A summary of some ideas

May 18, 2006

A summary of some ideas

Daniel Terna, our son, graduated from the Middle School in June 2001. Rebecca Shiffman, Daniel’s mother, is the daughter of survivors of the Shoah. I, Frederick Terna, Daniel’s father, am a survivor.

Daniel has just ended his freshman year at Bard College, and he will continue his studies of journalism and photography in his second year there.

This spring the Kane Street Synagogue here in Brooklyn compiled a Journal commemorating the 150th year of the congregation. A number of pages contained extensive quote from notes I wrote for the Shoah Archive.

A good friend then suggested summing up some of my ideas mentioned in the Journal, and it seems appropriate to add this summation as a 20th set of Archive Notices:

Gathering reflections that began in the 1930’s demands simplification and shortcuts. Delving into my past today is accompanied by many feelings and frequently disturbing memories. I’m well aware that the years between 1933 and the immediate post-war era weigh heavily on me, and that, to a significant degree, I view and measure events and persons through that lens.

Let me start, however, with my conclusion:

The highest value is life, and the quality of life, lived in a fair, just, and open community. We are all responsible for each other.

Looking at this summary two ingredients stand out. The first one is a search for the laws of a well-ordered community. The second one is my shorthand for which there are only approximate terms such as world-view, Weltanschauung, and eschatology.

Translating the above two into current terms they are politics and ethics. Both bedevil us today as much as in the past. Guidance by thinkers and writers of past millennia would seem quite indispensable but they are not close at hand. I must therefore rely on whatever observations and experiences are available to me.

The experience of many years, starting with the events leading to WWII, provoked questions, made me search for causes and explanations. Preceding the outbreak of the war in 1939, and to some extent early in the war, my father had taught me sociology, philosophy and ethics. I was attuned to the events around me.

After the rise of Nazi Germany, and particularly after 1939, the contrast between the community we knew and the direct experience of the Nazi occupiers led to a constant examination of values. There was a practical side to this. Understanding the mentality of the Nazis was necessary to cope with their actions. The mindset of the Nazis was comparatively clear-cut. It was the fundamentalist’s approach to the world. They knew the absolute Truth with a capital T. The party had proclaimed the Truth, and they acted on it. Their ideal was the person implementing the party program by any means available. Questions or doubts had no place in the system.

Dictatorship as a system was observed in vivo. The textbook archetype of one-man-rule and fundamentalist ideology was going through its Nazi mutation before our eyes. A submissive parliament had abdicated to the power of the party. Ideology overruled civil liberties. Brutality, secrecy, lies and propaganda became rules of governance. An obedient judiciary allowed imprisonment without review. Expanding nationalism encouraged aggression. Dissent became treason. We Jews became the obligatory devil, the enemy.

More could be said about other dictatorships and absolutist systems of the last century. This is not the place for it, though they too are ingredients in my conclusion.

The other subject on our mind, ethics, remained firmly in its place. Observing the violations of humane codes around us sharpened our sense of right and wrong action.

In rapidly changing circumstances, and that eventually included concentration camps, personal relationships between inmates was, and remained grounded on traditional precepts. A good example is the moral atmosphere maintained in Ghetto Terezin (Theresienstadt). When individual space was reduced to a straw pallet in a triple tier bunk, politeness and respect for the other was the rule. As in any other group there were differences in age, background, and personality, in ideas, in philosophy and therefore there were also disputes. There was, however, no criminal behavior, and no physical violence among inmates. We would not act like our oppressors. Later, in other concentration camps, on that rare occasion when an inmate would act contrary to the interest of others, this was seen as deterioration before an impending demise. Abandoning the values of the group brought isolation, abandonment, and an early death.

When the Nazis attempted to dehumanize us we maintained civilities observed in normal life. Each one of us had a trade, a job, a profession before imprisonment, so a baker remained a baker, a teacher remained a teacher, and a doctor remained a doctor. To a guard, to an SS trooper we appeared as smelly, unshaved, lice-infested apparitions. To each other we said please and thank you.

Even during the most dangerous times we continued talking and deliberating. We observed carefully the world closest to us. We were starving and near death, and yet the military situation of the moment was discussed, albeit we knew that some the information was imprecise and dated. The near demise of the German Reich was never questioned. What should take its place? What is the form of a well-ordered society?

Living since 1952 in this country allowed me to learn about other places and events. Conclusions listed at the top of these pages are valid and indispensable for the well being of people.

The highest value is life, and the quality of life in a fair, just and open community. We are all responsible for each other.

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