September 17, 2000
Today, Daniel Terna, our son, is a pupil in the eighth grade of the Middle School. Rebecca Shiffman, Daniel’s mother, is the daughter of survivors of the Shoah, I, Frederick Terna, Daniel’s father, am a survivor.
Memory, the subject of this eleventh set of notes, is the source of the preceding ten narratives, and should, perhaps, have been the first set rather than appearing at this late date. I’m well aware of that personal angle, and I shall return to it below.
We are admonished to remember and to observe. The voluminous literature about Jewish historiography, the confluence of memory and documentation into history attempts to illustrate how we reflect on the past.
Today there are thousands of personal memories of survivors of the Shoah recorded on tapes; there is detailed evidence of events and places, there are uncounted volumes of documentation. Whatever details I could contribute are held in various archives. Here I want to reflect on the way I remember, rather than on particulars. I shall therefore omit here my description of events during the Shoah.
My earliest memory dates to about 1926, and encompasses nearly three-quarters of the past century. Memory about the Shoah, however, includes only a small part, the years 1939–1945 of my life under Nazi rule. I know of no way of organizing this past. Chronology may be of some help, but the bulk of my remarks have to be random ones.
Memory is a selective process. Total memory would require the full recall of every past instant lived or observed, of emotions experienced; auspiciously this is quite impossible. We choose to remember segments, not the totality of events. In my case, and most fortunately, only a small part of the 3½ years of concentration camps is in the foreground at any given time. Today we know enough about the many facets of memory. Often we choose to close off some areas. Self-deception, denial, evasion are ingredients.
Talking about the past while in concentration camps was one way of maintaining continuity. This was both a personal and also a group effort to counteract the oppression we were experiencing. We probably were not aware of the positive impact of this short-term review at first. When an inmate was killed those who knew him talked about his family and his background. Over time, while events were unfolding there was an overload of feelings. All of us knew well that we could be the next ones to die, individually or, perhaps, even the entire group. After some time the overwhelming quantity of impacts was blurred, and only the most traumatic occurrences found their place in the immediately accessible memory.
There was one constant refrain: The one that survives must tell the story.
It was only years later that some of these events were open to reaction or to reflection.
After liberation I was hospitalized for several months; first in Bavaria, and later in Prague. At that time the Czech population had only a vague awareness of the destruction of the Jewish community. We were reminded how lucky we were that we had survived, that we should not talk about our immediate past, that it should be forgotten, that we should resume our lives. It was the beginning of a long silence.
This silence was not restricted to Prague; it pervaded the rest of the world. We survivors did not have to talk to each other about our experience during the war, we knew. Memory was pushed into the background. There are many explanations for this prolonged silence, and a different answer would have to be sought for each country or group. A critical review of the reasons given is outside the area of this set of notes.
Later researchers used the apt phrase “conspiracy of silence”.
The task of starting a new life took all the energy available. Many, too many survivors did not have the strength to cope with the loss of their families, their community, and the new rejection. The suicide rate of survivors after liberation was frightful.
Gradually we found a way to fit ourselves into a niche to earn a living. The Shoah was there, but hidden and barely acknowledged. I lived in Paris from 1946 to 1951, and since 1952 in New York. I don’t recall others talking about the Shoah until the 1960’s. There were only a few books on the subject.
The silence around me did not stop me from thinking about the past. There was the larger picture with many questions. What was the scope of the destruction? When and where did members of my family perish? Why did the structure of society allow a criminal system take over? Can I trust any system of governance to respect human rights? What is it that made a largely Christian community commit mass murder? Where did the concept of an all-powerful, omniscient, benevolent creator fit into this recent history? There were legions of such questions, and many are as pertinent today as they were decades ago.
Over the years, and unceasingly, more and more painful memories surfaced. Some of them as nightmares, some of them in the course of daily life, triggered by a word, an odor, an image, anything. Soon after liberation I realized that my memories would be part of me, that I could not shut them out at will. Since memory would be present I had to find ways to include it in my daily routine. Somewhere in one of my earlier notes for the Archives I described this as my Shoah memory being a continuous, unpredictable, and uncontrolled crazy bass playing in the background while I have learned to play the fiddle above it so there should be some harmony to my life.
As the years go by new details come to the surface. Rather than receding into the past memory opens up. Painful images rise into consciousness. In these notes I have carefully avoided the graphic report of each place and event. The pain, horror, the gruesome and gory particulars have been reported in many places. I do not wish to repeat here what is vividly part of me. Putting this memory into words is upsetting, and I feel that I can omit here my corroboration.
The weight of the promise we gave to each other to let the world know about the Shoah, about those who perished has been lightened by the many writers, official reports, the effort of the Second, and now even the Third Generation. My contributions were, and are, lectures, participation in several commemorative organizations, and, in a small way, my notes for the Shoah Archives of this school.
I find it difficult to read reports, to read fiction about the subject. I avoid movies about the Shoah, though I understand that some of them are very deserving, and should be seen. When reading or viewing images about the Shoah in my mind there runs a different text, and the resonance is painful and disturbing. It then may take a long time to get back to an earlier equilibrium.
The promise we gave to each other to let the world remember the Shoah has been kept.
Today, more than fifty-five years after liberation I consider myself to be a happy person. I was fortunate to have learned to live with my memories. I have a lovely and wise wife, an exciting and promising teen-age son, enough food to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over my head, and a vibrant community around me.
I have made it.