December 20, 2002
Daniel Terna, our son, graduated from the Middle School in June of 2001. Rebecca Shiffman, Daniel’s mother, is the daughter of survivors of the Shoah, I, Frederick Terna, Daniel’s father, am a survivor.
The text that follows is my reply to a request by an organization which is seeking case histories and opinions on “Justice and Reparations” for victims of atrocity crimes. Dealing with events following my liberation. I realized that I had not included that time as a separate set of notes for the archive.
As before I may have mentioned one detail or another in an earlier set of Notes while writing about a different theme.
Dear Ms. G.
Earlier this month I mailed you a brief biographical note. As promised over the telephone I’m expanding on that summary here.
A chronological account of my life immediately following liberation seems to be a logical way starting an answer to your questions.
Although a wide range of feelings and emotions, fears and hopes were present while I was in concentration camps I was barely ready or able to allow them to come to the foreground. Even today I find myself at times reluctant to reflect on that time, and I’m not sure how much I want to delve into it here, and in this format.
Further down I may want to voice some ideas about justice and reparations.
“You surely are lucky to have survived. Now, forget the past, go, live, and, above all, don’t bother us. Good-by. Go away”. We heard these words, or similar ones, again and again. They may stand as a condensation of all the paragraphs that follow.
On April 27, 1945, after more than 3 1/2 years in German concentration camps, among them Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Kaufering, a sub-camp of Dachau, I was liberated by American troops near Landsberg, a town west of Munich.
I shall omit here describing the murderous and deadly circumstances that preceded my liberation. I was one of the few Jewish concentration camp survivors in the area, starved, gaunt, and near death. I was unable to walk. After months without water to wash, without soap, in prisoner’s striped pajamas that had never been washed, I was encrusted with dirt and infested with lice. I was one of the shuffling skeletons shown on photos of that time. I weighed 35 kilos, about 76 lbs.
The US Army had emptied for us a small sanatorium, a hotel-like building in a near-by spa, Bad Woerishofen, then an enclave of hospitals for wounded German soldiers. A few other survivors and I were brought there, cleaned and bathed. There was food, but I was careful to eat but a little. I knew how dangerous it was to eat after long starvation. There was no medical staff in the building. Sores and wounds were perfunctorily attended to. No other care was provided and some survivors died there. The personnel seemed to be former German army soldiers or employees who had changed into civilian clothing. I was quite sick during those initial days there, and only a hazy memory remains. I don’t remember who, if anybody was in charge of the place; such information was outside my focus.
As a Czechoslovak citizen I was eventually transferred to barracks near the town of Kempten in Swabia, an area north of Lake Constance. Slowly I gained some weight and strength. I could walk, though my endurance was quite limited. Eventually others and I were put on stretchers, the stretchers stacked like cordwood in a truck, and we were driven to Plzen, (Pilsen) in Bohemia. There we were loaded into a French repatriation train on its way east to bring back French laborers who had been taken into Germany during the war. The train stopped at one of the secondary railway stations of Prague.
I carried a small satchel with some clothing and underwear. This was all that I owned then, and also all the weight I could carry. I was still wearing a former German military outfit that had been dyed blue. Knowing Prague well, it was my hometown, I knew which streetcar to take into the center of town. I had no money except some currency then in use in Swabia. I told the streetcar conductor that I was returning from concentration camps, and he let me ride without paying
During the war our family, including other relatives, had agreed that, upon returning, our first stop would be at the concierge of the building where we had lived, and tell her about our arrival. I was the first one to call, and I was the only one to do so. A friend, also a survivor, who knew about our arrangement, had inquired about us, and that was the only other contact.
The concierge told me that our apartment had been taken over earlier during the war by a Nazi functionary, and now was occupied by a fiery communist. I was too weak to walk up several flights of stairs, and the concierge took me up by elevator. I rang the doorbell. The new occupant came to the door. I told him that this was our former home, that I had just returned from years in concentration camps, and that I needed a room to sleep in. His answer was a loud and angry outburst, a description of his positions and titles, yelling that he was an important person with powerful connections in the newly formed government. He was going to see to it that I was properly dealt with if I gave him any trouble, that I must have been a particular scoundrel to survive concentration camps.
