Fred Terna

(Vienna 1923 – New York City 2022)

“Everything I paint has to do with Auschwitz”

Fred Terna (right) with his brother Thomas
Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York

Frederick Terna was born Friedrich Arthur Taussig in Vienna on 8 October 1923, but in 1927 he moved with his brother Thomas and his parents to Prague, where his father worked for a shipping reinsurance company. His sons completed their compulsory education and then went on to attend grammar school. At home they spoke German and Czech. When Frederick’s mother succumbed to pneumonia in 1932, their circumstances changed. At first, the single father hired nannies for his sons but, in the end, they were looked after by a local, non-Jewish family. In 1939, after the Wehrmacht invasion of Czechoslovakia, Fred Terna was expelled from school and denied the right to continue his education.

Having been provided with false papers by his father, Fred Terna initially went into hiding in a village near Prague, but in 1941 he was arrested by the Gestapo and interned on 3 October in the Linden labour camp near Deutsch-Brod (today Havlíčkův Brod). He was the youngest camp inmate and performed forced labour there until 1943. When the camp was closed down, he was deported to Theresienstadt, where he remained until 1944. In the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Fred Terna began to draw. Then, in September 1944, he was brought to Auschwitz.

“At that time, that is, at the end of 1944, you could already hear the front. That is, at night you could hear the thunder of artillery. There was no doubt that the Russians were coming our way. And Auschwitz was shut down.”

Fred Terna was evacuated from Auschwitz by train and taken to the Dachau subcamp complex at Kaufering near Munich, where the prisoners were put to work producing armaments for the Nazis in the final phase of the war.

“Kaufering was the hardest of the camps I was in. There were long, long hours of hard labour, long marches, hardly ever enough sleep, and almost not enough to eat. Guaranteed death within three, four months.”

In April 1945, Fred Terna caught typhoid fever and was once again evacuated with the other prisoners. When his transport was attacked by the Allied air force, he tried to make his escape but was picked up and taken to Kaufering I – Landsberg. It was there that he was liberated by the American forces.

He returned to Prague in 1945, the sole survivor of his family, and married his childhood sweetheart Stella Horner, who had also survived the Shoah. In 1946, the couple left Prague and moved to Paris, where Fred Terna studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Académie Julian, among others. In 1952, the Terna spouses emigrated via Canada to the USA. The traumatic experience of his time in the camps, which he processed through his art, put a heavy strain on his marriage. Stella and Fred Terna divorced in 1975. He went on to live with his second wife Rebecca Shiffman and their adopted son Daniel in New York City, where he continued to paint until he died on 8 December 2022.

Literature and sources

Interview for the Austrian Heritage Collection (2008–2009) with transcript:

Julia Mayer, Painting Resilience: The Life and Art of Fred Terna, Irvine 2020.

Obituary of Fred Terna: