We’ll Meet Again – A New American Musical

by Kate Asbury Larkin

Henry Stern is an Opelika legend. At 6-foot-6 with a personality even larger than that, Stern made a lasting impression on everyone he met–as well as an entire community. Holocaust survivor. Athlete. Historian. Businessman. Philanthropist. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who loved their hometown more than Henry Stern did.

Last August, a musical written about the life of Stern premiered one performance at the Opelika Center for the Performing Arts. That night was a game-changer.

Auburn Men’s Basketball Coach Bruce Pearl accepted an invitation to attend even though he and his wife, Brandy, knew very little about what it was they were going to see. All they had heard was that the world premiere of “We’ll Meet Again” was about patriotism and the Holocaust, two things that mean a great deal to the couple.

“We went kind of on a whim,” Pearl said. “But that night, we were treated to something we really weren’t expecting. We laughed and we cried. We enjoyed the music and the dancing. We were filled with great pride and happiness about the greatest country in the world that we love so dearly.”

In fact, the Pearls were so impressed with the show, that they met with the playwright and the director afterwards to offer their encouragement and support to assure the show didn’t end that night.

“Brandy and I were deeply affected by this production,” Pearl said. “We think it is so important for other people to see it that we have partnered with the show to organize a tour.”

“We’ll Meet Again” is an upbeat, yet powerful musical set in World War II. It tells the life story of Henry Stern who, at just five years old, along with his parents and older sister, escaped Nazi Germany to move to Opelika where he lived the rest of his life.

The show was developed, in part, by the world-famous Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia after receiving high praise at the Appalachian Festival of Plays & Playwrights in 2019. After COVID halted the full production in 2020, the show finally was able to premiere at the Historic Savannah Theatre last August before the one-night performance in Stern’s hometown.

With the Pearls leading the way and the same cast and crew from the original performances on board, “We’ll Meet Again” will travel to towns across the southeast the month of September.

“We want as many middle and high school students as possible to see the performance during the day and as many families and adults as possible to attend in the evenings,” Pearl said. “Our young people today are not being taught enough about how good this country is; this production will make them proud to be an American. The 1940’s music and dancing, as well as the story, will inspire them–and anybody who sees the show.”

Tricia Skelton and Kate Gholston, former teachers at Opelika Middle School, developed a Holocaust-related curriculum years ago that is taught to students in the Opelika City Schools system. They have put their lessons and activities together in an easy-to-follow format to be used by teachers in the secondary schools in the cities the show will be performed.

“There are universal lessons in this production,” said Farrell Seymore, superintendent of Opelika City Schools. “It’s a message of hope. It’s humorous. It’s funny, but it’s also very meaningful and touching. I think every student throughout the southeast–throughout Americacan learn lessons from the Stern family and from the community that received them. This is a universal story that should be heard.”

Born Heinz Julius Stern to Arnold and Hedwig Stern on September 4, 1931, the Sterns lived in Westheim, Westfalen, Germany–the only Jewish family in a small town. In 1936, Heinz’s great-uncle, Julius Hagedorn, a highly respected businessman who owned a department store in Opelika and his wife, Amelia, visited the Sterns and tried desperately to persuade them to go to America. A year later, after selling all their belongings, the Sterns were finally ready to go. Before leaving, family members gathered at the family farm to say goodbye and to take one last photo. From there, the four Sterns traveled to Hamburg, Germany and, along with 330 other passengers, boarded the S.S. Washington, the last ship of Jews to legally leave the country. During their trip to the United States, the children “adopted” American names and Heinz became Henry.

The family settled in in Opelika. Stern (and his sister, Lora) attended Opelika schools. He played football and basketball in high school and graduated from Clift High School (Opelika High School) in 1950. Following graduation, he served in the U.S. Navy from 1951 to 1954 and later enrolled in Alabama Polytechnic University (now Auburn University), where he walked on the basketball team and studied business administration. Stern was a partner in a department store in downtown before being named president of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce, where he spent the rest of his career.

During all his years in America, neither Stern nor any other family members knew the whereabouts of relatives left behind in Germany. After the war, a college friend of Stern’s went to Germany to teach and took the Stern name with him to see what he could find. The news was devastating. Stern’s maternal grandmother, paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins had all been deported to concentration camps and were murdered by the Nazis. Most of the surviving family members were sent to ghettos and spent the remainder of their lives picking up the shattered pieces.

All of his adult life–for more than fifty years–Stern desperately searched for someone–anyone–from his family who survived and was still alive. Then, in the wee hours of November 21, 2004, Stern got a break. A friend had emailed a link to a new website that tracks Holocaust victims and their families and after literally thousands of failures over the years, Stern, who never gave up hope, typed in his grandmother’s name and amazingly, unbelievably, for the first time – something came up: A Fred Hertz in Durham, NC.

Stern waited until daylight and called the stranger. He introduced himself and told Hertz he had spent years searching for surviving family. He asked Hertz if he could email a family photograph taken in 1937 just minutes before the Stern’s boarded the ship to set sail to America to see if, by chance, Hertz recognized or could identify anyone in the picture. A short time later, the phone rang. It was Hertz.

“Henry, I’m in this picture,” Hertz said. “I’m the boy on the back row.”

