April 19, 2004
Text of Comments, Yom Hashoah 2004
Daniel Terna, our son, graduated from the Middle School in 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 is the text of my remarks on the occasion of the Yom Hashoah commemoration at the school on the evening of April 19, 2004.
Before commenting on our theme for this evening, “Living With Memories” I want to mention two names: Jenny Taussig, my grandmother, and Erwin Boehm, a friend.
Jenny Taussig was born in 1875 in Bohemia. 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 had a photographic memory. Playing music from a score she did not need the printed copy ever again. I’m aware of the horrors imposed upon her during the last two years of her life. In 1942 Jenny Taussig was put to death in a gas chamber in Treblinka.
Erwin Boehm and I met in Prague in 1939. 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. We met again in Theresienstadt in 1943. In 1944 both of us were in the same transport to Auschwitz, survived the selection, and, late in 1944 were in the same transport to Kaufering, a subcamp of Dachau. A few weeks before his death, then starved and nearly a skeleton, Erwin recited to us a poem he had written in his head in which he was explaining to an imaginary girlfriend why he was not looking his best. Erwin was killed in 1945, a few weeks before liberation.
Remembering and observing Yom Hashoah we are still searching for words to describe what happened. While in concentration camps we promised each other that the one who survives would tell the story. Even then we realized that a full description was beyond words or images.
Today I want to reflect about one aspect of those years. How do we live with the memory of the Shoah? I want to go from a few general observations to the personal, how I have managed to live with my memory.
The Shoah became a part of our life, but it took some time to be admitted.
After liberation in 1945 the world acknowledged that many Jews had perished, but it did little more than that.
My own experience is probably typical, and survivors heard variations of it wherever they went. “You are lucky to be alive. Go and live. Forget the past, and, above all, don’t bother us. Go away, go.”
The world was more than eager to ignore and forget the victims.
A psychologist later coined the apt phrase “A Conspiracy of Silence”.
We had no graves of our families, and we buried our memories. We struggled to mend our injuries. We had to start a new life in new countries; we had to learn new languages. We wanted to start a new family. Memory was pushed deep inside.
More than twenty years went by before facts were gathered and recorded. The word “Holocaust” began to be used in its current meaning. Before the 1960’s only a few books about the Shoah had been published. From then on ever increasing numbers of studies have been written, and today we know that there are libraries of records, there are university courses, research institutes and museums.
The Shoah became a part of our community memory. The Shoah has also entered the awareness of the rest of the world, and it now reverberates in the politics and actions of nations. We, and now the rest of the world too, live with the knowledge of that history, and with the fate of those who perished.
I must omit here detailed comment about the way a community lives with painful memories. This is a large and separate field of study.
I have some knowledge about myself though and thus I may tell you a little about at least one survivor’s attempt to live with his memories.
It took me a while to learn how to cope with the past, and how to live sensibly. By trial and error I found my formula, my limits, the little techniques of evasion, repression, distractions and routines to keep me on an even keel.
As early as 1943, while still in Theresienstadt, I decided that I wanted to become a painter. In 1945, after liberation, then still hospitalized, a friendly soul gave me watercolors and I painted scenes remembering Auschwitz and other places. I quickly realized that part of me was still in the camps, and I changed to painting landscapes. Much later, looking at some of my landscapes I noticed that there were walls and fences in many of them. It taught me that the memory of the Shoah was a part of me, and that it would not go away, and that I would have to live with it. I cannot illustrate realistically images vividly alive in my mind. I learned how to tackle these themes in a semi-abstract and symbolic mode, using line, color, composition and surface to reflect feelings and ideas. Painting allows me to express my anguish and intrusive recollections, to put my feelings and memories onto a canvas.
I have to stay away from movies dealing with the Shoah. I don’t read fiction about it. I do occasionally read factual reports or studies. I do belong to museums and organizations that commemorate the Shoah. I speak about my experience to the extent that my emotional wellbeing allows it. I have learned that it then takes some time to regain my balance, and I pace myself with some care.
Yes, I do have bad nightmares, far too many of them, and I don’t know how to avoid them. I have no control over haunting dreams.
The Shoah remains a lens through which I read the world and through which I evaluate people. Would they give me a slice of bread? Would they hide me? Could I trust them? I see a certain man, and I know that he has all the hallmarks of an obtuse and narrow-minded SS officer and concentration camp commander. He is kind to his dog, but is ready to send people to their death to satisfy his ideology.
The Shoah has shaped my life style. I value the time that I have. Those who perished around me would have wanted to savor every living moment. I don’t want to spend my time on trifles, read shallow books, or watch trite programs.
I’m aware of the fragility of life, and of my obligation to sustain it. I keep thinking about my younger brother, a rambunctious, know-it-all teenager, and I miss him sorely. He was killed in Treblinka in 1942. If he had lived he would be 79 years old this year. I remember well the teaching of my father whose precepts and principles allowed me to understand the events around me. This allowed me to survive emotionally and with a sound mind. Late in 1944 my father perished in Auschwitz.
The Shoah has shaped my value system. The highest value is life, and the quality of life. This includes an open, fair and just community. We are all responsible for each other.
I accept that my memory of the Shoah is close to the surface at all times. On earlier occasions I used a simile: Inside of me there is an unpredictable bass player playing an ugly tune. Over the years I have learned to play the fiddle above it so that there should be some harmony to my life.
I consider myself to be a happy person. I’m married to a wonderful and wise wife, and we have a promising teenager. I have enough to eat, clothing to wear, and a roof over my head. I have good friends, a challenging and inspiring community to live in. It took me a while to put it all together. I made it.
But, (and you knew that a but would follow), events and images that were long suppressed and pushed down into deep layers of the mind for many many years are now increasingly coming to the surface, and have to be faced anew. I’m still learning how to live with memories of the Shoah.
I want to end by speaking to the younger ones among you. You may well forget the details of what was said here this evening. I want you to remember one thing, and to remember it well. On Yom Hashoah, in 2004, you met a survivor. I want you to remember this for forty years, and then tell your children and grandchildren. It will 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.