The story of Ari

July 21, 2006

The story of Ari

Daniel Terna, our son, graduated from the Middle School in June 2001. Rebecca Shiffman, Daniel’s mother, is the daughter of survivors of the Shoah. I, Frederick Terna, Daniel’s father, am a survivor.

Daniel has just ended his freshman year at Bard College, and he will continue his studies of journalism and photography in his second year there this fall.

This is the story of Ari, a survivor.

Ari died this past May. I now feel free to write about some of the events of Ari’s life during and after the Shoah. In past years I had urged him to record his memories. In his inimitable way he dismissed my suggestion with a stream of invectives belittling my judgment, and, specifically, the need for recollecting the past. Knowing Ari since the 1950’s I acknowledged his feelings, and, eventually, left it at that.

Ari was akin to other survivors. Delving into the past could bring painful and disturbing memories to the surface. Some survivors needed to push these back into remote and deep hollows of the mind, others, more fortunate, could acknowledge them as part of their life.

The significant events of Ari’s life are easily and quickly recalled, and I shall come to them shortly. Their consequences are a complex web.

The memory of others about Ari will differ from mine. Ari’s family, i.e., his sons and his former wives certainly will preserve a benign image about the recently departed. In the last years of his life Ari may have told Jenny, his companion during the last years of his life, one or another detail of his past. I doubt whether Ari would have confided data or feelings to his sons or any one of his three wives.

Should my intent to narrate the story of Ari, a survivor, have taken precedence over the possible negative impact of my assessment on his wives, his children, or his grandchildren? This set of Notes could come to their attention. I have resolved my dilemma by omitting family names, changing his first name to Ari, and using the terms first, second, and third wife, also first son and second son, etc. Since meeting Ari nearly half a century ago I learned more facts, some directly from him, some from others. I have no documentation. The assessment of the events is mine, and mine only. A good part of it is armchair evaluation. When talking about Ari’s family I’m reflecting his opinions and feelings, and my interpretation of them. So, e.g., I never met his father; when I met his mother she was a patient in an Alzheimer’s home.

There were some of Ari’s friends in my circle who knew more about his past, and who knew his parents. Most of them probably have died long ago, and, if not, I would not know where to find them. Writing these lines I’m aware of the paucity of my sources. While I have only fragments, they deserve to be recorded.

Some time in the latter 1950’s I sat with my first wife, Stella, in a rather crowded doctor’s waiting room. While talking to another person I was interrupted by a shower of histrionic invectives, laughingly challenging my premises as being ridiculous, and not worth even a minute’s attention. The tone was friendly, even kindhearted, though the words were cutting. I stopped and laughed. I probably replied, but I don’t recall details. I recognized the tone of a survivor.  In his torrent of disapproval I sensed pain and sorrow, and I wondered about the sources, and I wanted to know more. Ari and I became friends after that first meeting.

What were the words Ari used? They included “ridiculous, absurd, doesn’t make sense, preposterous, bizarre”, and similar terms.  It soon became apparent to me that these were part of his regular vocabulary sprinkled like salt and pepper over any and all subjects; their inclusion was nearly automatic. I wonder about the reaction of persons meeting him for the first time. Could they ignore the corrosive and sarcastic content while being charmed by his smile and the tone of his voice?

Ari, then close to thirty years old, was a short, stocky person with a round face, twinkling eyes; there was allure in his manners, even while the words were abrasive.

Ari was born in Warsaw in 1932. His family probably middle-class, and that is all that I know about them. In September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. In 1940 the Warsaw Ghetto was created. In 1940 Ari was about eight years old, a small spindly child. Ari’s father suddenly stopped functioning in the Ghetto. I cannot visualize the family’s situation then and I have only a generic explanation for his father’s emotional state. The psychological, and even physical numbness of some inmates in ghettos and concentration camps has been described in the appropriate journals after the war.

I don’t know who led Ari into his next phase, or who instructed him. Ari, then a thin and emaciated kid, looking much younger than his years, walked through the sewers out of the Ghetto into Warsaw proper carrying valuables out and exchanged them for food, medicines, and, occasionally, weapons.

Here my imagination is failing me trying to visualize a child walking in sewerage and slime, in darkness, stench and rats, and doing it again and again. Was he alone, was there a group? Did they have light?