This reception was a foretaste of later encounters. The concierge had waited at he elevator, took me back downstairs, and then fed me.
The survivor friend who had asked for me at the concierge at an earlier date had left her address, and, fortunately, this was only a short distance away. I went there and she gave me a space in her home. I was still in a rather poor physical condition. Before long I was hospitalized again. I don’t remember who arranged for that, and who paid for it.
There was a one-time assistance given by the new Czechoslovak government: Each returnee from concentration camps received 500 Czech Crowns, then the equivalent of about ten US dollars.
There was no organization in existence then that I knew of to ask for help. The Jewish community of Prague had been wiped out. There was a small organization of liberated former political inmates of concentration camps, run under the auspices of the Communist party, but they did not want to include Jewish survivors as members. There was a Jewish committee active in helping survivors who wanted to go to what was then Palestine. American Jewish refugee organizations had representatives in Prague, but I was only dimly aware of their existence.
UNRRA, the United Nations refugee organization was dealing with displaced persons, and therefore a possible resource, but we were back in our former country of residence.
Gradually survivors found each other, and an informal information network arose. There was no formal organization. The support we gave each other was mainly moral and emotional. Returning alive was no guarantee for continued survival. The number of survivors committing suicide was frightening. We had returned but we were not welcomed back.
There were Czech families we knew from before the war, largely acquaintances of my father or of other relatives. They did not quite know how to face me. Some tried to tell me about the many privations they suffered during the war. Most of them tried to keep the conversation to a minimum. They were quite ill at ease.
My family was a rather typical Prague middle class family. We were economically comfortable, but not rich. The Germans had confiscated all our possessions. When the war started in 1939 I was not quite sixteen years old. I had no information about the possessions or finances of my immediate family, and certainly none about those of the extended family.
It took a good while to get new personal documents. Duplicates were hard to come by. Rampant bureaucracy, probably the same crew that carried out directives during German rule, made it clear that we were asking for favors that were not in their job description. Trying to get documentation about property owned before 1939 was probably an insurmountable task.
When trying to reclaim confiscated property nearly all of us survivors ran into a wall. Much later I realized that the reason was not our claim, but the fear of setting a precedent. Why should the state make an exception for a few hundred Jewish survivors? More than two million Germans who had lived in border areas of Bohemia, the so-called Sudetenland, had been expropriated and expelled after the war. Restituting property to Jewish survivors could become a legal model. Denying claims was also a convenient ploy to hold on to questionable property.
Finally physically able to work, I took a job, first in an office, and later in an animated film studio. In 1946 I married the survivor who had sheltered me upon my return. Later that year, fearing that communists would take over the government, we fled with false papers to France. We came to the United States in 1952, and became US citizens in 1956. My first wife died of cancer. I remarried in 1982.
Feelings and emotions.
A simple chronology of changes seems out of place here though one early impression may have been significant. Beginning early in 1933, when I was less than ten years old, visitors arrived in our home and stayed in our guestroom. Some of them were bandaged, some had lacerated faces. Most eventually left, only to be replaced by others. It did not take me long to understand that these were people who had escaped from Germany where the Nazis had come to power.
While growing up in Prague events in Germany were but a cloud, very far away. That feeling of security changed abruptly upon the signing of the Munich pact in the fall of 1938 and Kristallnacht a short time later. From then on there was apprehension and fear. Emigration was a theoretical option, though nearly impossible. Most countries were closed to emigrants, or had miniscule immigration quotas. Even if it had been possible for us to emigrate my father felt responsible for a number of older relatives, and decided against leaving. In March of 1939 Germany occupied the remainder of the Czech lands. Jewish children were expelled from schools. Anti-Jewish edicts were implemented with increasing severity. On September 1st 1939 WWII started, and we were trapped.
