As the Witness Generation Fades, Holocaust Museum Faces a Race Against the Clock
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75 Years On

As the Witness Generation Fades, Holocaust Museum Faces a Race Against the Clock

For historians tasked with preserving historical records and artifacts, it's ‘one minute to midnight.’

Historical artifacts from before the Second World War. Courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Historical artifacts from before the Second World War. Courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

They were handwritten on the personal stationery of Jochanan Terna, documenting for history the mundane details of daily life in Nazi-occupied Prague. The half-dozen letters were sent in late 1941 and early 1942 to his teenage son, Fred, who was then in Nazi custody. Somehow, the missives survived the Holocaust.

Fred Terna, now 96, doesn’t remember how he managed to hold onto his father’s letters in the four concentration camps, including Auschwitz, where he was interned during World War II, nor how he lost them or how he got them back after the war ended. But for about seven decades they were a personal connection to his own story of survival; he was the only member of his immediate family who came out of the Shoah alive.

Two years ago, he donated the letters to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“These are historical documents; they ceased to be my personal property,” says Terna, a working artist who lives in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Over the last several years Terna has donated several other artifacts with a Holocaust provenance or post-Holocaust connection to the museum, including photographs, an heirloom harmonica, assorted documents and 20 pieces of his artwork. He has also recorded his oral history for the museum and several other Jewish institutions — all of it adding to the historical record, and the collective memory, of the Shoah period.

A form from the Dachau concentration camp, offers details about internee Fred Terna, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Now, in the face of the cruel math that most of the survivors of the Holocaust will be gone in less than a generation, the museum is in a race to collect as many artifacts as it can and preserve the memories attached to them.

As part of its commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — Jan. 27, 1945, marked in Europe and in many countries around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day — the museum is arranging meetings here next week with survivors and their descendants who are interested in donating their wartime heirlooms to the institution’s massive collection of personal items from the Shoah.

Fred Wasserman, acquisitions curator at the museum’s Northeast Regional Office, based in Manhattan, and another curator from the museum, will conduct the meetings at the office on Jan. 27-29.

The museum’s collection of millions of Holocaust-connected items — some 4,000 of which are included in its permanent exhibition — is the recipient of donations on a daily basis, but officials there are making an effort to gather more while the aging survivors are still alive.

“Time is of the essence in the … effort to preserve as much evidence of the Holocaust as possible while we still have the opportunity to meet with Holocaust survivors,” said Sindy Lugerner, the museum’s assistant director of development and operations.

“It’s one minute to midnight in terms of getting artifacts,” said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust authority and prolific author. “We are losing survivors by the day.

“The generation after [children and grandchildren of the survivors] is unlikely to know the importance of some of this material,” said Berenbaum, who served as the D.C. museum’s project director from 1988 to 1993. “Some of the material is in foreign languages that their kids don’t read.”

The items, he said, will be kept “in better shape in the museum.”

The museum seeks to document the experiences of men and women who spent the war years in concentration camps or ghettoes, in hiding or in partisan units, or east in labor camps in such places as Siberia or Kazakhstan, said Wasserman. It also seeks material related to rescuers, soldiers in units that liberated the camps, and people in this country who worked to raise money for reliefefforts or to bring survivors or refugees here. “Anyone impacted by the Nazis.”

The art of survival: Terna in his Brooklyn studio, where he works in acrylics./PHOTO BY DANIEL TERNA

Such items include art, books, pamphlets, advertisements, maps, film and video historical footage, audio and video oral testimonies, music and sound recordings, furnishings, architectural fragments, machinery, tools, microfilm and microfiche of government documents and other official records, personal effects, personal papers, photographs, photo albums, and textiles.

The museum’s collection of donated items, from little-known survivors and from prominent people like the late author Primo Levi, includes more than 1,265 hours of archival film footage, more than 125,000 library items in 61 languages, more than 22,000 Holocaust-related testimonies and access to nearly 52,000 oral histories from the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation. Much of this collection has been digitized, and is available at the museum’s website, ushmm.org.

The current initiative is part of a “big outreach effort” conducted in some 50 countries, Wasserman said. In past years, survivors were invited to bring in memorabilia for appointments in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boca Raton and Washington — and in New York, in 2013, on the occasion of the museum’s 20th anniversary.

Sacred and Emotional

The effort to collect items that serve as “silent witnesses” to the Shoah is vital at a time “when anti-Semitic acts are on the rise,” Wasserman said. “There’s an imperative here.”

In meetings with the survivors, he and the other curator, will document the survivors’ accounts of the artifacts backgrounds, Wasserman said.

The stories are crucial, Berenbaum said. “The artifacts with the stories are sacred.”

While most of the donated items are likely to be of greater sentimental than financial value, “it’s a difficult thing for many people” to give them away, Wasserman said. “It can be an emotional process.”

Survivors part with their rare and personal keepsakes, Wasserman said, because the artifacts will be in a better, communal place, and can play a role — at a time of increasing Holocaust denial or ignorance of the Shoah — in proving the authenticity of the Jewish experience during the Final Solution. “They find it meaningful and comfortable. They feel [the artifacts] will be safe and preserved.”

The items are kept in climate-controlled surroundings, and, if necessary, repaired and restored by museum staff.

“Every family’s story is unique,” he said. Survivors’ altruistic reasons for donating their artifacts to the museum “are typical,” Wasserman said, calling Terna’s story “quite individual.”

Born Friedrich Taussig to a Viennese Jewish family in Prague, Terna — his father had changed the family’s name before the war — survived Terezin, Dachau and Auschwitz, and was liberated in April 1945 near a sub-camp of Dachau. After studying art in Paris, he came to the U.S. in 1952.

Today he lives in a renovated brownstone with his wife, Dr. Rebecca Shiffman, and son, Daniel, the top floor of their home converted into a studio where he works on his acrylic pieces every day. The home is lined with his art, rows of menorahs and bookcases stuffed with Jewish books; mezuzahs he has created are placed on the many doorposts.

“We’re not religious in the traditional way,” he says, adding that he attends Shabbat services weekly at the Kane Street Synagogue and frequently studies Torah.

Terna, who calls himself an active supporter of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City, has also donated artifacts to Yad Vashem, the Ghetto Fighters’ House in Israel and Beit Terezin, located on Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud.

He says he urges fellow survivors to donate their physical mementos of the Shoah to the D.C. museum or other institutions that are preserving the record of that period.

Terna says he has no plans to donate more of his possessions. He’s already given the most important ones to the D.C. museum, he says. “What I had, the museum got.”

For information or to schedule an appointment with the Northeast Regional Office of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: (212) 983-0825; northeast@ushmm.org.

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