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Gerda Stern

1924 – 2016

Gerda Stern was born in Bialystock Poland in 1924. Her father was a timber transportation businessman and her mother a trained concert pianist. Janette, her sister, nine years younger than Gerda, was born in 1933. Her excellent schooling, as well as the cultured home environment, turned her into a passionate reader, interested in history, politics and many other matters. She had exceptional mathematical abilities.

Around 1939-40, Gerda’s father’s business has taken his family to Vilna, the capital of the then independent Lithuania, just before the imminent occupation of Bialystock by the Germans.  In the temporarily independent state of Lithuania, Gerda went to school and graduated in June 1940, all in Lithuanian. In July 1940, after Lithuania had been occupied by the Soviet Union, the Nazi troops took over Lithuania and Jews were forced to wear a white armband with a blue star of David, and they are taunted and abused in the streets by the local population.

In July 1941, Gerda’s father Max is taken away, like many other men, to be shot at Ponary Forrest, outside Vilna.  In August-September 1941 the remaining Jews are herded into a confined ghetto area, with the minimum possessions. Gerda and her mother and sister are together with some other relatives. They are permanently hungry and overcrowded but they are together. Gerda does some work outside the ghetto, washing floors and peeling potatoes, and smuggling some food inside.

In June 1943 the ghetto is closed, men are taken away, and it is clear that the end is looming. This is when Gerda’s mother Lena makes the decision that if there some one person who can survive – and someone must survive – is Gerda. Her mother dresses her in a man’s jacket and hat, and pushes her outside. As Gerda will later write about the moment that she remembers as the hardest,

This was the start of Gerda’s journey from one labour camp to another or, as she called, her ‘European tour courtesy of the Third Reich’. In a cattle wagon she is transported to a camp in Estonia. She will remember hunger, cold and typhoid, and the snowy expanses. Bonding with the other women makes survival more bearable.

While they see the allied planes in the sky, Gerda and other inmates were marched to the living hell of Bergen-Belsen. There she saw piles of shoes, clothing and glasses. The unburied bodies and walking dead are inside. There is no food. It is March 1945. She was “rescued”, together with some other starving women, when her number is called and she is taken to a munitions factory in Oksensoll for slave labour.

Gerda’s liberation comes in spring 1945, as part of an exchange whereby some inmates are sent to Sweden through the Red Cross. In Stockholm, she was greeted by her pre-war Bialystok friend, Hanka Rajgrodska, who spent the war in Sweden. They would remain friends for life.

Gerda’s worst fears were confirmed. She had never found her mother and sister, deported to Auschwitz, and years later it was impossible to find their traces through archival search. Her extended family on both sides in Poland had mostly been killed. Only a few survived, those who had lived outside Poland.

After nine months in Sweden, where she studied nursing, Gerda joined her surviving first cousin on her mother’s side, who survived and lived in Paris.

At the time when relatives in Australia looked through daily Red Cross lists of survivors, hoping to hear the familiar names, Gerda was found by Dora and Oscar Grynberg, relatives by marriage who had also been with Gerda’s family in the Vilna ghetto. They obtained a visa for Gerda who then joined the Grynberg in Sydney.

Gerda’s life in Australia began in a fairly traditional way: a keen photographer herself, she was working for Kodak, developing and processing film. She soon met Rudi Stern, her future husband, and would refer to him as her golden boy. Having arrived in Australia on the Sugihara visa, he had already served in the Australian army. Above all, he was warm, loving, devoted and open – just what she needed most. Their wedding photos show a happy and loving couple.

Gerda and Rudi’s two sons, Jerome and David, were born in 1950 and 1954.

Gerda’s independence, natural talents and rare intelligence – they used to describe her mind as masculine – something that was evident in her bridge prowess – opened up two important activities that remained central to her life. In the 1970s she began working as a Polish interpreter on the Government panel of the Ethnic Affairs Commission. This professional work opened up various sides of the Australian life, unknown to her before, and kept her linguistic proficiency sharp.

Her other important activity was bridge. Gerda discovered that she had a true talent for bridge and became a very accomplished bridge player having represented Australia on a number of occasions as well as winning numerous National and State Championships. Her many titles are a testament to her achievements. As David recalls,  One of her greatest triumphs however was winning the 1970 Gold Coast Congress Pairs playing with Rudi – or at least she claimed that as her greatest triumph. One of her recent joys was sitting down with David and discussing her weekly social game which always started with “You won’t believe what X did at the game last week” In keeping with her character she was a fierce competitor fighting for every percentage point she could to prove her worth as a player and especially as a woman player in an Open field.

Gerda’s Sydney-based family also grew numerically. 1978-80 were the years of her sons’ weddings: Gerda’s son David married Linda Cornell in April 1978 in New Zealand, and in October Jerome married Ludmila in Moscow.

Between 1980 and 1986 Gerda became the grandmother to her four grandchildren: Justin and Danielle, born to David and Linda, and Anna and Michael – Jerome and Ludmila’s children. As the children were growing, so did Gerda’s interest in them and her desire to spend time with them. There were family dinners, trips, and later bar- and bat-mitzvahs, and many other family activities. There were more holidays in the Blue Mountains, the Gold coast and even some overseas trips.

The children looked up to her, respecting her intelligence and original mind, and she provided a strong role model to the girls in the family, instilling in them a strong sense of independence and strength of character. In many ways, she was a feminist of the first generation.

When Gerda was jokingly referred to as the family matriarch, she recalled that when she first came to Australia, vulnerable and all alone in the world, she could never imagine even remotely that one day she would be able to rebuild a family and be seen as its matriarch.

What made Gerda look back and feel that hers was a life well lived in her recent years?  In Gerda’s case there were several factors.

A substitute mother to Justin and Danielle – after Linda’s untimely, tragic passing in 2007, Gerda took her role as a grandmother very seriously and cared about them deeply. She saw her role as a mother substitute and took it seriously.

Four great-grandchildren, born during the last three years, ‘made her old heart melt’ as she used to say. Nothing gave her more joy than visiting them and being visited. ‘I like her a lot,’ said the 3 year old Claudia.

Independence, autonomy and self-sufficiency were Gerda’s life credo, something that helped her survive, a legacy she passed on to her family. Physical and mental fitness were part of it. Having started to swim in the late 1980s, she continued this almost daily practice until the last week of her life. Walking, catching buses and trains helped her overcome the disappointment of not being able to drive in the last 5 months of her life. Going everywhere independently, in her own time, by herself – to the library, shopping, the pictures – was a mandatory part of her daily activities. Her going to lectures, discussion groups and excursions punctuated her life.

Mental stimulation and an active life of the mind made her life worth living. Going out every day also helped distract her from her dark thoughts and her concerns about her physical and mental decline, no matter how incredibly bright and fit she seemed to the surrounding. She was an active presence at the family gatherings, and never an old lady in the corner. No one could believe that she was 92.

It gives us – her family – great comfort to know that she lived her life to the full till the end, as she has chosen, uncompromising, strong, determined – leading a meaningful life the way she chose to live it.