Why History is Important
This is the first in series about historic preservation. The rest of the series focused on grant writing for historical associations and insurance and risk management considerations for historic renovations and building projects.
Guy Stern died on December 7, 2023, at the age of 101.
His death hit me hard, though I only met him once when I was eight or so. I remember vaguely my mom telling me we were going to have dinner with a war hero, and quite vividly having to send the chicken back because it was cold in the middle.
I’m 22 now, a history major at Penn State, and I spent the best, most meaningful summer of my life last year interning at the newly opened Ritchie History Museum on the grounds of Fort Ritchie. Guy Stern has an entire wall dedicated to him at the museum for leading the historical preservation of the Ritchie Boys and their accomplishments as spies in WWII.
Guy was perhaps the most famous of the Ritchie Boys—German-born Jewish immigrants, often the only ones from their families to escape Nazi aggression, who volunteered to return to their homeland as American soldiers during World War II. The Ritchie Boys knew the language, culture, and landscape of Germany in a way Americans did not. Intelligent, cunning, and resourceful, the Ritchie Boys used that knowledge as interrogators, translators, and producers of mass media for distribution to civilians. Sixty percent of American intelligence gathered in the European theater during WWII was garnered by the Ritchie Boys, and that success contributed to the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Guy was a driving force for preserving and promoting the history of the Ritchie Boys during a time when much of their heroics were still classified information. He shared his experiences and those of his comrades throughout a successful academic career, which included serving as director of the International Institute of the Righteous at the Zekelman Holocaust Center.
Guy’s death, and more importantly his life, has prompted me to reflect on my own “why” – why is the study of history so important to me? To my community? To Ghost Writer?
“Those who know nothing about history are doomed to repeat it.” This famous quote from historian Will Durant has been stuck in my head ever since I heard it in middle school. As economists study the economy and warn about an economic decline, historians study history and warn about repeating the mistakes of the past.
Learning from mistakes is one of our first childhood lessons. Just as a curious child touches a hot stove and burns their fingers, the world figures things out by trial and error. History has now been recorded for thousands of years, and humanity has enough resources and knowledge to understand the consequences of their actions.
History is storytelling with vital lessons. My own experiences interning at the Ritchie History Museum taught me that the museum is less there to teach history than to be a catalyst for people to share their own history—to process change, to heal, to tell the next generation the stove is hot. I spent much more time listening than teaching. From WWII veterans talking about rations and officers’ feasts, to locals talking about how towns have changed, and even to the proverbial stories of walking to school barefoot and uphill both ways, people seem to have an inherent need to tell their own story.
I have worked on many grants for Ghost Writer and am especially excited for our many successes securing funding for historic treasures—restoring historically significant artwork, woodwork, and ironwork; supporting living history and craftsmanship; purchasing and renovating buildings and facades; caring for aging structures and grand theatres. As I graduate in May and begin my career as an historian, I know now that the objects and buildings, treasured though they are, are not as important as the human lore they hold. I see now that my job is not to teach history, but to create spaces for storytelling and processing.
I wanted to meet Guy again, as a young man with profound respect for him rather than a child worried about cold chicken. But there is some comfort to be had. See, when teenage Guy escaped Nazi Germany, he left behind his entire family, who pleaded that he would send for them next. He returned to his village as a man—as a Ritchie Boy—eager to find his family. To his horror, not one of them made it.
Every person in his family was murdered before he got there: his parents, his grandparents, his siblings, his aunts and uncles, and his cousins. He carried through his life that great and somber weight. I like to imagine he is reunited with his family now, and that weight has finally lifted. For a man who spent his life telling others' stories, it is a perfect ending to his own.
Do you have a project preserving your community’s history? Reach out to Ghost Writer to learn more about how we can help with your historic preservation project.