Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Intertwining Legacies: A Holocaust Survivor and a Tuskegee Airman

Me and artist, Fred Terna, who turns 90 this October.
I'm jealous because he's the better-looking one between us.
Thanks to Krista Hegburg for graciously taking the photo.
Last evening I had the great fortune to attend a discussion between Holocaust survivor and artist, Mr. Fred Terna, and Dr. Eugene J. Richardson, a former Tuskegee Airman. The discussion was mediated by Ms. Krista Hegburg, Program Officer at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum and sponsored by various organizations both at the University of Mississippi and nationally, including the Critical Race Studies Group the Association for Jewish Studies.

Dr. Richardson urged those of us in the audience to study history (as I and some of my university colleagues silently cheered him on) as a way to truly understand where we've all been and how we got to this point. He particularly encouraged the students in the audience to seek out history that is not yet, but should be, mainstream. He spoke of the many inventions and military achievements of Black Americans even as they were enslaved. Dr. Richardson urged us to hold up history as a shield against the onslaught of negative images of Black persons in America. He spoke of hidden histories and those words spoke to me because that is exactly the kind of history I write about in my historical novels.

Something Dr. Richardson said that I won't soon forget is how when health care workers train, they
Eugene J. Richardson
WWII pilot
don't study how to treat blacks and whites as distinct beings. Students in medical school study humans. They do this because medical science has recognized that humans are all the same underneath the skin. He asked us to consider why it is we can't all be like medical students in our approach to others.

Dr. Richardson also spoke of how he and his fellow airmen put their lives on the line for years protecting white bomb crews in WWII, only to return to a country that wouldn't even allow them to disembark from the same gangplank as the white soldiers. And yet, when asked by a student in the audience if he'd been angry about the situation back in the U.S., Dr. Richardson replied that hate is a destructive emotion and we don't often make good decisions when we're hating.

While Dr. Richardson inspired me to carry on as a teacher and as a writer, Mr. Terna inspired me to build a community in which we all take care of each other. He spoke of how survival in Nazi concentration camps depended on each prisoner accepting the duty he had to his fellow prisoners, but also to those on the outside. When asked by a student, "If you could have escaped, what would you have done?" Mr. Terna replied that he would not have tried to escape. First, he said, his family was being watched by the S.S. If he had tried to escape, they would have been shot to death in retaliation. Second, he said that any act of disobedience by a prisoner would bring down an exaggerated response by the guards that affected all of the prisoners. He told the story of how when one prisoner was accused of stealing something minor from a German guard, such as a piece of bread, ten prisoners were randomly chosen and shot in retaliation. Escape was not a personal matter. Escape meant living with the knowledge that you would cause great harm, death even, to your fellow man. This story, more than anything else Mr. Terna said, affected me greatly.

We can be selfish or we can recognize that we are in this life together and need to help each other. Fred Terna had more than one opportunity to escape. But he didn't take them because he felt a duty to his fellow prisoners, his family, and his fellow man.

Let me explain that last bit. How did Fred Terna not trying to escape help his fellow man? He told us that he was the only member of his extended family to survive the Holocaust. Then he told us that he was the only member of one particular concentration camp to survive. "I am a survivor," he said. "I have an obligation to speak on behalf of those who did not survive."

Escape from the camps would have meant certain death. "Where could I go?" Mr. Terna asked the audience. Escape is not the same as survival.

At the close of his talk, Mr. Terna asked those of us in the audience to tell our children and grandchildren that we'd met a Holocaust survivor. This was very important to Mr. Terna. He mentioned it twice and posed for dozens of photos with audience members afterwards so that they could testify to having met him and hearing his story.

As soon as I came home from the event, I showed each of my children the photo of me with Fred Terna. Both of them were amazed, thinking that there couldn't possibly be any Holocaust survivors left alive. Mr. Terna will turn 90 this year and Dr. Richardson will celebrate his 87th birthday in September of this year. I am amazed at these two men. I don't even expect to live into my 80s, much less be engaged in public speaking engagements at that age. We all owe such a debt of gratitude to these men for sacrificing the comfort of their retirement years to travel around the country speaking about their experiences.

I'm posting this photo of me with Fred Terna as a way to shout from the blogtop his message of communal responsibility and Dr. Richardson's message of remembering our history. Thank you to both men for enduring, bearing witness, and inspiring younger generations to be brave and to embrace diversity for the good of all people.

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