May 17, 1998
An outline of my life during World War II
While writing these notes in May 1998, Daniel Terna, our son, is a pupil in the fifth grade of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School. His mother, Rebecca Shiffman, is the daughter of survivors of the Shoah. I, Frederick Terna, Daniel’s father, am a survivor.
It is close to sixty years since German troops occupied Prague, my hometown. From then on the life of the Jewish community of Prague, that of my family, and also mine was quite restricted and confined. Gradually the entire Jewish community was shipped to a transit camp, Ghetto Theresienstadt and from there to death camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. After the war ended in May 1945 a few survivors returned. Our families, our community had perished. I am the only survivor in the Taussig/Terna family.
After the occupation of Prague by German troops Jewish children were expelled from school. My formal education came to an end early in 1939 at age fifteen. Levels of oppression were added from day to day. Marketing was restricted to fewer and fewer hours. Food rations were reduced. We had to wear a yellow star at all times. There was a curfew at 8 o’clock. Several families were forced to move together into one apartment. Anything of value, radios, jewelry, bank accounts, art, were confiscated. Random brutality and terror accompanied each one of these steps; including even physical attacks against old people and children.
October 3rd 1941, I was put into a labor camp named Lipa, in German called Linden bei Deutsch-Brod. Then from Linden in March 1943 I was moved to Ghetto Theresienstadt, from Theresienstadt in 1944 to Auschwitz, and from Auschwitz to a sub-camp of Dachau, Kaufering. I was liberated near Kaufering on April 27th, 1945, after three years, six month, three weeks, and two days in concentration camps. I was one of the shuffling skeletons photographed by liberating allied soldiers. I weighed less than 35 kilos, about 75 lb., and I was near death.
It would take more emotional energy than available to me today to describe events very much alive in my memory. I know from past experience that dwelling on details will evoke feelings within me that will disturb my functioning for a long time. The murderous brutality of the system has been documented, and described by witnesses and historians. Words fail to tell the pain and suffering, and I shall not attempt it here.
My survival was due to luck. I was, statistically, of the right age, useful as slave labor, old enough to be picked for temporary enslavement, rather than to be sent immediately into the gas. When every tenth was shot I was number nine. On a long train ride in a jammed cattle-car I did not die of thirst. On a long march my boots held out, and I was not shot lagging behind. I was emotionally well prepared by my father for the stress that was to come my way. I know that I owe my emotional survival to my father’s teaching. I was rather young then but I knew at all times what I was, what my tradition stood for, and that my oppressors were doomed criminals.
In the Kaufering camps we were slave labor working twelve-hour shifts building huge factories. We were marched for over an hour to the work site, and back another hour after work. There were hours spent being counted. Before work we got “coffee”, a black brew made from chicory. It was at least a liquid we felt safe to drink. At work, during a break, we got a slice of moldy bread, occasionally a tiny amount of artificial honey. Upon returning to camp there was a long wait for soup, a thin liquid with traces of cabbage, occasionally a slice of potato. It added up to about 600 calories and to an assured death after a few months. Brutal guards driving us to work faster accelerated that death. In the camp we had about five hours of sleep in earth huts, leaky roofs on muddy soil.
It did not take long to understand that group cohesion was a survival mechanism. There was hardly any violence between inmates; systems of mutual protection arose without planning. While we were all nameless inmates each one of us had been a functioning person before, and remained so in the camps. A teacher remained a teacher, a baker a baker, a physician a physician. The Nazis tried to demoralize us, but they failed. There was no soap, and barely enough water to drink. We became smelly, lice- infested, and dirt-encrusted, ghostly apparitions the Nazis felt they had every right to murder. They killed teachers, bakers, and physicians. We lived, and died upholding the values of our communities.
While in the camps we promised to each other that the one who survives would tell what happened to us. I remember every one of them, teacher, baker, and physician, every one of them a person, a life to be remembered, a memory to be observed.
The self-imposed limits of this space allow me to omit detail, and I welcome that condition. While the Shoah was limited in time, and many years have passed since then, it is here for me now. I’m aware of it every second of my life: Inside of me there is a crazed double bass playing an unpredictable tune. Over the years I have learned to play a fiddle above it so that there should be some harmony to my life.