Sterling, Elsie Jane

Sterling, Elsie Jane

Émigré
Leipzig (Germany)

Jane Sterling was born in Leipzig, Germany. Her name at birth was Jutta Ilse Seckel. She changed her name from Jutta Ilse to Elsie Jane once she came to the United States, and is now known as Jane.

Her mother’s name was Edith Glassman Seckel and her father’s name was Henry (Heinrich) Seckel. Her mother, Edith, was born in 1903 in Arnswalde, Germany, a small town near the North Sea. Her father, Henry, was born in 1902 in the city of Themar, Germany. Her parents were married in December 1927. Jane was their first child, born in February 1929, and Joachim (Joe) their other child, was born eleven months later in January 1930.

The family lived in a comfortable apartment in Leipzig on Waldstrasse for many years. Jane’s paternal grandmother, Bertha Grunbaum Seckel, lived close by, as did Jane’s aunts, uncles, and cousin. Her father was a manufacturer’s representative for women’s coats and suits, and he also owned a store with his brother-in-law, Max Wohlgemuth.

In Germany, Jane attended a Jewish school. She was forbidden to attend German schools, as Jews would “contaminate” the German students, or so she was told. She studied Hebrew, among other subjects. After the age of 5, she could not have any non-Jewish friends, because they were no longer permitted to play with her.

Jane’s maternal grandparents, Max and Johanna Glassmann, also lived in Arnswalde, Germany. She called both sets of grandparents Oma and Opa, and much enjoyed spending time with them and singing songs together.

Jane did not consider herself to be a “German”, but only as Jewish, as Jews were generally despised as outsiders by the Germans. One of Jane’s early recollections of Nazi Germany took place while visiting her grandparents, who had moved to Hamburg. She watched a large parade from her grandparents’ balcony, where she saw Hitler himself, standing in a car and waving as his followers saluted and applauded.

Hitler’s voice was everywhere, as even in stores loudspeakers were blaring his hateful speeches. Jane’s family’s German citizenship was revoked and their bank accounts were confiscated. Her father was deprived of a job and no longer had any source of income.

In 1938, while walking to school one day, Jane noticed Nazi officers pushing Jews into buses in front of her school building. She searched for her brother who was also walking to school and, after finding him, they rushed home together.

That same day, which became known as Kristallnacht, a Gentile banker friend had warned Jane’s father using a prearranged code that this might be a good time to take his family for a holiday in the countryside. The family quickly left and drove around the country farmland. When they returned to Leipzig three days later, they found Jewish properties looted, burned, and totally destroyed, including the family’s store and the local
synagogues.

In an attempt to spare and protect his family, Jane’s father decided to turn himself in to the German authorities. Despite this, the next morning, three SS officers appeared at their home to search for Jane’s father, unaware he was not there. Although her mother was terrified by the search, she bravely managed to maintain her composure.

The SS sent her father to Dachau. After being imprisoned for about a week, he was able to convince the Germans that he had a visa to leave the country and therefore should be released. They relented and released him, but with the condition that he must leave Germany within a short deadline.

Jane’s father quickly went to England. Because the rest of the family’s visa numbers were much higher than his, he had to leave without them. He departed just days before the start of World War II. Once in England, Jane’s father visited the American consulate daily, pleading with them to lower his family’s visa numbers to allow entry to the United States.

Immediately after Kristallnacht, Jews were ordered to move to a ghetto area, or Judenhouses, as they were called, where Jane and her remaining family shared a single room. By that time, they understood that Jewish males already were being exterminated, because every morning a group of young boys they knew passed by their home, on their way to the synagogue to say Kaddish for their fathers. It soon became apparent there were hardly any Jewish men left in their ghetto.

As it turned out, Jane’s family had wanted to come to America several years earlier, but her father needed to obtain an affidavit that would vouch for them financially before they could obtain visas. Her father had traveled alone to the United States in 1938 to find someone who would provide this affidavit.
This was very difficult for him, as he spoke limited English and had no family or contacts in the United States. After a few days of frantic search, he was fortunate to find someone who was willing to give this affidavit, shortly before his ship was due to depart back to Germany.

Jane, her mother, and her brother finally were able to leave Germany in June 1941, among the very last Jews permitted to leave. They took virtually nothing with them, but years earlier had packed their jewelry, cameras, furnishings, and other valuables in a van that was supposedly going to Antwerp, to be destined for the United States. All these valuables and belongings disappeared, as it eventually was learned they were looted by the invading German army.

After traveling in a sealed train through France to Barcelona, they boarded the ship called the Villa de Madrid and ultimately landed in New York in July 1941, with stops in Portugal, Gibraltar, and the Canary Islands. The courageous ship captain ultimately persevered, despite numerous requests by the authorities to return to his base, so as to avoid the numerous U-boats throughout the Atlantic.

Jane’s father was able to travel to the United States from England in 1940 and was finally reunited with his family in 1941 in Danville, Illinois. Jane, her mother, and her brother arrived in New York City, where they were sheltered for one week by the HIAS. In Danville, Jane’s father found work in a factory for $18 a week. To supplement his income, he worked as a clothing salesman each weekend. The Danville Jewish community was welcoming to them in many helpful ways.

After a few months in Danville, they received a letter from Jane’s Uncle Arno in Germany, saying he was told to pack a small suitcase because he would be going on a long trip, for which he would have to report the next morning. They understood from this letter that he was being sent to a concentration camp, and later learned he did not survive. After the War, the family was informed by the Red Cross that Jane’s Grandmother Bertha and her Aunt Clara died in Auschwitz, and all of the other family members remaining in Germany also had perished in the Holocaust.

Jane and her family lived in Danville for two years. Jane and her brother spoke some English and were able to make new friends and grateful to start their new lives in America

Interview information:
Date: 12/08//23