January 28, 2000
While writing these notes in January 2000, Daniel Terna, our son, is a pupil in the seventh grade of the Middle School. Daniel’s mother, Rebecca Shiffman, is the daughter of survivors of the Shoah. I, Frederick Terna, Daniel’s father, am a survivor.
Frequently, when talking to groups of students, I’m questioned about resistance by inmates of Ghettos and concentration camps. My earlier notes for the Shoah Archive gathered memories about family members rather than dwelling on general themes. Among the voluminous books about the Shoah most libraries contain many well-researched volumes about the subject of resistance; it would be quite superfluous for me to add here accounts to which I was not a witness. I shall digress here from my previous focus on individuals, and give voice to some general thoughts about resistance. I shall then record some events as I remember them.
Before continuing I want to include here the significant part of a letter that I wrote in 1974 while attending a lecture on the Shoah. Since the recipient of the letter is still alive I’m omitting his name. His answer was heartfelt, kind, and led to further discussion.
From time to time you have voiced notions which could be summarized as “They should have taken a few with them”, and “They saw what was coming, and they sat on their money”. Painfully I have come to understand such expressions as reactions of people who lived outside continental Europe or who grew up after 1945. It is, perhaps, a necessary safety valve based on a life-sustaining rejection of the facts.
Before, and during the war, while events were unfolding, my family, my community, and probably all other communities were discussing again and again what to do, how to stay alive, how to choose right from wrong, remembering and observing our traditions. Alas, most participants cannot speak for themselves.
On November 20th, when discussing the writings of Bruno Bettelheim you quote Bettelheim disapproving of Anne Frank’s father for teaching his children philosophy rather than self-defense. You endorsed that view, and added that Mr. Frank should have secured arms for his family. It was then that I decided to write this letter.
If Mr. Frank had followed the suggestion to “take a few with them” the death of the entire family would have been inevitable, the death of many around them probable. Mr. Frank survived. It could have been Anne; it could have been both, perhaps the entire group. Mr. Frank acted within our tradition of accepting personal risks rather than adding to the danger facing the entire community.
To “take a few along” meant inevitable reprisals, execution of the entire group, including old people, women, children, certainly one’s entire family. It was a step not taken lightly. To “take a few along” would have been a reckless indulgence. We were well aware of that option. One of our considerations was that we would not adopt the values of our oppressors. We would, for instance, not kill at random, pick off a guard, perhaps an illiterate recruit from Transsylvania or Bosnia.
One of the dictionary definitions of resistance applicable here could be paraphrased as “opposing a force”. That wording encompasses a wide range, from the heroic uprising in the Bialystok Ghetto to the demanding endeavor of an old person to maintain personal cleanliness in appalling circumstances, without soap, or even enough water. Today we have perfect hindsight, we know the history of Jewish communities in Europe during Nazi rule in some detail. These events were lived then from one day to the next without information, without communication with other communities.
Any statement about the Shoah, and thus also about resistance must be very precise about the date and also the place. What was a true statement about Ghetto Theresienstadt in 1942 could be quite wrong in 1943. Events in Lithuania in 1943 were thoroughly different from those in 1943 in occupied France.
From the earliest days of Nazi occupation of my hometown Prague news and access to information were rigidly controlled. Information needed by the Jewish community was by word of mouth, and edicts handed down by the local Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. These decrees were enforced with extraordinary brutality. Any transgression by an individual brought harsh punishment on the community. At regular intervals posters were mounted throughout the city giving names, and describing the mode of execution of non-Jews who had acted against the German occupation. Resistance was in the air, and a serious concern for the occupiers.
If the definition of resistance is the opposition to force, then Jewish resistance began by choosing to be a viable member of the community, by maintaining the ethical precepts under a rule that assaulted every aspect of our lives. After the war the phrase “Spiritual Resistance” was coined. It includes the continued teaching of Jewish children under the threat of severe punishment, the performing of music, writing, painting and lecturing in Ghettos and concentration camps. At the other end of the definition of opposition to force is the armed active resistance to Nazi rule. There is also the middle ground of harming the German war effort. Jewish resistance took many forms, but it had one modifier, our knowledge that reprisals would affect the entire community. The Nazis publicized in great detail the fate of the Czech village of Lidice in Bohemia. In 1942, as a reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the top Nazi in Bohemia, all males of Lidice were executed, all women and children sent to concentration camps, Lidice was leveled. None of the inhabitants of Lidice were Jews.
A general remark: Spiritual Resistance was activity ignored or tolerated by the Nazis. Since the individuals involved were known, and slated for death within a short time anyway, no special action was taken. Active resistance to the Nazis required anonymity. This included e.g. partisans in the forests. Active resistances in ghettos or concentration camps were doomed efforts. Location and membership were known. Effective armed resistance or economic sabotage requires anonymity. I shall expand on that when talking about Kaufering farther down.
The phrase “they went to their death like sheep to slaughter” forgets that while we were in trains to death camps we did not know where we were going. Plans for the “Endloesung”, the “Final Solution”, were a closely guarded secret by the Nazis. Armed Jewish resistance was attempted when it was quite clear that death of all Jews in a particular location was imminent. Yet, there were no survivors of the Bialystok Ghetto uprising. Even before being shipped to death camps sabotage on a smaller scale was routine. Opposition to Nazi rule was achieved in subtle ways.
