December 3, 1998
My grandmother Jenny Taussig
These lines are written by Frederick Terna, father of Daniel Terna. Daniel is a pupil in the sixth grade of the Middle School.
Jenny Taussig, Daniel’s great-grandmother was born as Jenny Lederer in 1875 in Teplice, then also known as Teplitz in Northern Bohemia. Teplice is part of the Czech Republic today. When she was quite young her parents moved to Prague, and opened a store selling fashion accessories in vogue then. In 1911, a few years before World War I she became the second wife of Adolf Taussig, Daniel’s great-grandfather. His first wife Helen Spiegel had died in childbirth, an occurrence much more frequent early in the century than today. Early in World War I Jenny Taussig became a nurse in an army hospital, but advanced rapidly into administrative positions. In her bedroom she displayed several framed citations, some with medals, signed by members of the Imperial Habsburg household, in appreciation for her work on behalf of disabled soldiers. In the new Czechoslovak Republic of 1918 – 1938 such tributes by the former opponents were not appreciated, and that, probably, was the reason that she kept them in her bedroom. Today I’m puzzled how, in the pre-1918 Austro-Hungarian monarchy, a woman, a Jewish woman, was allowed to function at a level that merited an official recognition of her accomplishments.
My earliest memories of Jenny Taussig, going back to the early 1930’s, are those of an active and energetic person. Her husband’s position, and income, allowed her the life style of a moderately well to do middle class woman of Central Europe. She had received a thorough education, something rather unusual for a young Jewish woman of that time. Official anti-Jewish legislation, covering many aspects of Jewish life had been revoked in Bohemia in 1867, a mere eight years before her birth. Unofficial, social, and economic anti-Jewish strictures remained in full force for another half-century. Some of it lingered in the Czechoslovakia of 1918 – 1938.
In the manner of European homes and families we were given little information about the family’s social standing, income, or affiliation with organizations. I have only the sketchiest notion about my grandmother’s memberships. The one item I’m sure of is her position as president of a big sisterhood, though this is probably only one of several groups she belonged to. She knew by heart the telephone numbers of almost all members, and she was teased about it by her friends, and also by the family. Her memory was probably visual. I say this because I know that she could play a composition of music on the piano that was new to her, and she did not have to refer to the printed notes again.
Other than taking care of their families, a good part of grandmother, and her circle’s time was taken up by community work: visiting the sick, helping poor newly-weds to set up a home, – the entire range of shared responsibility for the old, the poor, and the sick of the, comparatively, small Jewish community of Prague. All this was done in a low key, quietly, and without self-admiration. This is what gave meaning to their days.
Music was an important part of her life. There were two pianos in the largest room of her home. Before radio, or phonographs, most orchestral pieces of music, and especially operas, were transcribed for two pianos. Along one of the walls of the room were bookcases with narrowly spaced shelves where sheet music was kept. Wednesdays were music nights. Friends would meet in her home, carrying their instruments, violins, oboes, flutes, or clarinets. They would spell each other playing chamber music, talk, have coffee and cake, argue about phrasing and interpretation, talk some more, have more cake, and play some more. When someone would object to the way a passage was performed, that person would be asked to go and play it along his or her guidelines. I remember those evenings with much joy. We children were allowed to listen until it was time for us to go home, and to go to bed. It is, perhaps, this early exposure that made chamber music a part of my life in later years.
Grandmother had a subscription to the opera, and she had the same seats year in and out. In ways, which I don’t remember, she was quite involved in the efforts of the opera house. Actors, singers, and “theater people” were frequent visitors to her home.
Grandmother was loved by all. There was one exception: Haschile, the schnorrer. He had a name but the entire world called him Haschile, and he referred to himself as Haschile in the third person. A schnorrer is not a beggar. A schnorrer allows you to give tzedakah in style. He knows that we know that one third of the world’ existence is guaranteed by tzedakah. If ignored, Haschile would remind you of that fact with much eloquence, quoting from Psalms, Isiah, or Ezekiel. Grandmother loathed Haschile. We, the children, were much amused by that. She would cross the street, change direction, do anything to avoid him. I think that grandmother was afraid of him. Haschile was dressed with dramatic shabbiness, unkempt, with a thin seedy beard, rotting teeth, unwashed, with a cloud of garlic smell around him. At appropriate occasions during the year he would ring the doorbell. He must have had a way of sneaking by the concierge, and that was not an easy feat. There were standing rules for the maid to tell Haschile at the door that Mrs. Taussig was not in. That rarely worked. Haschile knew her routine. The maid then would be told to give him a crown, about five times the amount a beggar would receive, and to ask him to leave. Haschile would explode with a wail, claiming to be no ordinary beggar, that his rate for Mrs. Taussig was five crowns. Haschile would get his five crowns every time.
On March 15th 1939 German troops marched into Prague, and the persecution of the Jewish community of Prague began. On September 1, 1939, grandfather died. It was the day WW II started. On the day of his funeral so many people crowded around the cemetery entrance that the street was blocked for a time, and mounted police came to re-direct traffic. Grandfather is the only one in my immediate family to have a tomb, a stone, and a known burial place. It is 12-8-2 on the Olsany New Jewish Cemetery. Franz Kafka is buried in the same cemetery.
A few months after her husband’s death the energetic, take-charge-of-life Jenny Taussig suddenly became a helpless, frightened old lady. Did she sense what was going to happen to the community?
A short time later I went into hiding with false papers, was betrayed, and wound up in my first concentration camp. Others, including my father when I met him in Terezin in 1943, told what follows to me:
After my father was shipped to Terezin late in 1941 my brother Tommy and grandmother Taussig remained in Prague until early in 1942, when they were put into a transport to Terezin. There grandmother Taussig, within that frightful transition, suddenly snapped back to her forceful, and efficient former self. She was nominated to supervise the distribution of food for the women’s barracks. Her judgment, probity, integrity, and her record from earlier years made her an obvious choice.
From Terezin, a few months later, still in 1942, Jenny Taussig, and my brother Tommy were put into a transport to the east. After the war I learned that the transport’s destination was Treblinka. Upon arriving there all were marched into the gas chamber. There were no survivors from that transport.