Carel Sternberg, Former IRC Head and a Giant in Refugee Assistance and Human Rights Advocacy, Dies at 91
|Carel Sternberg welcomes a refugee child at the IRC office.|
Charles (Carel) Sternberg, retired executive director of the International Rescue Committee who devoted his life to the cause of refugees and human rights, died January 16, 2003, at North Shore University Hospital in Forest Hills, N.Y. He was 91 and lived in Forest Hills.
Mr. Sternberg, who was known as Carel, had been hospitalized with pneumonia since late September.
"Carel was a giant in the field of refugee assistance and advocacy," said George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). "His high principles and fierce dedication are legendary. Until he fell ill, he still came into the office one or two days a week, and we all continued to seek his advice and counsel."
Said Winston Lord, co-chairman of the IRC's board: "Surely no other American has combined the depth of Carel's passion for humanitarian causes, the length -- seven decades -- of his commitment and the impregnability of his modesty."
James C. Strickler, co-chairman of the IRC Board, said, "Carel was a very wise man who was quietly decisive and passionately devoted to refugees. He was always motivated by his caring for others and shunned personal recognition. He was a truly great human being."
Mr. Sternberg was himself a refugee who fled to Paris from his native Czechoslovakia in 1938, just before the Nazi takeover. After Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940, he made his way by bicycle to Marseille. There, in 1941, he spent nine months helping to smuggle out of France likely targets of the Gestapo, such as political figures, trade unionists and cultural leaders.
He carried out his rescue mission for the International Relief Association, which had been founded in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein to assist anti-Nazi activists. Mr. Sternberg shared an office with Varian Fry, a New York editor who had been dispatched to France by the Emergency Rescue Committee to help refugee artists and others escape from the Nazis. In 1942 the International Relief Association and the Emergency Rescue Committee combined to form the International Rescue Committee.
"Helping refugees escape from Hitler was my personal act of resistance," he wrote a few months before his death.
Mr. Sternberg arrived in the United States in 1942, joining the U.S. Army and working in the Czech language section of its Office of European Economic Research. He was discharged in 1945. The following year he rejoined the International Rescue Committee as a caseworker and was sent to Germany. He returned to the IRC?s New York headquarters in 1947.
Mr. Sternberg assumed increasing responsibilities in the IRC as the organization grew, and in 1965 was appointed its executive director. He retired in 1985, but continued until his death to serve as a volunteer, as Secretary of the IRC and as a member of its board and executive committee.
During Mr. Sternberg's tenure, the IRC became the leading nonsectarian voluntary agency devoted to refugee assistance, and he helped lead humanitarian assistance efforts in almost every major refugee crisis in the world. These included the exodus from Soviet bloc countries after World War II, the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the flood of refugees from Cuba starting in the early 1960's, as well as the massive flow of refugees from mainland China to Hong Kong, and the flight of 10 million residents from what is now Bangladesh to India after the 1971 invasion by the Pakistani government.
Hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted in southeast Asia as a result of the conflicts in the region that began with the partitioning of Vietnam in 1954 and continued for nearly three decades. Under Mr. Sternberg's leadership, the IRC delivered humanitarian aid on the ground and assisted tens of thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with their resettlement in the United States.
He dispatched the first IRC teams to Pakistan in 1980 to assist refugees from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the same year began an aid program in Sudan for political refugees and famine victims from Ethiopia. He also launched programs that aided refugees fleeing authoritarian regimes in Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Uganda and Angola, among others. In 1982, under his leadership, the IRC established medical assistance programs in Beirut and Sidon, Lebanon, to aid Palestinian refugees and displaced Lebanese.
Although Mr. Sternberg directed large-scale programs serving thousands of uprooted people, he identified closely with refugees and insisted that they be viewed as individuals deserving of sensitive treatment. He often said, "The refugee condition, once experienced, does not wash off."
Mr. Sternberg was born on Nov. 25, 1911, in Prostejov, Moravia in Czechoslovakia. After completing undergraduate studies and attending law school at Charles University in Prague, he became a publicist for Twentieth Century Fox, a job he held until fleeing to France.
He married his wife, Irma Kadmon Sternberg, in 1950. She had joined the IRC as a caseworker in 1945 and later was its director of resettlement.
While they never had children, over the years the Sternbergs developed warm personal ties with a number of refugees who had arrived in New York without friends or family, and they maintained these friendships over the years.