Last month I wrote about Aristides de Sousa Mendes who saved thousands of people fleeing the Nazi invasion of 1939 by issuing them visas into Portugal. His story is one of courage and adversity and should never be forgotten. However, each one of those visa recipients also has a story to tell and so imagine my excitement when one of them got in touch. This is Lee Sterling’s story, written in his own words.
“How I discovered Sousa Mendes
On May 10, 1940, I was 19 days shy of my fourth birthday. We lived at 40, Blvd. Dixmude in Brussels, in an elegant apartment, with large windows in the front room that my Father Hirsch Serebriany used for his diamond wholesale business. The windows were covered by heavy, soft, velvety, maroon drapes. In the morning, I heard loud noises I had never heard before, and rushed to the front windows and pulled aside the drapes. Suddenly, my Father was at my side, taking me by the hand and pulling me away from the window. I have a vivid memory of this. He didn’t say why, and I didn’t know that the sounds I heard were bombs being rained down upon us by the German invaders.
Family conferences were held over the weekend and, finally, on Sunday, the 12th, my Mother insisted that we leave Brussels for Bonsecours, an hour or so south and west of Brussels. Because of the immense crush of cars and people on the roads, we travelled at a snail’s pace and only made it to Renaix. We never made it to Bonsecours because people told my parents that it was the site of munitions depots. They changed plans, and decided to go to La Panne, on the coast of Belgium, and we never made it there either. We only made it to Courtrai, a mere 21 miles from Renaix, because of the traffic on the roads.
The next day we made it to La Panne, and my Father planned to go back to Brussels. My parents had been told that the French were allowing Belgians into the country and, fortunately, my Mother insisted that my Father drive us to the French border. By the time we got there, we had to wait overnight. In the morning, my sister Raymonde, playing outside the car, fell in a ditch and suffered a serious cut on her leg. A doctor my Father had met on his walking about while waiting in the line of cars cleaned up and disinfected the wound, and covered it with bandages. But she needed a tetanus shot, and for that we had to drive to Dunkirk.
The roads were jammed, petrol was hard to get; my Father realized that he could not get back to Brussels! We met up with family friends and together we all drove to Cabourg, south near Deauville. On the way, one of the four cars in the group turned over into a ditch. The driver and his sister were seriously injured, and her four-year-old son was rushed to the emergency room of the hospital in Caen, where he died. The group stayed in Caen for several days to arrange the funeral, and to have some time for everyone to come to grips with the tragedy, and for the driver and his sister to recover from their physical wounds.
The group decided to head to south, and we settled in a small town, Taussat, 30 miles west and a bit south of Bordeaux. But the Germans keep advancing, and my parents decided to drive to the Spanish border, and we headed for Bayonne. Thousands of people were there ahead of us. My Mother and her sister Rose decided to find out how to get across the border. The story I’ve been told is that they discovered an office where visas were being issued and, somehow, got us visas to get to Figueira da Foz in Portugal.
We arrived in Figueira sometime in late June. It’s a beach town and, apparently, my sister and I had a good time going to the beach, playing in the park and going to the movies. But my seven-year-old sister, who doted on me and was the joy of my parents’ lives, died in Figueira da Foz of septicaemia. Penicillin was not yet available to cure that horrible disease. Overcome with sadness, and hope for the future, we left Lisbon on January 27, 1941, on the ship “Lourenço Marques”, and arrived in New York on February 8, 1941, several months prior to my fifth birthday.
I have few recollections of the adventure I’ve described. The information comes from the copy of a letter that my Father wrote to one of his brothers in August of 1940, which was found by his daughter just a couple of years ago. My parents never talked about how we got to America. I think the memory of losing my sister made it a closed book.
‘Serebriany’, my family name, means ‘made of silver’ in Russian and, to be more Americanized, I changed my last name to ‘Sterling’. In August of 2012, for fun, never expecting to find anything startling, I did a Google search of “Sterling” and then of various family names. The last name I decided to try was my maternal Grandmother’s married name. Suddenly, a Sousa Mendes Foundation page popped up listing her name, my parents’ names, and the names of the rest of our family that made it to America. Then, of course, I investigated the Foundation website, and that’s how I discovered the amazing story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who saved thousands of lives including ours!”
Thank you so much, Lee, for sharing your story.
Lee has given many talks to student audiences and veteran organisations and has worked with the Sousa Mendes Foundation to ensure that the memory of Aristides lives on in future generations. He can be seen in the film documentary entitled ‘With God Against Man’ available on Amazon!
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.