There must have been an adult guiding and directing him, there must have been an organizing mind gathering valuables in the Ghetto, a parallel set of contacts in gentile Warsaw, and then again someone distributing food and medicine brought back into the Ghetto. That person is the invisible hero of this story. There must have been some system of amassing money or other assets to enable the family to survive after their escape into Warsaw proper and their flight into the forests. It probably was not Ari’s father. I don’t think that a child, even a very smart and courageous one such as Ari could have evaluated the risks, opportunities, and the political situation of the moment.

What happened to that person? Did he or she survive the war? The chance for survival was very small. That person may have chosen to remain in the Ghetto, and thus eventually would have been shipped to the death-camp of Treblinka, or perished in the Ghetto uprising. Even after a successful escape from the Ghetto there were some options for survival, but they were limited. The fight between the Polish Home Army and the Germans caused immense casualties among the civilian population of Warsaw.

Ari became the provider, the source of life for his family. He later became also the rescuer of his family. Before the Ghetto upraising in the spring of 1943, and while Ghetto inmates were being shipped “east to other working areas”, in reality to Treblinka, Ari managed to guide his parents through the sewers out of the Ghetto, and, eventually, out of Warsaw into forests. Ari was eleven years old then. The family was in the forests while Russian Troops in August of 1944 stopped their advance on the far side of the Vistula River and waited just outside Warsaw while the Polish Home Army was fighting to liberate Warsaw. An ensuing German counter-offensive turned the city into rubble. The Red Army was waiting for the annihilation of the uprising and of the potentially western-oriented regime. They entered what was left of Warsaw in January 1945. WWII ended in May of 1945. Ari was thirteen years old then.

I don’t know whether any member of Ari’s extended family survived the Shoah. I don’t think that Ari had any knowledge about them. He never mentioned other pre-war family.

In1946, after the Kielce pogroms the family fled Poland to refugee camps in West Germany.

In the critical years between 194l and 1944 Ari kept the family going, fed them, and eventually saved their lives. The role of parents and child were reversed. The family was saved, but the emotional damage was beyond measure. There was no tradition, no template to deal with such a disruption. There also came a break in the relationship between Ari’s parents. The legal shell of the marriage remained; they lived in a common household as an economic unit. The bond was never repaired; there was no psychological help available then. It would have taken a rare person to heal that marriage. Ari had a wretched exemplar as a model. This negative paradigm probably played havoc in his three marriages.

Ari’s education finally started in the refugee camps in West Germany. At the same time his parents attempted to assert their traditional role as guides of a child, then a teen-ager. This did not work, and the conflict was predictable. The wreckage of that configuration was visible for years afterward. It is easy to blame Ari’s parents. They owed Ari their survival. Starting a new life in a new place was an enormous task even for the best adjusted, it was a nearly impossible undertaking for injured minds, for a family in turmoil.

In 1948 the family arrived in the USA, settled first in Boston, and then in Brooklyn. Ari got a high school equivalency diploma. Upon the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 Ari enlisted in the army, and served for five years, almost all the time in Brooklyn. He married his first wife, and remained with her for 2 ½ years. I have no information about her, why they married or why they parted. When I met Ari the legal proceedings were in their last phase. I had the impression that the divorce was by mutual consent.

Who would want to be married to Ari? He was kind, responsible and hardworking, but also cynical, negative, corrosive, skeptical, and dubious about motives. It would take very self-assured and positive person to overcome, perhaps neutralize his jaundiced view of the world and of life. The marriage of his parents certainly was hardly a positive example.

Ari’s father died of a heart attack at a comparatively young age. I never met him. There seems to have been some regret in both Ari and his father that they did not have the opportunity to develop good relationship. His mother died in an institution, after years of oblivion.

When the future wife number two appeared she seemed to be the one to have the strength to balance Ari’s world-weariness. She was an Israeli, daughter of pre-war immigrants from Germany to, then, Palestine. She was divorced; there were no children from that first marriage. She had served in the Israel army, in the tank corps. She was literally an Israeli tank driver. I wonder why they got married. One of the reasons may have been her need to get US citizenship. She wanted to get her own parents to this country. Another reason was Ari’s reliable income from his business as buyer for restaurants, supplying their daily needs of produce from the Hunt’s Point Market. I don’t remember wife number two and Ari living together in the same place. Number two found other partners, and the marriage ended after about 2 ½ years.

