Holocaust Survivor Jack Terry 'I Felt Sure I Would Not Live'

Jack Terry's family all died in the Holocaust. His mother and sister were shot in front of him when he was a boy. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to Terry about his horrific experiences and about the recent warrant issued for the arrest of alleged death camp guard John Demjanjuk.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Terry, as you know, prosecutors in Munich have filed charges against John Demjanjuk on more than 29,000 counts of accessory to murder. As the only member of your family to have survived the Holocaust, what is your reaction to the prosecution?

Terry: It is absolutely vital that anyone involved in such horrific events face appropriate judicial proceedings.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Demjanjuk is almost 90 years old. Should he, if found guilty, be incarcerated?

Terry: I would be satisfied even if he was locked up in a cell for just one day. For me that day, however short it may be, would be very symbolic.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a child, you were tortured for nine months at the Concentration Camp Flossenbürg. According to the prosecutors, Demjanjuk was a guard there at precisely the same time as you were. Do you recall seeing him there?

Terry: No. I didn't know those on duty by name.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a Ukrainian, Demjanjuk belonged to the so-called Trawniki, the non-German guards of the SS.

Terry: Hundreds of Trawniki served in Flossenbürg. The concentration camp personnel was all capable of tremendous brutality -- but the Trawniki surpassed them all.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Flossenbürg was your third and last camp. Where did your ordeal begin?

Terry: It began in 1939, when I could no longer go to school. My first concentration camp was in Butzin, in the Lublin district (eds. note: now located in eastern Poland). I was just 13 years old. They had transported my father to Majdanek and I never saw him again. On May 8, 1943 the SS and the Trawniki carried out the selection process at the camp. My older sister did not want to be separated from my mother. SS Corporal Reinhold Feix shot and killed her in front of my mother, and then he killed my mother too. It was totally surreal, but back then, it was the reality. I can still feel my mother's suffering.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You were 14 years old when, in August 1944, you were transported to Flossenbürg. Where did you have to work?

Terry: First in a stone quarry. But I was far too small and too weak to lift heavy stones. After two weeks I felt sure that I wouldn't survive. The skin on my fingers was in shreds and I could not touch anything anymore. Then I was taken to the Messerschmitt production facility, where for the Me109 ...

SPIEGEL ONLINE: ... a fighter plane of Hitler's Air Force ...

Terry: ... the lower and upper flaps were installed on the wings. I had to drive in the rivets. Then I was put in the prison laundry.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the spring of 1945 the Americans were closing in. The SS evacuated the concentration camp and sent the prisoners on one of the death marches to another camp in the direction of Dachau.

Terry: I was hidden by a camp clerk called Milos Kucera. I was in a tunnel which led from the laundry to the kitchen, directly underneath the parade ground. I was lying on hot pipes and above me I heard shots, trampling, screaming. It was dark, I had nothing to eat and nothing to drink.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Then, on April 23, US forces liberated Flossenbürg.

Terry: I was liberated -- but I was not free. For the first time I was able to think beyond my hunger. For the first time I realized that now, at the age of 15, I was completely alone in the world. I no longer had any family, I had nothing. This is one of my memories of that day.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Anything else?

Terry: An episode that in retrospect appears somewhat surreal. We were hungry, so a US officer drew his pistol to kill a horse for us. As he pulled the trigger, he could not look at the animal. He looked away. An animal! I had seen scores of people die. I had seen SS-members throwing babies out of windows or smashing them against house walls, and this captain had scruples about shooting a horse. In a flash, I again saw how cruelly my mother and my sister had lost their lives.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What happened then?

Terry: A colonel took me with him. I came to the United States via France. The oOfficer wanted to adopt me, but that was not possible as he was still in the army. Ten years later, I returned to Germany as a young lieutenant in the US military. I was based at Schwetzingen.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You first worked as a geologist and then studied psychoanalysis. Was that influenced by your life experiences?

Terry: Yes, most definitely. I wanted to know why humans did what I had seen them do; how humans had sunk to such depths. And I also wanted to try to help those people who suffered like I had. A number of former concentration camp prisoners were among my patients.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can therapy be at all helpful to these people?

Terry: The short answer is -- no. They continue to live with this horrific experience and they have not been able to mourn the deaths of their loved ones during the fight for their own survival. Coping with grief is so immensely important. I left Flossenbürg as quickly as possible, but Flossenbürg did not leave me. For all former prisoners, this history forms the corner stone of our lives.

Interview conducted by Georg Bönisch


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