Columbia City of Women Honoree
Lilly Stern Filler, M.D.
Image courtesy of Lilly Filler.
On June 6, 2001, almost 53 years to the day of Lilly Stern Filler’s immigration to the United States, she led the dedication of the South Carolina Holocaust Memorial in downtown Columbia. The monument marked the beginning of an ongoing, purposeful commitment to educate future generations of South Carolinians about the Holocaust, its survivors, and liberators. For Dr. Filler, who thrived on new challenges, leading this effort was the natural beginning of a new chapter in a life full of accomplishments.
Lilly Stern was born on December 6, 1947 to Jadzia Sklarz and Ben Stern in Munich, Germany. They had met through Jadzia Sklarz’s brother, Ben, who was imprisoned at several concentration camps with Ben Stern. Stern was liberated at Allach, a sub-camp of Dachau, on April 30, 1945, but both he and the Sklarz siblings had also survived Auschwitz. The small family of three, supported by Ben’s uncle, Columbia merchant Gabriel Stern, immigrated on June 8, 1949. Although Stern remembers her mother’s nightmares growing up, her parents’ lives during the Holocaust were not discussed as a family during her childhood:
"I think almost two generations had to go by before anyone could really talk [about] liberators and survivors. It was painful, it was horrible, it brought up terrible memories on all sides, and the only way I think that people could move on and move forward was to block it out or to put it somewhere deep in the recesses of their heart and soul to be able to move forward."
Jadzia and Ben Stern also recognized the power of good deeds, and they instilled a strong belief in their children that people should always help one another. After high school, Lilly Stern left Columbia to embark on a career in medicine, graduating with a degree in physical therapy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She moved to New York City, where she met her husband, Bruce Filler, while working at NYU Medical Center. They married in 1972 and moved to Boston, where she finished a master’s degree. In 1977, she returned to Columbia and with her husband founded the Columbia Rehabilitation Clinic, which has since grown to six locations. A conversation with her father-in-law in the early 1980s led to another chapter in her life: Lilly Stern Filler, M.D. More than 10 years after completing her bachelor’s degree, she was back in school, taking night classes and studying for the MCAT, all with three small children. Admitted to USC’s School of Medicine in 1984, Filler completed her medical degree in 1988 and her residency in 1992. Rather than join a male-owned practice, she started Columbia’s first all-female Obstetrics and Gynecology group practice, the Women Physicians Associates at Richland Memorial Hospital (Prisma), which remains in existence today. She later chaired the obstetrics department at the hospital and served on the board of Planned Parenthood of South Carolina. In 2002, she was elected the first female Chief of Staff of Palmetto Richland.
By then, Filler had successfully spearheaded the creation and installation of the South Carolina Holocaust Memorial as a tribute to her parents. According to Filler, her father’s death on her birthday in 1999 had left her with the “sense that I was supposed to do something,” and she knew immediately what that something should be. Her mother had advocated for a memorial in Columbia beginning in the 1980s, but as her health failed her husband took over and raised $10,000 through Beth Shalom Synagogue. Filler retraced her parents’ actions and held the Holocaust Memorial committee’s first meeting on June 8, 2000. She remembers the date, because it was the anniversary of her family’s arrival in Columbia.
Filler saw the monument as one important to the entire Columbia community and enlisted the support of USC, Fort Jackson, and the City of Columbia in addition to the Jewish community. With a broad coalition in place, the committee raised $150,000 for the monument’s design and construction. They selected Hyman Irwin and asked him to create a design that fulfilled three goals:
"We had the creation of the sides [of the monument] with the goal—we had three goals in mind. One was to remember the six million; one was to honor the survivors and the liberators; and one was to educate South Carolinians about the Holocaust."
For the latter, the committee asked Belinda Gergel and Selden Smith to develop a timeline of events from 1932 until 1946. The main sculpture was surrounded by benches with quotes from survivors and liberators, including Filler's mother. The dedication, which took place only 363 days after Filler convened the first meeting, was attended by several hundred people. But for Filler, the memorial was just the beginning.
Later that month, Filler used the remaining $75,000 to establish the Columbia Holocaust Education Commission (CHEC) with the goal of promoting Holocaust education in the city of Columbia. The commission, led by co-chairs Filler and Lyssa Harvey, awards grants to South Carolina educators and also places its travelling exhibit, “Holocaust Remembered,” in schools and community spaces during the spring of each year. Beginning in 2014, the commission began issuing a “Holocaust Remembered” newspaper supplement, available in all McClatchy papers, to correspond with Yom HaShoah, which commemorates the six million Jews murdered by German Nazis and collaborators as well as the Jewish resistance. Each year, the supplement focuses on a specific theme for the Holocaust, such as “Antisemitism: Then and Now,” in 2018, and “The Medical Madness of Nazi Germany: Experimentation, Ethics and Genetics,” in 2016. Filler’s work, which now includes chairing the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust, is a continued inspiration, and she’s not finished yet.
Lilly Stern Filler oversaw the installation of the South Carolina Holocaust Memorial at the South Carolina Memorial Park in 2001. The monument, encircled by four benches inscribed with quotes, commemorates the 6 million who died, the survivors and liberators, and includes text and visuals to educate visitors on the Holocaust.
To remember means to know. To know means to teach others. To teach others means to never forget. Let us honor all of those who experienced one of our history’s worst examples of inhumanity. Let their actions, their sufferings, and their deaths be a lesson to us all.
Lilly Stern Filler