Gala Stern, a retired professor of French and Russian languages and literature at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who spent World War II fleeing the Nazis, died of complications from COVID-19 on 17 May at Sinai Hospital. The Pikesville resident was 89.
“We had a pretty forward-thinking department,” said Professor Angela Moorjani, former chair of UMBC’s Department of Modern Languages, Linguistics and Cross-Cultural Communication, who is now Emeritus Professor of French and Cross-Cultural Pragmatics.
“Gala was an extremely serious and conscientious student who received all A’s, and was offered scholarships to Yale, Columbia and Cornell after high school,” Professor Moorjani said.
“And she was the same way about her teaching. She was very sensitive to languages and literature, and was able to transmit this to her students thanks to her knowledge and her dramatic talents,” she said. “She knew how to reach them, and they loved her, and we were very lucky to have her at UMBC.”
The former Gala Silberkweit, daughter of Efim Silberkweit, an engineer, and Dr. Maria Silberkweit, a pediatric dentist, was born in Leipzig, Germany. She then moved to Moscow with her family when her father accepted a job there as an engineer.
Russia was then considered a refuge for Jews fleeing the Nazis, who invaded the country in 1941. Her father was executed in 1937. Two years later, she and her mother fled Moscow. They had lived in various places in Russia but later settled in a rural town in Uzbekistan, then a Russian province.
“My father shared the fate of many intellectuals, writers, poets, army generals, civil servants, many of whom came from abroad, millions and millions who, accused of being “enemies of the people”, were executed or sentenced to the Gulag during Stalin’s purges,” Ms Stern wrote in her 2013 memoir, “Recollections of the Past,” which had been edited by Professor Moorjani.
“My mother once told me that he had simply disappeared and never returned from work. She whispered to me that Lenin was good and that it was all Stalin’s fault, whose smiling face was on every poster at school, along with Lenin,” she wrote.
When her mother died in 2000, Ms Stern told The Sun: “There were so many refugees then. I remember it was such a different civilization. It was so exotic for us. We lived in a rural mud house and slept on boxes and straw mattresses.
After the end of World War II, mother and daughter landed in 1947 at Ellis Island in New York Harbor.
Ms Stern moved to Albany, New York, where she lived with her grandmother, uncle and aunt, while her mother moved to Washington to attend Howard University to be recertified as a pediatric dentist . She went on to become an esteemed professor of pediatric dentistry at Howard University College of Dentistry, family members said.
After graduating from Albany High School in 1950 – second in a class of 6,000 – Ms. Stern earned a bachelor’s degree in 1954 in French and a minor in Spanish from Russell Sage College in Troy, New York. While attending college, she met and fell in love with Ivan Stern, a Hungarian and fellow refugee, who had also spent World War II hiding from the Nazis in the countryside. He then became a student at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.
After marrying in 1954 and graduating from college, the couple moved to Ithaca, New York, where they attended graduate school at Cornell University. She studied with Russian author Vladimir Nabokov and earned a master’s degree in 1955, while her husband earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.
Ms. Stern moved to Baltimore when her husband took a job at the old Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River, and she began teaching French and Russian language and literature at Park School. In addition, Ms. Stern was fluent in English, German and Spanish.
After teaching at Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College, Ms. Stern joined the faculty at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1981. She taught courses in French and Russian, Comparative Literature, and introduction to literature.
“She eventually found a home at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she inspired students with the French and Russian authors she loved most,” wrote her daughter, Natalie Stern of San Francisco. , in a biographical profile of his mother. “This university community has become a source of intellectual inspiration and friendship.”
Ms. Stern has been remembered for her ability to give spontaneous recitations of Baudelaire and Pushkin, as well as for her mischievous wit and captivating storytelling ability.
“Her drive and theatrical gifts, often reciting poems by heart, made her one of the universally adored teachers among students and colleagues,” Ms. Stern wrote.
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She was also very proud of the accomplishments and advancement of her students, her daughter said.
Ms. Stern retired in 2009.
Additionally, she was an accomplished gourmet cook who had a soft spot for Russian and French cuisines.
“She was elegant and chic, deriving pleasure from the latest fashions and cultures of Europe, to which she and Ivan often traveled,” her daughter wrote.
Her husband, who died in 2020, was the founder of Avir Corp. He had also been a consultant at NASA and later in life moved into real estate development in investments.
Services were held Thursday at Arlington Chizuk Amuno Cemetery in northwest Baltimore.
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Stern is survived by two grandchildren. His son, Daniel Gregory Stern, died in 2000.