My brother Tommy

November 2, 1998

My brother Tommy

These lines are written by Frederick Terna, father of Daniel Terna.  Daniel is a pupil in the sixth grade of the Middle School.

Tommy Terna, Daniel’s uncle, was born in 1926.  He lived, and went to school in Prague, today the capital of the Czech Republic.  Tommy was my younger brother.  We were born about three years apart.  Our family was part of the Jewish community, less than 25,000 in a city of nearly one million.

Prague Jews had a long and illustrious history, and we were well aware of it.  While growing up there during the late 1920’s and the 1930’s Prague Jewish families were largely middle-class, rather intellectual, art and culture oriented, comfortable, but not wealthy, and only few were poor.  Up to 1938 Prague Jews were contributing to the cultural life of the city quite out of proportion to their numbers.  Anti-Semitism, to the extent that it manifested itself in the Czech lands, was much lower than in other Slavic countries to the east, the residue of centuries of church and government vilification, and persecution.  In the newly established Czechoslovakia of 1918, and until 1938, except for noisy, and largely ineffectual anti-Jewish political groups, there was no significant friction between the Jews of Prague, and the rest of the citizenry.  I don’t recall a single expression of anti-Semitic sentiment or behavior in those years.

Tommy grew up in an atmosphere of tolerance, good will, and middle class values, not too different from that of children of the Herschel School today.  In 1932 our mother suddenly died of pneumonia, a disease often fatal in those days.  Both Tommy and I did not quite grasp the magnitude of our loss.  Tommy was six years old then, and I nine.  For a short time there were nannies taking care of us, but since our father did not re-marry, and could not give us the day-to-day care he wanted for us, we were living in “room and board” with a family of friends, in a good, and caring home.  My father, our grandparents, and we lived in close proximity, and so did other relatives.

Less that a year later, in 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany.

Tommy’s life and mine too, was similar to that of a child today.  There were differences, but they were mostly technical.  In the early 1930’s there was no television, there were no refrigerators, none of the many appliances and gadgets we take for granted.  We had a telephone, we had a radio.   There was no hot running water.  A gas water heater in the bathroom heated water. The kitchen had a huge coal-fired stove that allowed for a large cooking surface.  The same firebox also heated two ovens, and a large kettle for hot water.  All rooms were heated by stoves, some using coal, some coke, and some used “briquettes”, compressed coal powder in the shape of small bricks.  These were used in huge ceramic ovens. At all times there was household help living with us.

We lived in a large apartment.  While our mother was alive, the home was a “1920’s Modern” one.  The building we lived in was in a, then, new section of the city.  Large areas around us were open fields and gardens.  Today that part of the city is built up, and is considered to be close to the old core of Prague.  We were allowed to play in the street, and in the adjacent fields.  There was no traffic, now and then a car would pass by, more likely it would be a horse-drawn wagon.  I don’t recall even one parked car.  All year round we played with other children on the street, and, most likely, none of them were Jews.  We may have been the only Jewish family in the building.

After 1933 we lived very close to the center of the city.  From our grandparents home, from an alcove, using opera glasses, we could watch almost all parades, entering or leaving Wenceslaus Square, then as now the center of the “New Town”.  (It was settled in the 14th century!).  In their home, and also in other places of the family, the furnishings were Victorian, massive, and somewhat somber. There were heavy curtains and drapes, Persian carpets on intricately patterned floorboards.  All this was somewhat intimidating for youngsters of our age, and did not lend itself easily to romping and raucous play.  It did however radiate an aura of security, of solid values.  As children we were not aware how well to do our condition was.  Within this comfortable ambiance our food, and our clothing were quite simple, we were made aware of the less fortunate world around us.  There were comparatively few toys; we had scooters, and only much later bicycles, an obvious and deliberate policy not to spoil us.  Books, however, were around us in large numbers.  There was a large library in our home.  There was no closed shelf; we could read whatever interested us.  My father’s policy was that we would get bored with subjects we did not understand.  Any book we wanted to read would soon be bought.  Music was part of our life.  When about 12 years old we were allowed to go to the opera, and to go to see plays.  Prague had several repertory stages, performing plays in Czech, and in German.  Shakespeare, Moliere, Lope de Vega, Shaw or Schiller, and other classics plays would be presented sooner or later.  We had to read the plays before seeing them performed.

In our home Czech and German was spoken with equal facility. (Yiddish had ceased to be a working language many generations ago.)  Both parents and grandparents too, were fluent in several languages.  My father was fluent in seven languages, and he certainly would not brag about that.  It was rather common, and there were people around us who spoke more of them.

The age difference between Tommy and me, nearly three years allowed us to develop in somewhat different directions.  We played together; we had different sets of friends, different interests.

Both Tommy and I attended public schools, and we went to different schools. Tommy’s school was a Czech speaking school, where French was the second language, mine was a bi-lingual one, with Czech and German instruction given equal weight.  School started at 7:30 or 8:00 and generally ended at 1 P.M.  Saturday was a shorter school day, ending at noon.  This presented a problem for Jewish families.  There were hardly any Jewish day schools, and they were in the eastern part of Czechoslovakia.  The instruction there was in Yiddish, and in the mold of cheders, and rather inadequate.  Because of the strict separation of religious and public education, religious institutions, in our case yeshivas, were educating future rabbis.  We both walked to school, and back.  It took me about half an hour.  No thought was given to escort.  It was safe for a child – or an adult – day, or night, to walk in the city.  Once we knew our way, we walked alone.  After homework we played, usually outside.  There was a large park minutes away, and we would meet our friends there.  Ball games, -soccer was a first choice-, and, depending on age, counting and hiding, cowboys and Indians, these were our outdoor activities.  In winter we went skating or sledding.  The Vltava River would freeze, and eventually the ice would get strong enough to skate on.  Up to age 12, except for opera nights, bedtime was 8. P.M.