Although chronologically teen-agers, my brother and I functioned very much as adults. While my father made all the decisions we were present at all discussions. We noticed the despondency of the elderly, their depression, their despair, and we tried to function as well as we could.
I’ll omit here describing the effort, including the emotional one, to remain a functioning family. As part of the attempt to continue our education my father taught me, and also encouraged me to develop skills of my own. It took the form of long conversations, but focused very much on sociology and philosophy. I owe it to my father’s talks that I survived emotionally and intellectually. I had a good foundation in ethics, the cognizance of the requirements of a fair and just society. I was aware of the evils of dictatorships, of rampant nationalism, racism, and the power of mean-spirited greed, stupidity, and murderous lust for power. Nazi Germany had power over my body, but no more than that.
In 1940 I lived with forged papers on a farm in Bohemia. The controlling feeling was circumspection and mistrust. Warned about betrayal I returned to Prague. Soon thereafter I was picked up by the Gestapo and “questioned” by them for several days. It was hours of pain, fear and terror. I dreaded the next grilling. I fainted several times. To this day the imprisonment by the Gestapo is a blur in my memory. I did not expect to come out alive, very few Jews did. Then, suddenly, I was let go. I have no idea why I was taken in, or why I was allowed to leave. Later in life I learned about repressed memories. Even if I could recall details today I’m not sure I want to.
On October 3rd 1941 I was taken to my first concentration camp, later shipped to Theresienstadt, from there to Auschwitz, and I eventually wound up in Kaufering, a sub-camp of Dachau. Total time in concentration camps: Three years, six month, three weeks, and three days. It would be a hopeless attempt describing in detail the changes of feelings from day to day and from place to place.
Before mentioning anything else one fact should be underlined. We were absolutely and firmly convinced that Nazi Germany was doomed, that its end was merely a matter of time. This certitude gave us immense strength, we knew that this was not the conclusion of foolish optimism. What we did not know was that most of us would perish before the end of Nazi Germany.
There were stretches of pessimism. Early in the war when Germany occupied one country after another the future seemed dismal. We knew, however, about German arrogance and their unfailing propensity to antagonize those whom they had conquered. Even if they succeeded in the subjugation of additional territories the nature of their reasoning demanded total dominance and eventual rule over the entire world, and that was a doomed undertaking.
Unrelenting hunger and wretched living conditions were designed to depress us and to have us loathe ourselves. The phenomenon of cultural activities in Ghetto Theresienstadt proved the total failure of that attempt. The life of the mind continued even under the most adverse conditions. Yes, there was fear, dread, and anger, but also soaring spirit reflecting on great ideas of humanity.
When challenged by unpredictable changes and brutalities of concentration camp life I, as others, developed ways of keeping an emotional balance. I learned that anger must not be shown in some situations. A stony mien was the only safe one in front of a raging SS-man. Expressing anger, loathing and contempt would have to wait. The Nazis used an arsenal of physical and emotional scourges. Unexpected and illogical changes were some of their tactics of terror. We learned to deal with them, one by one.
There was a time when it was necessary to stay alert, to concentrate on staying alive, and to keep feelings in the background. Arrival in Auschwitz comes to mind; moving in a slow line towards, what I later learned to be Mengele, being sent to one side instead of being sent into the gas. Then followed days in Auschwitz when the chimneys of the crematoria were spewing ashes around the clock. I wondered when I too would get gassed. There was another selection and I thought that this was going to be my end. We were, however, herded into cattle cars, and a train leaving Auschwitz. By then we were primarily young men between the ages of twenty and forty, destined to slave labor. Those who were younger and those who were older had perished in the gas chambers.
Arriving in Kaufering after a long and tormenting train ride we were put on twelve-hour shifts building underground hangars. It was quite obvious then that the war was coming to an end. American forces had crossed the Rhine; the Russians were advancing into Germany. We were driven relentlessly. A small remnant of the inmates of the Kaufering camps survived, most of us died of starvation, exhaustion, and, in the final days, on death marches.
