English at first, he became a businessman and established a chain of laundromats across Chicago. The couple and their three children eventually settled in the suburb of Skokie, which was home to a large Jewish community and an estimated 6,000 Holocaust survivors.

For those survivors, Skokie was a world away from the one they had left behind. But a specter of the past emerged in 1977 when the National Socialist Party of America, a small group of neo-Nazis led by Frank Collin, announced plans for a rally in Skokie. In a standoff that ultimately landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Stern was among the activists who set out to stop them.

As the town of Skokie undertook efforts to block the demonstration, the neo-Nazis were represented in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose principal lawyer faced death threats for arguing that even speech as abhorrent as that of neo-Nazis must be defended if the First Amendment protection of free speech is to endure.

In making its case, the ACLU noted that some of the measures invoked by Skokie officials to keep out the neo-Nazis, including a provision that demonstrators post sizable insurance bonds, had been used in efforts to stop civil rights protests in the South.

Mr. Stern understood the argument but could not abide the sight of a swastika in a public square in America. Nor could he accept the position of those including the rabbi at his synagogue, who advised the congregation to ignore the neo-Nazis and let the moment pass.

Upon hearing his rabbi’s admonition during an observance of the High Holy Days, Mr. Stern recalled, he jumped up before the packed congregation and interrupted the service to declare: “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 neo-Nazis prevailed in their legal proceedings – their speech was protected under the First Amendment, court after court ruled. But they canceled their rally in Skokie, in part because they were faced with the prospect of a massive counter-demonstration organized by Jewish groups and activists including Mr. Stern, who had written letters to the editor, appeared on television, gathered petitions and rallied people to their cause.

The neo-Nazis did ultimately gather in Chicago in 1978. But to Mr. Stern and those who had fought them with him, the successful effort to drive them from Skokie was a victory on behalf of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Reflecting on “the feeling after 30 years of rising from the ashes to have to face a threat from the Nazis,” Mr. Stern said, “I could not believe it, and I wanted to face it head on, not hide and not let it happen.”

Bendit Sztern was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Warsaw on Sept. 21, 1921. Both of his parents had been widowed in World War I, and the household included six children from their earlier marriages, as well as Mr. Stern and two other children born to their union. A brother who immigrated in the 1930s to what was then the British mandate of Palestine was Mr. Stern’s only sibling still alive at the end of the Holocaust.

Mr. Stern’s father devoted much of his time to the study of the Torah, the Talmud and other religious texts. Mr. Stern’s mother and maternal grandmother ran a general store that sold liquor and other goods in Mogielnica, a town south of Warsaw where he spent part of his youth.

On Sept. 1, 1939, weeks before Mr. Stern turned 18, Germany invaded Poland, and the continent was soon at war. The following year, Mr. Stern and much of his family were confined to the Warsaw ghetto. His grandmother, an older brother and his father were among the thousands of Jews who died in the ghetto amid rampant starvation and disease.

Mr. Stern was with his mother and younger brother during a mass deportation in 1942. Amid the chaos, he had no chance to say goodbye as they were loaded onto a cattle car bound for Treblinka, a Nazi killing center in occupied Poland, and he was pushed onto another one headed for Majdanek, a Nazi concentration camp located near Lublin.

Mr. Stern was later transferred to Auschwitz, among other camps and subcamps, before arriving after his first death march at Buchenwald in Germany.

During his years in the camps, he was subjected to forced labor in coal mines and hauling stone. He witnessed inmates throwing themselves against electrified fences and saw smoke pouring from crematoria where victims of the gas chambers were burned. He was made to haul away ashes and recalled saying Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for mourning, when he discovered bits of bone.

“You could go insane on the spot,” he said in a 2016 documentary film, “Near Normal Man,” directed and produced by his daughter Charlene. “At that time, I … decided to go on,” he said. “I didn’t give in.”

As the Allies closed in on the Germans, Mr. Stern was sent with other Buchenwald inmates on a second death march, this one toward the Austrian border. He was among the few prisoners still living when the U.S. Army liberated them in May 1945.

In the aftermath of the war, Mr. Stern searched displaced-persons camps for members of his family but found none. He met Chaya Kielmanowicz, a survivor from Warsaw, and married her within six weeks of their first encounter. She was “just as lost as I was,” he later observed.

Sponsored by members of her family, the couple arrived in Chicago. Although Mr. Stern had no education and no trade, he had “ten fingers,” he remarked, as well as the will “to go forward.” He worked as a carpenter before opening his chain of laundromats. Only when his first child was born, Mr. Stern said, did he begin to free himself from the past.

“I walked the street and said, ‘I’m a father, I’m a father!’” he recounted in the documentary. “I just couldn’t contain that joy of seeing a living thing coming out of us. It was just so sweet.”

Mr. Stern’s wife, known in the United States as Helen, died in 2018. Survivors include their three children, Charlene Stern of Berkeley, Norman Stern of Cleveland, Ga., and Susan Stern of Fairfield, Calif.; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Charlene Stern said that her father spoke to hundreds of audiences about his experience in the Holocaust. He protested anti-Muslim bigotry in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Trump administration policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S. border.

In 2017, shortly after neo-Nazis and white supremacists raised their arms in Nazi salutes at the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Mr. Stern led a phalanx of counterprotesters who vastly outnumbered a small contingent of white supremacists who gathered in Berkeley.

“I’m not here alone with the live people,” Mr. Stern said, “but I see all the people of my past – my family, my friends who didn’t make it.”

The same year, Mr. Stern was featured in The Washington Post when he opened his home to Lea Heitfeld, a German student whose grandparents had belonged to the Nazi Party and who lived with Mr. Stern while attending the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. His experience in the Holocaust, he said, had served not to embitter him, but to make him more compassionate.

Late in life, after the release of his daughter’s documentary film, Mr. Stern came to know Ira Glasser, who, after becoming executive director of the ACLU in 1978, had vigorously defended the organization’s representation of the neo-Nazis in their petition to gather in Skokie.

Scheduled to speak together on a panel in California, Mr. Stern met Glasser at the airport. In an interview, Glasser recalled that Mr. Stern extended to him a hand and said, “We’re not going to agree, but we’re going to be friends.”

In a private meeting before the public event, the two men spoke for hours, fervently but civilly, about their respective positions and the tensions between them, which remained unchanged.

“There was no meeting of the minds,” Glasser said. “His agony was too imprinted on his soul by what happened to him. And I remember thinking that if I were in his [place], I would probably be taking the same position.” Mr. Stern’s defiance, Glasser said, had been “heroic.”

Before they parted, Mr. Stern insisted upon sharing with Glasser a drink from a bottle of schnapps that he had bought decades earlier during a trip to Poland. It was the same brand that his family had sold at their store, and there remained in the bottle exactly two shots, one for each of them.

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