By Dan Aznoff, Jewish Sound Correspondent
For one Bellevue retiree, President Obama’s decision to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba rekindled memories of his parents’ clandestine escape from the island nation more than 50 years ago.
Gabe Sterns remembers clearly how it took dramatic action from both U.S. senators from Washington State and the FBI to help get his parents to Florida after Fidel Castro came to power in Havana. The former Boeing engineer said he turned to the federal government for help after the resident visas issued to his parents had been revoked.
“Pan Am was still providing commercial flights to Cuba at the time,” said Sterns. “But my parents were having trouble getting into the United States after the communist government seized their property and nationalized the pharmaceutical factory my father established after the war.”
Sterns had only been with Boeing a short time when he made the impassioned plea for help in 1962. Senators Warren G. Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson responded to his request, clearing the way for his parents to fly to Miami.
But the trouble did not stop there. Wilhelm and Margarite Stern asked their son to send $10,000 (the equivalent of more than $70,000 in today’s dollars) to them in Boca Raton so the communist government would release personal items and pieces from the art collection they had brought to Cuba after their escape from Europe.
“This was way before the Internet scams for money from relatives you read about today,” Sterns said. “They were dealing with a so-called ‘broker’ who said he had inside connections with the Castro government. I knew immediately it was a hoax and called in the FBI to intervene. There was no way they could get all those personal items out of Cuba.”
Sterns moved his parents across the country and into his house on Mercer Island. They eventually used the $10,000 for his father to establish his medical practice in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York. Wilhelm used an exception to the law that allowed doctors from Europe who had earned their degrees before 1919 to be licensed in the United States.
The surreptitious exit from Cuba was the third time the elder Stern escaped the evil intentions of an infamous government that persecuted its citizens due to their religion. Wilhelm had been a prominent physician and the owner of a factory that produced pharmaceuticals in his native home of Transylvania. His family fled to Budapest to avoid being shipped off to a concentration camp.
Wilhelm returned to what was then known as Romania after the war, only to pack up again when the oppressive policies of the Soviet Union threatened his family and his business. He moved to Cuba in 1947 at the invitation of an uncle who had established a new home on the island eight years earlier.
Gabe was only 13 years old when his family landed on the shores of the island 90 miles south of the United States. He attended the high school at an academy known as Candler College in Havana and obtained a resident visa that allowed him to continue his studies at Auburn University in Alabama. He graduated in 1958 and returned to Cuba to do research in the sugar fields for the B.F. Goodrich Corporation. He then moved to Miami to work with two airplane manufacturers before accepting his position with Boeing in 1961.
According to Sterns, his parents’ visas were revoked because they had used their visas previously to attend their son’s college graduation ceremonies.
The holiday season also brought back other memories of his time on Cuba. Gabe remembers being on his way to New Year’s Eve party with his fiancé when he saw a private plane make an impromptu take-off from the international airport in Havana. Several days later he realized the small plane had carried ousted Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, who had just been overthrown by Fidel Castro.
Sterns firmly believes it was not a coincidence that the recent release of American Alan Gross after five years of captivity in Cuba took place on the first day of Hanukah.
Not all of Sterns’ memories are pleasant ones, however.
The renewed relations with Cuba also brought up visions of a dear friend he had had as a teenager. Gaston Perez eventually found his way to South Florida and was part of the rag-tag force that was decimated when they tried to invade Cuba in the U.S.-backed insurgent landing at the Bay of Pigs. Gabe said his friend was at the controls of a slow and vulnerable B-26 when he was shot down by Cuban pilots flying Russian trainer jets.
“His death made me sad and angry,” Gabe recalled. “The U.S. had an aircraft carrier in the area, but [President] Kennedy did not provide any air support. The bombers had no tail gunners and were flying with full tanks of fuel.
“They were sitting ducks.”