Researching AUM: For Holocaust scholar Eric Sterling, it's also personal

Dr. Eric Sterling in the AUM Department of English and Philosophy. 

Throughout his academic career, Dr. Eric Sterling has studied traditional literature such as Beowulf and Shakespeare. But his interests also extend to more contemporary areas such as African-American drama and Native American mythology, as well as gay and lesbian literature and film.

“I incorporate my research and scholarly activity into my teaching so that I can share with students the recent developments that relate to the plays, novels, and short stories we read,” said Sterling, a professor in the Auburn University at Montgomery Department of English and Philosophy.

However, much of his work has been devoted to studying the Holocaust.

“I am most proud of my book entitled 'Life in the Ghettos During the Holocaust,' published by Syracuse University Press,” he explained. “Many Holocaust survivors never had the opportunity to tell their stories and this book enabled some of them to do so, preserving their experience for their families.”

For Sterling, the Holocaust is also personal and motivated his interest in this tragic period of human history.

“My maternal grandfather was taken from his home in Germany by Nazi guards in 1938 and imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp,” he explained. “Nazi guards came back to the house later and took my mother away and put her in jail for being Jewish – she was only an 8-month old baby at the time.”

He says she was eventually released from prison and in 1938 was placed on a boat that took the family to Shanghai where she grew up impoverished in a ghetto. Then, on July 17, 1945, an errant bomb from a U.S. Air Force plane blew up her house while she was inside.

“Somehow, she survived,” said Sterling. “But because of the trauma in her early life, I grew up with a mother who could not do ordinary things like have a job or drive a car and I knew that her inability to function like a typical person was due to her suffering during the Holocaust. So this human tragedy intrigued me.”

Currently working on books about African-American playwright August Wilson and on crime and violence in the Coen Brothers films, Sterling’s Holocaust research continues and includes studying Holocaust drama such as Arthur Miller’s play “Incident at Vichy.”

“I am fascinated by human nature and psychology - what makes people act the way they do and have the capacity for both good and evil.”

Sterling, who also teaches playwriting, believes the study of drama and literature remain relevant for today’s students because it teaches analytical skills and can be introspective.

“The study of literature correlates with psychology because students learn about human nature and more about themselves,” he says. “I love AUM and am dedicated to the university and our wonderful students who I have been privileged to teach for the past 25 years.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.com).