April 10, 2000
Text of Comments, 1982 Shoah Commemoration.
The text below was written well before our son, Daniel Terna, was born. Today Daniel 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.
These are notes for comments I made as part of the commemoration of Yom Hashoah, April 19, 1982 at Temple Shaaray Tefila, 79th Street at 2nd Avenue, New York City:
Some of you know me as a member of this Congregation. Today, however, I am speaking to you as a survivor. This allows me to fulfill a small part of the promise we made to each other in Auschwitz, in Dachau, and in so many other places, as there are fewer and fewer of us: “If you should live through this, go and tell the world.”
For more than a generation the world did not want to know or to be reminded, and we, the survivors, hurting and isolated, complied, and kept silent.
Today, when we are searching to give substance to that sentence, ‘Six million Jews were murdered’, we are numbed by that number, and so we let the words ‘six million’ stand in place of the unbearable attempt to look at the life and at the death of each individual killed. Even today, 37 years later, I cannot bring myself to find the words to tell about how all those around me died.
Rather than talk about ‘Six Million’ I would rather remember particular individuals. I will
tell you about two people who were part of the Jewish community of Prague, the city in which I grew up: Jenny Taussig, my grandmother, and Erwin Boehm, a friend.
In 1942 Jenny Taussig was put to death in a gas chamber in Treblinka. I’m aware of the horrors imposed upon her during the last two years of her life, but when I think of her I remember her for her kindness and love, the authority of her wisdom, and the details of her daily life. She knew by heart all the telephone numbers of her sisterhood, and those of many friends. She gently guided my brother and me to the love of chamber music and opera. She told me stories about her own grandmother who was born in the 1830’s.
Erwin Boehm was killed in February 1945 in Kaufering, a subcamp of Dachau. What I remember about Erwin is his wild sense of humor, his wit, and his energy. He was an ardent Zionist. He was handsome, and he knew it – he was something of a ladies’ man. A few weeks before his death, then starved and nearly a skeleton, he recited to us a poem he had written in his head in which he was explaining to an imaginary girlfriend why hi was not looking his best.
I am here because of a series of improbable statistical accidents. When every tenth person was shot I was number nine. Arriving in Auschwitz, still young and physically fit, I was not herded into a gas chamber, but selected for slave labor. On a long march luckily my shoes did not fall apart, so I did not lag behind to be shot. On a long train ride in a jam-packed cattle car I somehow did not die of thirst. These are just a few examples of the randomness of survival. Yet all these lucky circumstances would have been of little help if my father had not taught me ethics, philosophy and history. I was well prepared emotionally and intellectually to deal with whatever came my way. I knew what was right and what was wrong, and I was totally certain that evil would not prevail, that the Nazis were doomed, that liberation was a certainty.
I was not quite 18 years old when these events started for me on October 3rd, 1941. Three years, six months, thee weeks and two days later, on April 27th, 1945 I was liberated in Bavaria, mostly skin and bones, and near death. Several months later, barely able to walk, I returned to my hometown, Prague, only to find out that I was the only survivor in my entire family.
When I tried to get back some of the family possessions, the response I got was: “How come you didn’t die like all the others?”
Only about one tenth of the Jewish community of Prague had survived the concentration camps. It is as if only the front section of this sanctuary had survived, among them not one child, not one single adult over middle age, and even that small battered remnant was largely ignored when they returned to their former home town. Liberation did not guarantee survival. Many could not heal from their wounds. A frightful number committed suicide.
I am sure that you know about some of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. These are too painful for me to talk to you about. I would rather talk about how we reacted to the conditions imposed upon us. We, Jews under Nazi rule, were like any other community of Jews at any other given time in history: some were wise, some foolish, there were women and men, young and old, scoundrels and heroes. No matter how difficult the oppression, events were constantly discussed, option weighed, the morals and politics of any situation evaluated. Resistance, open and hidden, was planned with care whenever possible. This was not a demoralized mob waiting to be slaughtered.
Crime and unethical behavior was negligible. We well knew that human values were survival values, and that destructive behavior at the expense of others inevitably brought death to those who had betrayed the moral code. Even after liberation, when vengeance was possible, we did not return to kill our former oppressors, we had not been corrupted into imitating their ideology. We Jews are not murderers.
It is up to us, the survivors, to ‘go and tell what happened’. A few of us have become writers. Some of us have become scientists or artists, or articulate and visible in other fields. The world does not see, however, that much larger group, now close to old age, still battered and bruised and hurting, transplanted to different countries and cultures, with memories that still haunt them.
We have no tombstones for our unburied dead, and so it has become fashionable to commission memorials in stone and in bronze, symbolically or explicitly saying “Six Million”. These monuments make me vaguely uncomfortable, they seem inadequate, denying the individuality of those who perished. It is not a substitute for the concern for the living. Communities must search out those survivors, now mostly old, who need love, care, and attention.
I want to end by speaking to the youngest among you. You may well forget the details of what is said here today, but I want you to remember one thing, and to remember it well: In 1982, when you were in your teens, you met a survivor, and you talked to him. I want you to remember this for sixty years, and then tell your grandchildren. It will then be one hundred years from the time in which one third of our people perished. Let your deeds and your remembering be the memorial for them.