The prevention of sabotage and rebellion was of prime concern to the Nazis. It was their fear, their obsession. Any action by inmates was first viewed in that light. The Nazis spent large amounts of energy and resources on deterrence and control.
In March of 1939 when Nazi Germany occupied the remnant of Bohemia I was 15 years old. In an earlier note I recorded details about the immediate repression of the Jewish community. I don’t know whether resistance was contemplated by anybody at that time.
There was total conviction that, eventually, Germany would go down in defeat. Jewish resistance began by the evasion of orders. As mentioned in a different set of notes my education continued in a carefully planned manner. Every effort was made to circumvent anti-Jewish decrees, and to soften their impact. There were about 25,000 Jews in Prague, a highly visible group in a city of about one million.
From early in 1940 to the summer of 1941 I lived with false documents on a farm in Lobkovice, a village north of Prague. While there I was careful not to get into a situation where I could be found out. There were no Jews in the area I was aware of. The Czech population was quietly co-operating with the German rule. There were collaborators in the village who were willing to betray anybody for small favors from the Nazis. One of them suspected the validity of my documents, and I had to return to Prague in haste. Soon after that, on October 3rd 1941, then just about 18 years old, I was put into a labor camp in Lipa, in German called Linden bei Deutsch-Brod, a place in the highlands between Bohemia and Moravia. It was run by the Gestapo and by Nazi storm troopers. We were a group of a few hundred young Jews, almost all around twenty years old, slave labor working on a huge farm, in the forest, building roads. There was a wire fence around the camp. Escape would have been quite easy, yet no one tried. A chalk line around the camp would have done as well. The Nazis had the names and addresses of our families, and any attempt to escape would have endangered them. The “Wansee Konferenz”, the secret meeting of the highest officials of the German Reich where the systematic murder of all Jews under German rule was planned occurred in January 1942, months after we were shipped to Lipa. We, of course, did not know about that meeting, not then, nor anytime during the war. With perfect hindsight of today we should have done many things differently in Lipa. Resistance: There were very few areas where we could do anything serious. Damaging tools or equipment could have had lethal consequences, and we knew that. Sabotage was done in a very individual way. It was not done on a major scale so as not to endanger other inmates. In another set of notes I mentioned how we continued studying, teaching each other. It included clandestine performances, lecturing to small groups; it included a choir of eight voices. We were hungry, tired, and dirty, but our minds were soaring.
In March 1943 all the inmates of Lipa were shipped to Terezin, Ghetto Theresienstadt.
The fervor of the discerning life of Ghetto Terezin comes to mind when the expression Spiritual Resistance is invoked, that passion for life while surrounded by affliction and terror. I was fortunate to have been able to attend many lectures, to be able to listen to performances, to have met many fine artists there. Teaching and schools were not allowed, but there were literally hundreds of lectures presented by some of the finest minds of Central Europe. I remember well the various lectures of Rabbi Leo Baeck about philosophy. Operas were performed in concert form sung by some of the great voices of the time. Instead of an orchestra an old piano on wooden horses had to serve. The list of such activities is too long for these brief lines. If armed resistance was contemplated, and planned in Terezin then I was not aware of such projects. In the workshops, set up by the Nazis as part of their war effort, slow and shoddy work was prevalent, tempered by sensible awareness of limits.
In the fall of 1944 along with thousands of other Terezin inmates I was shipped to Auschwitz. Upon arriving there and filing by Doctor Mengele a few able-bodied young men and I were waved aside as slave labor; all the others were driven into the gas chamber. We remained in Auschwitz for a limited time. Auschwitz was being evacuated; the Russian army was drawing near. While in Auschwitz flight and resistance was contemplated; yet recognized as fantasy. Before long we were driven into railway cattle cars. After a long and difficult journey we, the survivors of that trip, found ourselves in Kaufering #4, a sub-camp of Dachau.
Kaufering was the worst camp I experienced. Other notes record more detail about Kaufering. It was Kaufering that gave us the anonymity to sabotage the German war effort. We were in thin pajama striped uniforms, and looked much alike. The work was on a huge construction site building aircraft factories. There were two 12-hour shifts. There were a few possibilities of resistance. This may have shown itself as no more than the claim not to understand commands in German, making it necessary for the Nazis to assign more guards to each task. Each additional guard meant one man less fighting against the Allies. The best opportunities for sabotage arose during the night shift, and in particular during air raid alarms, when all lights were turned off, and the guards went into shelters while we had to remain outside. While I was on a work detail unloading cement from a train, during darkness I would take a fist-full of sand and toss it into oil boxes lubricating axles of boxcars. It would take some time but eventually the axles would get pitted, seize, or run hot and cause a fire. We jammed railway signal switches. Someone knew how to tamper electrical fuse boxes. These small actions did not end the war one minute earlier but they gave us the satisfaction of active involvement.
We were liberated in April 1945. Executions, death marches, beating, starvation, exhaustion, and epidemics killed almost all concentration camp inmates who had managed to survive into 1945. I was one of the very few alive, barely alive, when liberated April 27th, 1945.