Sterling, Elsie Jane
Mrs. Sterling’s name on her passport was Uta Elsa Sara Seckel. She was called Elsa in Germany but now prefers Jane. Her mother was Edith Glassman Seckel and her Father was Henry (Heinrich) Israel Seckel. Edith was born in a small town near the North Sea and Henry was born in Latvia in 1902. Her parents married in December of 1927 and Jane, their first child, was born in 1929 followed by Joachim (Joe) eleven months later.
They lived in an apartment on Waltzstrasse. Her grandmother, Bertha Bergman, lived close by as did her aunts, uncles and cousins.
Her father was a manufacturer’s representative of women’s clothing. He also owned a store with his brother in law, Max.
The Seckels were not religious people and the only Jewish holidays they observed were the High Holy Days and Chanukah. Jane went to Jewish school as she was forbidden to attend German schools because “she could infect the German students,” or so she was told.
She studied Hebrew in school and, after the age of five, no longer had any Gentile friends because they were not permitted to play with her.
Her paternal grandparents were from Germany. She called her grandmother Bertha, “Oma” and loved watching her bake and cook. Both Bertha and Aunt Sarah died in Auschwitz.
Jane’s first recollection of Hitler was during a big parade in Hamburg. She saw him waving and everyone saluted and applauded. She watched from her grandparents’ balcony. She was ambivalent as she never thought of herself as a German. They were always “the outsiders.”
In 1937, while walking to school, she saw guards abusing Jews; she grabbed her brother and ran home. Hitler’s voice was everywhere, loudspeakers repeating his speeches. Very soon, her family’s citizenship was revoked and their bank accounts confiscated. Her father was not permitted to travel and no longer had any income.
During Kristallnacht their store was burned, both inside and out. They left for the country, supposedly for a holiday, to escape the chaos, returning after three days to find everything burned and looted. The synagogues were also gone except for hers.
To save his family, Jane’s father turned himself into the police. The next morning three SS men came to their home to search for him and, although her mother was frightened, she remained brave and strong. The police sent Henry to Dachau where he convinced the Germans that he had an affidavit and therefore was told to leave immediately. He went to England, but, because the family’s visa number was so high, he left without them.
The family wanted to come to America and before Kristallnacht, her Dad came to the U.S. in 1938 and asked the Jewish community In New York to find people to vouch for his family. This was very difficult because he could not speak English, but did manage to find a sponsor, Samuel Reznick.
Jane continued her schooling when they moved to the ghetto, or “Juden Houses” (Judenhäuser), as they were called. They took nothing with them but packed up their valuables (cameras, jewelry, etc.), put them in a van that was supposedly going to Antwerp. Shortly afterward they heard that the van was bombed and all was lost.
In the ghetto they were given one room. Because there was hardly any food, Jane was sent out of the ghetto to pick up all that was available which turned out to be only some watery soup. Her father sent food packages from England, through Holland, which they received.
She and her brother knew that the Jews were being exterminated. Every morning they saw young boys going to shul to say Kaddish for their fathers.
Her father’s passport had a big red “J” on it, identifying him as a Jew. In England, he visited the consulate daily begging them to lower his family’s visa number. The Jewish community there tried to help. Times were getting more difficult as the SS in Germany were picking up all young men over thirteen. Pre-teen boys were supposedly walking across Europe in order to reach Israel.
The family finally left on June 12, 1941 . . . the last ones to leave. They were on the ship “Villa de Madrid” and landed in New York on July 24th after going through the Strait of Gibraltar. Her father had left for New York the year before because the quotas were lower in England. They had been separated for two years.
Jane’s family finally met up in Danville, Illinois after being housed in NYC for one week. Henry worked in a factory for $18 per week. To supplement his income, Henry worked as a salesman on weekends. The Jewish community gave them food and clothes. They received a letter from Jane’s uncle saying he was going on a long trip. Jane said they understood from his letter that he was being sent to the camps and knew he would not survive.
They stayed in Danville for two years. Jane assimilated immediately because she could speak English and made friends easily. The only anti-Semitic event happened when her best friend, Betty Brown, told her that she couldn’t play with her on Easter because the Jews killed Jesus.
Their next move was to Corning, New York, where her dad managed a children’s store. They were the only Jews, but no anti-Semitism existed. Because her parents wanted a home near a Jewish community, they moved to Newburg, New York when Jane was fifteen. The Red Cross there told them that none of their family survived.
Jane attended to the Pratt Institute in New York City to study fashion design. Her brother graduated from Syracuse and then went to the University of Michigan for his degree in sociology. After college she became a costume designer, starting her career in a camp in the Poconos, in Pennsylvania. It was there that she met Morton Sterling, who became an engineer. After they married, his job brought them to Detroit. Her parents followed in 1972. They first lived in the North West section of Detroit, near Eight Mile Road. Jane worked as a free lance designer and joined Hadassah and League of Women Voters.
When Jane’s three sons (Raymond, Scott and Mark) were young, she didn’t talk about the Holocaust, but shared her stories with them when they were older.
The boys are now all married and Raymond and Mark are lawyers. Jane has eight grandchildren and, at the time of this interview, celebrated her 60th wedding anniversary.
Interviewer: Donna Sklar
Format: Video Recording