Most people's earliest memory is a birthday party, or seeing a snowstorm for the first time, or the death of a beloved pet.
George Stern's is Germany invading Belgium in 1940. He was 3 years old.
"I remember noise, lots of noise," Stern said. "I remember, I found out later, lots of sirens. And the noise was bombs."
No one ever could guess Stern is of German-Jewish descent, let alone that he escaped the Holocaust, judging by his Southern drawl. But from his own dim memories, his mother's fractured tales and research into his past, the Atlanta lawyer, now in his 70s, recounted his family's run from the Nazis during World War II for an audience Tuesday at the Athens-Clarke Library.
"I was very lucky," he said. "My family was always one step ahead of the game. I don't know why, but they were."
Stern's parents and grandparents fled Germany shortly after Hitler seized power in 1933 and settled in Brussels, where he was born in 1937. Three years later, when the Nazis attacked Belgium, his family fled to France, where French authorities saw their German passports and arrested them, he said.
His father and grandfather were sent to prison, he said. He, his mother and grandmother were taken to a displaced persons' camp at Gurs, a disease-ridden barracks near the border with Spain originally built for refugees from the Spanish Revolution.
For some reason - Stern doesn't know why - the women in the all-female camp, where there were no other boys, hid him from the guards for several months. He remembers amusing himself by watching rats play in a trash heap, he said.
"These women must have agreed to protect me," he said. "Otherwise, there is no other reason I would be in this camp, because there were no children."
Stern also can't explain why, when the Germans conquered France in 1940, he, his mother and grandmother were three of 750 people allowed to leave before Camp Gurs was converted into a concentration camp. As the war neared its end, the Nazis brought most of the remaining prisoners to Auschwitz and killed them.
His mother didn't know it then, but his father and grandfather had been released from prison, drove across German lines unmolested and were living in Dunkirk, near the French-Belgian border. They reunited in the city of Toulouse, in southern France, where Stern's parents enrolled him in Catholic school, he said.
After a few months, they obtained visas and went to Spain, then to Portugal, where they boarded a ship to Cuba, he said. From Cuba, they flew to Miami, and eventually settled in Nashville, where Stern grew up, attended Vanderbilt University and earned a law degree, he said.
Stern's grandparents didn't follow his parents to the United States, though. Instead, they returned to Belgium, where, like Anne Frank, Gentiles hid them from the Nazis until the end of the war. They came to Nashville in 1946, he said.
"It just shows you that there are good people in this world, even in very, very difficult times, he said.
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 031908