Ethical Wills during the Shoah

January 21, 2002

Ethical Wills during the Shoah

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 writing of Ethical Wills by Jewish fathers to their sons is a tradition that was maintained throughout the centuries. In medieval Jewish communities this custom was a cherished and cultivated literary form, and continued in various forms into our times.

Traditional forms had exhorted sons to observe meticulously practices and customs, how to structure their days in the accustomed pattern, stressing, often in fine detail, expected routines and demeanor to observe the mitzvot.

Composing an Ethical Will for Daniel is on my mind. The thought of it made me wonder what my father would have written. While I was a young teenager, and, with some interruptions until about 1940, he talked to me at length about many themes. By fortuitous chance this continued while we were both imprisoned in Ghetto Terezin, (Ghetto Theresienstadt), in the year preceding his deportation to Auschwitz in 1944. Ethics, moral values, and sociology were his favorite subjects.

What would have been the contents of Ethical Wills written by those who perished during the Shoah?

Before 1939 and the beginning of the war, while Jewish families were still in their homes, fathers would be motivated to write traditional wills, anticipating that they and their families would survive. That purpose disappeared when deportations to ghettos and concentration camps began. The hope for survival was diminishing, eventually disappearing, and there would be no more Ethical Wills. To whom would they have been addressed?

How would such Ethical Wills differ from earlier ones? Generations before the Shoah took it for granted that their communities would endure, survive oppression, persecutions and pogroms. During the Shoah traditional exhortations about familiar customs and practices became irrelevant.

The dominant idea was to record the events as they happened.  Over the years hidden documents have been discovered, and today we have an extensive chronicle recorded by those who perished. Their message to posterity was a plea for remembrance.

Expression of vengeance and retribution found its place.

Here are three brief inscriptions from records gathered by Yad Vashem written by persons about to die.  Rabbi Jack Riemer mentions them in his book: “So That Your Values Live On – Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them”.  “…here come our murderers … wreak vengeance on our murderers…” This was carved on a wall inside the synagogue of Kovel in 1942. In other places we read: “Avenge our blood!” and “Come and avenge me”.

There were many other attitudes. Moshe Boruchowicz, Rebecca’s uncle, Daniel’s granduncle, comes to mind.  He and his sons were hidden in a cramped space, too low to stand up, below ground, near a farm close to his hometown of Zelichov in Poland. He wanted to make sure that his sons would have a Siddur after the Shoah, and he wrote one from memory.  Today the original hand-written one is at Yad Vashem.  Moshe Boruchowicz’s son, Bernardo Baruch, donated a photocopy of this Siddur to the Shoah Archive.

In ghettos and concentration camps the writing of Ethical Wills certainly was not on our mind. Ethics of individuals and of groups, however, were discussed continuously among those with a bent for such matters.  The scope of civilized norms was examined again and again. By defining our moral principles we set ourselves apart from our oppressors.

My surprise is the similarity of concepts and ideas voiced during the Shoah and the penchant of our time: Before all other commandments came the recognition of the infinite value of the individual human life. Most other rules derive directly or by inference from that first one. Respect for life, includes the right to freedom in all its aspects which we take for granted, and which are slowly and painfully becoming the measure of civilized societies today. We were aware of these rules; we did not consider ourselves to be innovators.

The mind endured, and was well focused on the order of importance. Right conduct and proper action remained at the top of the list.  Ethical Wills of inmates if written down would differ only slightly from those of their fathers. The emphasis was still on individual conduct and on human bonds. Ethical behavior remained the paramount demand, and was seen as more consequential than before.

The subject of a well-ordered society, the structure of a fair, tolerant and open community remained a topic of discussion.

We are all responsible for each other.  “No man is an island, entire of itself”. We used different words, since, most likely, none of us then knew about John Donne. The obligation to share and to protect each other led the list. This is the very opposite of  “I don’t care” and  “I cannot be bothered” which we considered detestable, and ultimately deadly.

While contemplating Ethical Wills that could have been written during the Shoah I soon realized that my attempt would fail if I tried to express in one Shoah Archive Note the wide range of ideas expressed.  What follows is a gathering of a few thoughts, a rambling account of discussions long after they were originally voiced.

I find it difficult to put these lessons and experiences into a good and logical order.  Most of them were translated into specific and rather practical actions, into standards for behavior between individuals and between groups.  These became dependable rules for staying alive.

Some random discussions come to mind: Is it permitted to steal? Taking anything from other inmates was one of the worst offenses. Stealing from our oppressors certainly was allowed. When is it right to destroy or perform sabotage on the workplace? This could be quite dangerous; if found out the retribution could well cause the slaughter of the entire group. Sabotage is right when done with utmost care and circumspection. One person declared that he was going to kill the first Nazi he would find when the war ended. He was challenged. Conceivably he would kill the one who secretly helped a Jew. A rather remote and unlikely notion, but a possible one. The proper action would be to hold that Nazi, and have a duly established court decide the case. We are not murderers, and we will not copy the methods of those who slaughtered us.

How many of the recollections are colored by the memory of my fellow inmates, my teachers, how many by the talks with my father? I don’t know, and I’m aware of my limitations. I’m writing about thoughts and feelings of sixty years ago.

Who are the people I refer to? A paltry group, that small number I had the opportunity to talk to here and there. Most of them eventually perished in Auschwitz or in other death camps. A few had been pulled from transports, passed selections, and were slated for slave labor. Not much later most of these too died because of starvation, exhaustion, disease, or on death marches.

I was in four concentration camps. Four camps only among a multitude of others. With the exception of Terezin my fellow inmates were all young men, the majority of them below thirty. I cannot speak or even speculate about thoughts, ideas and deliberations among women. It was largely in Terezin that I listened in on discussions about ethics and the well-ordered community. By then possessions, social position, all the externals that divide us in ordinary life had disappeared. The ever-present impact of evil and destruction had sharpened the senses and led to insights about life.

A painful question lingers. What would have been my father’s Ethical Will? His writings and notes were destroyed. I carry his oral Ethical Will with me. Would he have written a different will if he had survived?  I don’t think so. I remember him as a sage and a careful thinker who had weighed and examined ideas and actions. He was fifty-two years old when he perished in Auschwitz.  To this day he is my wise old man, though I’m well over seventy-eight while writing these lines. His ideas pervade a good part of the outline drawn up in preceding paragraphs. In a roundabout way I have put a minute part of his Ethical Will on paper, and I hope to have presented his thoughts fairly.

It was a daring mind that was willing to formulate ideas about a just and free future world, about a vibrant Jewish community while most of us were looking for ways to survive the next 24 hours.

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