My father, Jochanan (Jan) Terna

May 29, 1998

My father, Jochanan (Jan) Terna

These lines are written by Frederick Terna, father of Daniel J. Terna.  Today, in May 1998, Daniel is a pupil in the fifth grade of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School.

Jochanan (Jan) Terna, the grandfather of Daniel Jochanan Terna, was born in 1893 in Prague, today the capital of the Czech Republic. He went to school in Prague, eventually attending Charles University there, and graduating as a Doctor of Law.  When World War I broke out in 1914 he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army as a lieutenant.  For a short time after the end of World War I he worked and lived in Vienna where he married Lona Herzog, Daniel’s grandmother.  I, Frederick Terna, and my younger brother Tommy were born in Vienna.  The family soon moved back to Prague where my father worked in the insurance business.  While the business provided for the family, my father’s focus was on philosophy and sociology.  My most vivid memory of that time is that of my father sitting in his study surrounded by heavy volumes, underlining text, and taking notes.

Early in 1939 Nazi Germany occupied Prague.  The oppression of Jews began almost immediately.  I shall omit here details of the increasing harshness of this persecution.  In December 1941 Daniel’s grandfather was shipped to Terezin, in German called Theresienstadt.  It was the second transport of two sent to convert the fortress town of a few thousand into a transit camp for tens of thousands of Jews from Bohemia and Moravia.  All members of these first two transports were young men.  At age 48 Jochanan Terna was probably the oldest, and as ‘the old man’ had a position of respect.  In 1942 he was shipped with a small group to a coal mine in Kladno, not too far from Terezin.  Try to visualize a 49-year-old professorial, intellectual Doctor of Law suddenly forced to work in a coal mine.  Without adequate food, in abysmally wretched living conditions he became ill with tuberculosis, and was shipped back to Terezin.  By then the place was called Ghetto Theresienstadt.

In Terezin he was assigned to a part of barracks that was set aside for tuberculosis patients.  There were separate rooms for women, men, and also for children.  Instead of the standard triple bunks there were double bunks for those still in reasonable physical condition, but some rooms had single bunks.  There were excellent doctors there, but no medication, and only rather primitive medical equipment.  The nursing staff was heroic in their effort to keep their patients comfortable, and in good spirit.  There was the same lack of food as in the rest of Terezin.  The main reason for the separate area for tuberculosis patients was the effort to keep the rest of the inmates of Terezin from contact with a then incurable, and eventually fatal disease.

As one of the early arrivals in Terezin Daniel’s grandfather was allowed to pick his roommates, twelve men.  They were all exceptionally well educated, and experts in many fields, including former scientists, lawyers, physicists, manufacturers, high administrative officials, a judge, and authorities in other fields.  Their narrow bunks were made of barely finished planks; their mattresses were burlap sacks filled with straw. There was not enough space to walk between bunks.  Their few possessions were stored on a narrow shelf above the head.  What little sanitation existed was totally inadequate.  Everybody had bed bugs and fleas.  When a member of the room would die of tuberculosis or of complications caused by it another well-educated or interesting person would replace him.  Their main activity was talk, and more talk, argument, and more argument.  They switched freely and comfortably from Czech to German and back again, and would, on occasion, include other foreign language phrases, expecting everyone to understand.

In March 1943, then not quite 20 years old, I was transferred from a labor camp, Linden bei Deutsch-Brod, in Czech called Lipa, to Ghetto Theresienstadt.  Quite unexpectedly I found out that my father was there.  In Terezin I was assigned to a work group that did internal maintenance work wherever it was needed: digging ditches, building barracks, repairing roofs, etc.  My working hours were rather loose and irregular, and that allowed me to spend time with my father, before I had to be back in my barracks at 8 p.m., curfew time.  It was a time for long conversations, and for learning.

As often as I could I would listen in on the conversation and arguments in the room.  As the one who had gathered the others in the room my father appropriated to himself the role of arbiter and chair.  No subject was out of limits though politics and the war often were the focus.  There were heated arguments about philosophy, ethics and aesthetics, history and the arts.  I was aware of listening to an unusual gathering of sages.

One of the subjects discussed was the question what to do about Germany after the war.  The defeat of Germany was an agreed-upon fact, and expected within a foreseeable time.  To have the discussion proceed in a structured, and realistic fashion it was decided that each man in the room would represent, and speak for one of the allied nations: USA, England, France, Russia, Canada, etc. and so down the list.  The need was perceived to include the then still Nazi-occupied countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Netherlands, etc.  Each man would propose a settlement favorable to the nation he represented.  The discussion lasted quite a few days.  There were as many suggestions as there were speakers.  Proposals included the division of Germany into ten occupied territories, another one asked for the division of Germany into states as they existed early in the 19th century under Napoleon.  There was the recommendation to divide Germany into the same 300 or so units following the treaty of Westphalia of 1648.  One idea was presented quite facetiously.  It was the one that I liked best.  Germany was to retain its borders of 1932 with one strictly enforced condition: All metal, every last scrap was to be collected, and delivered to the Allies.  No use of any metal was to be permitted in the future.

The discussion was kept in serious bounds, national feelings, economics, geography, historical experience were all given their due attention.  No conclusion was reached.  In a small way the room was anticipating a debate in the future United Nations.  The man representing the Soviet Union, (he was a fiery communist), insisted that he, the USSR, because of the heavy burden of military casualties, and the damage suffered, should have extra votes.  He insisted, as the only socialist representative in the group, that there had to be unanimity in any major decision about Germany.  The UN veto was formally proposed in Ghetto Theresienstadt in 1943!

The debate continued into 1944.  Some members of my father’s room died of tuberculosis, others were put into transports east to a then unknown destination.

In the fall of 1944 I was put into a transport.  When it arrived in Auschwitz I was one of the younger men pulled out to become slave labor.  A few weeks later the entire ward of tuberculosis patients of Terezin, their doctors, and their nurses were loaded into freight cars, part of a transport of 1500 men, women, and children.  Upon arrival in Auschwitz all were forced into the gas chamber.  Daniel’s grandfather was one of them.

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