On April 27, 1945 I had the brittle satisfaction of having endured to see my liberation. I was not sure then whether my body would recover, whether I would survive.
Months later, arriving in Prague, waiting for a streetcar to take me into town, I was aware that this was my happiest moment in life. At the same time it was also the saddest.
I had survived, but I knew that I was the only one to survive.
Reparations I received
As mentioned above, as a Czechoslovak survivor of German concentration camps I, as others, received the equivalent of ten US dollars. There was no other monetary compensation in Czechoslovakia. When hospitalized for a stretch of time I did not have to pay for it.
Many years later, it may have been in the 1970s, a law was passed in, then, Western Germany giving some survivors of concentration camps a monthly payment. By then I lived here in the United States. It was a tedious and degrading application process, and I was not sure whether I should submit myself to the humiliation. Needing the money badly for my wife’s medical expense I went ahead. Eventually I was granted the minimum allocation, and today I get a monthly check that just about covers the cost of my telephone bill. Some survivors I know were fighting for a higher compensation, and succeeded. Repeating that demeaning process, the wear and tear on my mind and dignity was not worth the potential return to me.
While writing these lines, in accordance with a recently passed law, I’m applying at the appropriate office in Germany for social security payments for work performed while an inmate slave laborer in Ghetto Theresienstadt. That is, I’m permitted fifty-nine years after the fact to apply. This application is for Ghetto Theresienstadt only, and not for slave labor in preceding camps or those that came later. There is no guarantee that I will receive anything. How many bureaucrats, how many officials will earn their wages working on this case, accumulating pension time? How many survivors of concentration camps are alive today? Those payments could, with some luck, allow me to buy a year’s supply of shoelaces.
On my next birthday I’ll be eighty years old. Every now and then I read in the newspapers about former officials of the Nazi era. It seems rather obvious that today former functionaries and officers of the Third Reich receive generous pensions, while survivors do not.
The preceding remarks could be an admonition about timely assistance to persons or organizations trying to alleviate the fate of victims of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide.
Searching for justice for victims of persecution should begin immediately after attending to two subjects.
The first need of victims is the affirmation of their human dignity. We may not be able to restore their lives to the ones lived before their victimization, or revive murdered family members. We can endorse their personal and community values. We can reinforce their self-esteem. We must safeguard their culture and artifacts. This declaration must come before attempting any physical or material assistance. Victims must see themselves as viable human beings.
Assistance: Material help from the outside should go to the community, not to individuals. The community of the victims knows best what is needed, how to allocate resources. Communities will bring forth responsible members. The donors must, however, insist on strict outside auditors, and full accountability. The implementation of this rather simple rule is quite difficult, but allows the restoration of a community framework and that of individual members.
Justice is our problem. Victims need food, clothing, and shelter. When we find a way to establish a just and fair society then victims will find justice as they see it. Any outline of justice in a few sentences is a preposterous undertaking. There may be some angles that have meaning for victims.
What follows is a very personal set of observations about justice. (This list may be out-of-place within the context of these pages, but perhaps relevant as the conclusion of a survivor.)
Vengeance is always wrong.
There is no value that exceeds human life.
Killing a person is always wrong, even when the state does it.
We are all responsible for each other.
The plague of nationalism of the preceding 200 years has been replaced in our time by the plague of fundamentalism. There is no single valid Truth with capital “T”.
Secrecy in government and business leads to ruin. An open society and open enterprise is an avenue to a free and just community.
Returning land or homes may be feasible, though usually impossible due to a multiplicity of political factors. Returning property once owned by grandparents has practical and political limits. How far back should we go? Should Manhattan be returned to an Indian tribe, Baghdad to Mongolia, or Granada to the Berbers? Difficulties abound. It should be possible to restore formerly owned assets of survivors. Returning property to communities is desirable but may need a deeper sense of responsibility. This may be a channel for restitution by culpable groups to victims.
On both justice and restitution
Rabbi Tarfon, (Second century, C.E), in Pirke Avot, (a Tractate of the Talmud): “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”