Summer vacation was spent in the country.  While mother was alive we owned an old farmhouse.  After the farmhouse was sold we went to summer camps.  They were rather similar to summer camps here in this country.  We probably would feel quite at home at Camp Ramah of today.  There was travel to “distant” places.  Distant meant about 100 miles away.  Travel outside the country was a rare occurrence.  Almost all travel was by train.  During winter vacation we went skiing in mountains of northern Bohemia.

Almost all Sundays were spent with father. In good and warm weather there was a wide variety of possible activities.  There were favorite ones, such as taking a paddle steamer up the Vltava river for about ten miles, have a picnic in the area, go swimming in the river, and return with another paddle-steamer.  There were smaller steamers going a shorter distance to a large garden and restaurant with a bandstand where a military brass band performed.  Often such outings were in a group of family and friends.  The grown-ups would sit around a large table have coffee and cake, and talk and talk.  We children were looking forward to get “grenadine”, club soda with strawberry syrup.  There were elegant palaces, there were castles to visit within a short train ride, and there were hikes in the country, the zoo.  When it was too cold we could go to the movies.  Some movie houses would show animated cartoons only.  That was where we saw color pictures long before feature films were shot in color.  We loved Disney’s “Silly Symphonies”.  The oldest part of Prague was always there as a sightseeing attraction.  Walking and relating buildings to their past was a lesson in history, was a course about architectural styles from the Middle Ages to modern times.

On March 15th, 1939 all this came to an abrupt end with the occupation of Prague by Nazi Germany.  Both Tommy and I were forbidden to continue in school, as were all other Jewish children.  Tommy was 13 years old then.  The oppression and persecution of Jews began right away, edict after edict repressing, confiscating, and limiting Jewish life with brutal force.  It affected all of us, including children.  It made us grow up quite rapidly in directions we had not anticipated.  For a time I lived with false documents on a farm north of the city, and did not communicate directly with the family, and merely knew about Tommy’s activities.  Tommy became a resourceful provider of food.  This was quite dangerous at time; he had become a businessman circumventing the multitude of restrictions imposed.

Tommy had shown some of his business acumen right after school ended for him.  Some time before that father had bought him a simple camera.  Not too much later Tommy came home with a Leica, then perhaps the best and most expensive camera available.  Father was upset, and wanted to know where the camera came from.  Tommy gave him a precise accounting.  He had made photos of objects for a collector, got paid well, and bought a better camera.  He found a laboratory where he could rent time and equipment to process film, and print photos.  After subsequent jobs he bought better and better cameras, and, finally, bought the Leica.

This led to Tommy’s apprenticeship in one of the best photo studios of Prague, “Photo Stehlik”.  That studio was owned by a man who had recognized Karel Stehlik’s unusual gift as a portrait photographer, set Stehlik up as a business, and had the skill to keep Stehlik functioning.  Stehlik was an alcoholic.  Since the owner was a Jew he was thrown out by a German who insisted that Stehlik turn over to him a certain amount every month, but otherwise did not wish to run the business.  There was Tommy, not yet 14 years old, sitting alone in the lab and a problem on his hand.  The previous lab technician had left for a better job.  Tommy knew of another boy from his earlier camera transactions, which too had been expelled from school, and was willing to help out.  The main problem was Stehlik, and his drinking.  The two kids soon had Stehlik under their thumb, were strict taskmasters, handled the business, and made sure that Stehlik had just enough money to buy a little wine.  They would buy his food, pay his rent, buy him a new shirt, rather than let him go, and use the shirt money for a bottle of wine.

Tommy’s job in “Photo Stehlik” lasted through most of 1940, and part of 1941. By then I was living with false papers on a farm north of Prague.  Late in summer 1941 I was betrayed, and had to return home in great haste.  Shortly thereafter I was put into my first camp, Lipa.  There was no time to talk with Tommy.

The Tommy I remember is an inquisitive, enterprising, courageous, inventive, fearless, and lovable 14-year-old, yet at the same time a textbook teen-ager.  He graciously tolerated me, and the grown-ups around him.  To me he is still my kid brother, still 14 years old.  At times I wonder what his life would have been like, if he had survived the Shoah.  Today he would have been over 72 years old.  In my heart he is still 14.

Father had been deported to Terezin in December 1941.  When I arrived in Terezin in March 1943, father told me about Tommy’s life in 1941 and 1942.  While still in Prague Tommy managed family matters in a situation that would have overwhelmed adults.  Taking considerable risks, his energy, his skills, and his optimism kept a number of older folks functioning.

Working in “Photo Stehlik” included being outside the house, and without the yellow star.  “Photo Stehlik” attracted German soldiers as customers.  The two boys had bought well-tailored army jackets to allow the soldiers to be shown well dressed on their photos.  While the soldiers were in front of the camera, one of the boys detained them long enough so that the other one had time to photo documents in their regular uniform jackets.  Father did not know where this information was forwarded.

Tommy and grandmother were deported to Terezin early in 1942.  The three were housed in different barracks, but Tommy and father could meet and talk.

After only a short time in Terezin Tommy and grandmother were put into a transport to a then unknown destination.  After the war I found out that the transport went to Treblinka, one of the death camps in occupied Poland.  There were no survivors.  Tommy was 16 years old.

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