Ari and I lived in the same area, the Upper East Side. My first wife Stella and Ari shared the same internist and thus we had a point of contact. Later Stella had developed bi-polar depression and needed constant attention. When she was not hospitalized she needed continuous guardianship while at home. Ari was always available to help, get groceries, or spell me when I had to run errands, or just to be available as someone to talk to about mundane matters.

There were areas in Ari’s mind that never had a chance of expanding. He loved dancing, cooking, enjoyed popular music; he very much preferred musicals to serious music. I don’t recall ever seeing a single book in his hand. His politics were quite liberal, and no surprise for someone whom life had taught the value of a free, fair, and open community. I wonder what would have become of him if the war had not shredded his future. His intellectual horizon was remarkably wide for someone without academic predilection. His information about Jewish life was marginal and focused on the ceremonial. He belittled historical and sociological ideas. He suspected abstract concepts.  I don’t know about the extent of the religious observance in his family before 1939.

In the late1960’s wife number three appeared. She was in her late teens, a rather typical girl from a traditional Brooklyn Jewish middle-class area and background. She was young, vivacious, and I shall omit other physical attributes. Upon meeting her for the first time I suggested to Ari to end this uneven relationship, but to no avail. He may have been tickled by the attention of a young woman. She may have been taken by the security of a good provider, while unaware of his emotional load. In her community of Brooklyn her contemporaries were all married. Eventually Ari and wife three were married, and two sons were born. Ari and wife three worked hard to support the new family. Wife three followed some of the fashionable trends of child rearing of the 1970’s, and became a nutrition faddist. Rebecca and I became concerned for the health of the children, but felt helpless. Nutritional deficiencies may have warped the development of the boys in their early years.

The father of wife three had moved to a city in the South, opened a used auto-parts business and invited Ari to join him. There followed years of business trouble aggravated by disagreement with his father-in-law’s business morals. Ari’s father-in-law was less than scrupulous in his dealings. The result was a criminal conviction and a jail term. Eventually Ari acquired the business, put it on a solid base and supported the family.

There was a medical emergency: Ari needed major cardiac surgery. All heart arteries had to be replaced. Ari recovered, but years later the by-pass surgery had to be repeated.

There was a gambling episode. For a time Ari regularly went to race tracks.. Professionals in the field of psychology have observed the attraction of risk taking to some survivors. Some describe it an attempt of self-destruction, some to survivor’s guilt. Ari eventually understood his particular motivation, and stopped gambling.

The above two may not have been the only visible consequences of the Shoah during that time. The sarcastic and mocking language remained his hallmark to the end. A small illuminating detail: At all times Ari made sure that there was bread in the house. He could not go to sleep unless there was bread in the freezer

After Ari and family moved to the South, our contact was by weekly telephone calls, and by Ari’s frequent visits to our home here in Brooklyn.

Soon after arriving in the South the food fad of wife three took a religious turn. She went from one esoteric cult to another, became a born-again Christian, and then changing from oriental sects to Pentecostal ones. The constant shifting of adherence to fringe groups disrupted the life of the boys and caused them significant emotional and behavior problems. Ari and wife three separated, and the boys lived with Ari most of the time. After 17 years there was an eventual divorce.

The boys are now married, and they in turn have children, Ari’s grandchildren. I understand that one of Ari’s daughters-in-law is involved with families of Shoah survivors. I don’t know about other involvement of the families in Ari’s past. I wonder about the influence of the Shoah, if any, on Ari’s sons or their families.

Over the years while observing Ari I did not notice any expression of love towards any one of his wives nor did I see him as the recipient of their affection. Eventually, after his divorce from wife number three he found Jenny, and the give and take of a lovingly shared life. Jenny was a widow, a caring and wonderful person with a big family. Jenny and Ari came to visit us on a few occasions. It was only during the last six years of his life that love and happiness finally had allowed the Shoah to recede into the background. After all these years there was a person who said, “I love you” to Ari, and to whom he could reply “I love you too”.

Ari braved the horrors of the Shoah, and lived with its painful aftermath, he walked through the sewers of the Warsaw Ghetto, and he started a new life. The story of his life is a part of our life.

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