The boys were first cousins, who for more than 60 years thought the other was dead. They emailed and spoke daily over the telephone.

Two months later, the cousins and their families would finally meet face-to-face for the first time since that summer day in 1937. With television cameras rolling, the men embraced in a tearful reunion in the driveway of the Hertz home in Durham. To this family, it was much more than a reunion; it was a miracle!

Hertz passed away in early 2008 and Stern died in 2014, but now, thanks to the musical production of “We’ll Meet Again,” their story lives on.

So how did this story about a boy in Opelika, Ala. make its way to the stage?

In 2007, Anna Asbury Carlson was given an assignment in her 11th grade history class at Opelika High School.

“We had to write a paper on any event in history,” Carlson said. ““Big Henry” was a dear friend of my grandparents–he grew up right next to my grandmother–so I was very familiar with his life. I knew all about him finding Fred, so I wrote his story.”

Stern loved the paper and gave printed copies to everybody he thought would read it. Through family friends, Carlson’s paper made its way to Jim Harris in Lincoln, Nebraska. An attorney, actor, vocalist and playwright, with Opelika ties, Harris had always wanted to write a WWII musical, but didn’t have a good story line. Until he read Stern’s story for the first time.

“It was such a touching story, and it really brought home a connection to Henry Stern as a person,” Harris said. “I thought by using Henry’s story as the nucleus of the play, I could personalize the events of that momentous era in a way that was understandable and relatable.”

Harris hand-picked Eugene Wolf of Abingdon to play the part of Henry Stern. From the initial reading in the competition to the full stage production, Wolf spent countless hours studying videos of Stern to perfect his character.

“I watched Henry and listened to him talk,” Wolf said. “I listened to him speak about his life and that’s where my inspiration came from and through all that, his spirit just came alive for me. I was able to inhabit this man who had this magnificent story about growing up.”

From his mannerisms to his beautiful Southern accent, Wolf truly brings Henry Stern to life on stage.

“Eugene was amazing as my dad,” said J. Stern, Henry’s son and namesake. “He really did a lot of research and he nailed him.”

Henry’s daughter, Ginger Stern, agreed.

“I told some friends that when they saw the play, they met Dad,” Ginger said. “Eugene truly has all of Dad’s spirit down to a T.”

Rick Rose, also of Abingdon, was so touched by “We’ll Meet Again” that he came out of retirement to direct it last summer and will return to direct the 2023 tour.

“Jim and I had worked together on “Civil War Voices” (Harris’s first musical production) and I worked with him in the development of “We’ll Meet Again.” I love working with Jim and with (musical composer) Mark Hayes,” Rose said. But it was because both Amanda and I believe in this show, in the message it conveys to today’s world and the importance in telling that story as an example of “the beauty and potential of the American Spirit,” that made us know it was essential for us to be a part of the tour.”

If there was any hesitation, Rose said directing the show in Opelika in 2022 sealed the deal.

“’We’ll Meet Again’ in Opelika, with an audience that knew and loved Henry Stern, was among the three most magical experiences I have had in my almost 50 years of directing and producing theatre,” he said. “There is nothing more fulfilling than to feel an audience connect, enjoy and embrace a work that is about what they love and cherish.”

“Even more fulfilling was sitting in an audience of over 800 middle school students at the matinee in Opelika and watch them soak up every minute of the show and display their honest emotions to what is a part of their community’s history and to laugh, and cry and respond with cheers and excitement. It was priceless – and worth every bit of effort put into the production.”

Ginger and J. have been so impressed with the production and with the response to it.

“It’s amazing and humbling,” J. said. “I’ve known the story my whole life, but to see it acted out on the stage is really overwhelming. Jim (Harris) did an incredible amount of research in Germany; he knows more about our family than we do.”

“We didn’t know our German relatives, but after seeing the play, it’s like meeting the family you never knew,” Ginger added.

Everyone involved in the production agrees that the timing of the production is almost as important as the message.

“Our nation is divided,” Rose said. “This show reminds us what is right, great and good about America and tells a story that really displays our country at its best. This story will inspire young and old alike and witnessing it as live theatre performed in front of live audiences is so impactful.

“As the saying goes, if you forget the past, you might repeat it,” Ginger said. “In these crazy times, with immigration and antisemitism in the headlines, it lets both kids and adults see a real person’s story.”

“We’ll Meet Again” is many things. It’s powerful, understandable, entertaining, relatable and impactful, but to Pearl, Stern’s story is even more than all that to him; to Pearl, it’s very personal.

“’We’ll Meet Again’ had a tremendous impact on me because Henry’s story is also my story,” Pearl said. “My grandfather, my Papa, was able to escape to the United States when he was 11 years old, bringing his three younger siblings with him. Like much of Henry’s family, and much of Papa’s family – my family – didn’t make it. But the focus of this story is not all about the horrible things that happened. “We’ll Meet Again” is more about the fact that this family came to America, were successful and their family lived on; as has mine.”


For more information and resources:

Coach Bruce Pearl endorsement video for the production:  https://youtu.be/7vaGivqkL-4

“We’ll Meet Again” trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj58n2fIrW4

Website: www.meetagainmusical.com

Henry and Fred meet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fHxktIRtJo&t=151