November 13, 2001
September 11, 2001
Daniel Terna, our son, graduated from the Middle School this 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.
This year, on September 11th, while walking in Brooklyn, fine ash was falling, and the air reeked of burning. Brown billowing smoke was drifting across the East River from Manhattan. Fifty-seven years ago, in Auschwitz, brown billowing smoke from crematorium chimneys rained the ashes of murdered people on me, and the smell of burning was fraught with horror.
My recollection was immediate. Feelings that over the years had softened their contours surfaced with cutting outlines. Mengele had waved me, and a few other young adults to one side. The rest, the entire transport, were driven into the gas. Flames soared from the top of the crematorium chimney, changed into brownish smoke, and spewed ashes.
There are many accounts about Auschwitz. Within these lines I do not have to, and today I don’t need to elaborate on these memories. I want to record my reaction to the many dead, and to the destruction of the World Trade Center.
The horror of the event did not stop the mind working. I was upset, angry, full of hatred and contempt for the terrorists. At he same time I knew that it was necessary to have a clear idea about the situation. In Auschwitz there was uninformed chaos, few options, and a wrong move could be deadly. Here news and reports were available over the radio. Telephones and the Internet remained open. There was the same awareness that the events were beyond my control, the same fear about the next day, but also the necessity to have the mind precede emotions.
When the World Trade Center was attacked the brutality of the action hit me with a sense of recognition. The potential of a sudden disaster, of suffering, and of death, had been lurking underneath a thin layer of well being. Survivors of the Shoah share the consequences of the years 1939 to 1945. The details, though, tend to be quite different from person to person. I too have recurrent nightmares and flashbacks; I too startle at sudden noises; I too have many idiosyncrasies and quirks. I have learned to live with them in my waking hours. I also know how fortunate I am. By temperament and disposition I’m looking at life positively, using mind and feelings to shape my days. I’m well aware of the incisive impact of the events of the Shoah on my life. I’m aware of this continuous influence, the way it has shaped my attitudes and expectations.
My first reactions were practical. I called Rebecca at work. I called Daniel’s school, Packer Collegiate in downtown Brooklyn, and made sure that Daniel was on his way home. Since bridges and tunnels to Manhattan were closed I suggested that boys from Manhattan could stay in our home, and two of them joined us. Without the knowledge about the extent of the destruction I went and bought three gallons of water. We have enough food in the house to last a few days. I was sure that any disruption would be dealt with, and last a short time only.
This sudden attack was different. When the World Trade Center was struck it was a totally unexpected blow. Auschwitz, in 1944, was my third concentration camp. I had acquired some lessons in the preceding places, and I was prepared; I had learned how to deal with sudden calamities, how to manage my feelings. I knew about the brittleness of life. I knew that the need to think clearly, to preserve human values, and to act morally were essential for survival.
Arriving in this country half a century ago I, as so many other survivors, was looking for a place where I would feel secure, where I would be accepted, where I would feel free to develop, use my skills, and to be part of a vibrant community. It took some time to acknowledge that this seemingly unattainable daydream was within reach, that I was in fact living it. From the very beginning I also knew that upon arriving here my past would travel with me, that the Shoah would continue to pervade the rest of my life, that my feeling of security was tentative, that happiness and life are fragile. This cognizance earlier held by a few now is part of American life after September 11th.
This country, perhaps the entire Western world, finds itself in a new era.
Today survivors of the Shoah may, perhaps, be the proof that while memories and pain persist it is possible to lead caring and productive lives in a friable and uncertain world.