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Obituaries

Charles Sternberg, 91; Spent Life Aiding Refugees

January 22, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Charles "Carel" Sternberg, who fled Nazi persecution and went on to aid tens of thousands of refugees from World War II Europe and later victims fleeing conflicts around the world, has died. He was 91.

Sternberg, former executive director of the International Rescue Committee, died Thursday in a Forest Hills, N.Y., hospital of pneumonia.

He headed the New York-based organization from 1965 to 1985, but continued until his death as a volunteer and consultant.

"Carel was a giant in the field of refugee assistance and advocacy," George Rupp, current president of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement on the group's Web site. "His high principles and fierce dedication are legendary."

Sternberg in his quiet but determined way wrangled with Congress in hearings over proposed tightening of immigration laws. He also sought housing and jobs for refugees by firing off letters to developers and landlords such as Donald Trump and opinion-makers like the New York Times editorial page.

The organization he championed and enlarged was formed during the war by pairing the Emergency Rescue Committee with the International Relief Assn., which Albert Einstein founded in 1933 to assist anti-Nazi activists. The combined organization has helped various persecuted people to immigrate to the United States and other democratic nations and aided them in finding immediate food and shelter and in getting jobs.

During Sternberg's tenure as executive director, the group became the world's leading nonsectarian voluntary agency providing refugee assistance, with a budget that increased from $1.2 million a year in 1965 to $22.1 million in 1985. Last year, the group raised $157 million.

Born in Prostejov, Moravia, Czechoslovakia, on Nov. 25, 1911, in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Sternberg studied law at Charles University in Prague and became a publicist for 20th Century Fox in that city.

In 1938, soon before the Nazi takeover, he fled to Paris. When the city fell to Adolf Hitler in 1940, Sternberg bicycled south to Marseille, where he spent nine months helping Einstein's International Relief Assn. smuggle targeted political figures, trade unionists and cultural leaders out of France.

"Helping refugees escape from Hitler was my personal act of resistance," Sternberg wrote a few months before his death.

He arrived in the United States in 1942, joined the Army and spent the remainder of the war working in the Czech-language section of the Army's Office of European Economic Research. At war's end, he rejoined Einstein's organization as a caseworker and went to Germany for two years.

For the next 40 years, and later as a volunteer, he aided refugees from various countries, including Hungary in the mid-1950s, Cuba in the 1960s, and Southeast Asians as the Vietnam conflicts progressed.

As director of the organization, Sternberg sent teams to Pakistan in 1980 to aid refugees from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and to the Sudan to help those fleeing war and famine in Ethiopia. Others from trouble spots in South America, Africa and the Middle East also got his assistance.

He is survived by his wife of 52 years, the former Irma Kadmon, who also worked for the International Rescue Committee. He also is survived by a sister, Ella Rosenheck of New York.

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