Marked, But Only
Skin Deep

Mon, Nov 8, 2010

By Michael Keller

The Name on Fire (Painting Courtesy of Frederick Terna)

The Name on Fire (Painting Courtesy of Frederick Terna)

This is the story of two tattoos of ordinary things. One man’s is six numbers, the other’s is a crescent and a star. They were meant to mark the two forever and they failed.

Frederick Terna has been many things. A student of poetry. Amateur historian. Professor of art. Lecturer. Painter. Spy. When he was a child, his home in Prague was filled with music. And for roughly three and a half years he was interned under the Nazis.

During the same time, Altaf Hussain was growing up on the other side of the world in a country that was not quite India. When he was older he would come to love travelling and he dreamt of being a singer in India. But at 10 years old in 1947 he was a nationalist. They were making a country for Muslims, he heard them say, and Pakistan was going to be his home.

A few miles from one another in Brooklyn is where they both ended up.

* * *

On Wednesdays in Prague, Terna’s relatives would come over with their instruments, violins, and horns, to his house with two pianos. “They would sit around, talk, and make music,” he says, “I vividly remember one of them saying, ‘You call that an interpretation?’ And somebody else says, ’Shut up, and you play it!’ I got my love for chamber music from that time.”

Years later, Terna was a teenager in a concentration called Linden bei Deutsch-Brod or Lipa in what is now the Czech Republic. There he taught fellow prisoners the history of Poland, drawing the expanding and retracting borders in the sand. In Thereisenstadt, another camp, he learned the metrics and movements of European poetry from fellow prisoners who had been poets in another life.

In Thereisenstadt in 1943, Terna was 20 years old. He spent most of the time with his father and the other men in the tuberculosis ward. There they debated politics and argued over what should be done with Germany after the war. Terna listened. I was aware that my education—my formal education—had ended long, long before and I thought ‘I need some information. I need to learn something outside the usual channels.’” There was another kind of education too. For the men in the ward, he says, Terna would sneak into Gestapo buildings and steal military reports carrying news of the war. “

The Nazis had taken control of Prague in 1938, when he was 15 years old. They marched in to the city on March 15, 1939 instituting laws against Jews: the yellow star was worn, radios were confiscated, telephones were cut. He hid for a time, working as a messenger outside the city, but the Gestapo picked him up twice for reasons he does not know and, he says, are largely unimportant.  He went to his first camp, Linden bei Deutschbrod, or Lipa in Czech on October 3, 1941. He was transferred to Thereisenstadt in March 1943. “Some dates,” he says, “are memorable.”

Thereisenstadt is where he started painting. But he says that is unimportant.

The International Red Cross came to Thereisenstadt once to inspect these so-called relocation camps for Jews and other “undesirables.” Preparations were made for a propaganda film that would show the camp as a model ghetto. Terna was assigned to paint the buildings. “We were figuring out what can we do to let them know that it’s fake,” he says, “We decided the thing to do was do such an absolutely perfect job that it will clearly yell ‘Done six hours ago.’” After the war, Red Cross officials said they knew it was a fake all along, but that did not change anything.

A little while after, he was shipped to Auschwitz and then to a camp called Kaufering IV, a sub-camp of Dachau, which is where he got his numbered tattoo.

Terna’s house in Clinton Hill has three stories. His paintings hang on most of the walls, and other canvases lean in stacks of dozens in unused rooms. In his home studio, only one painting hangs. It shows a large flame — yellow, pastel red and seafoam green — forming a crescent as it curves towards the top of the canvas. Another image he repeats in canvas upon canvas is a temple made of warm Jerusalem stone. “I have two subjects, the Tanach and the Shoah.” Tanach being the Hebrew word for the Old Testament and Shoah the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

The way he tells it, one painting led to the other. He points to one canvas that is dark red and black with sharp folds of the fabric. “I painted execution walls,” he said, “I wondered what was behind the wall so I painted an imaginary temple over it and I made more and more and eventually made the imaginary temple.” He points to another canvas, “Eventually I painted gates into that wall. For instance here,” he says, pointing. “Here you have gates, so I could walk in. That’s why I say I am very lucky to have the paintings.”

Terna prefaces the explanation of each of his paintings by saying that the image is a complex one — it does not mean what it appears to mean. And although he can talk calmly about his experience during the war, it will take him a couple of days afterwards before he can come back up for air, he says. Seeing daily what he refers to as his number, however, does not have the same effect. “This does not define me,” he said, pointing to his arm.

He has thought of removing it, but he says, “I didn’t pay for the putting it on. I will not pay for its removal.”

* * *

Altaf Hussain remembers the day in 1947 when he knew Pakistan’s creation was inevitable. He was at a mela, a festival, to mark the occasion but he does not remember the date. Perhaps he was too young to keep track of such things; but that is not likely. Hussain was 10 years old but he knew more about the importance of that day than his age would let on.

The founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was a dapper, aristocratic man. In 1945, he visited the Muslim schoolchildren of Amritsar and left an impression on a young Hussain. The city of Amritsar lies in Punjab, India today, 18 miles from the border with Pakistan, and is a city known as a cultural and religious bastion of Sikhism. In the center of the city is a gilded temple surrounded by a square lake. City life is navigated in relationship to the Sikh holy site. Muslims were in the minority. Jinnah came to this city and explained to the Muslim children that a new country would be made for them. “This is going to be good for you,’” he told the children. “We became happy, that such a big man came to us,” Hussain said.

Hussain’s tattoo came two years later, following an argument at the mela with a non-believer. He was discussing Partition with a Sikh friend from school, Hussain recounts. “He said, there will be a Pakistan and an India. And I said, I’ll go to this Pakistan. He said, ‘No.’ I got this tattoo to show him that I meant it.” The tattoo is a star and a crescent on the back of his hand in crudely stippled black dots.

The idea of Pakistan that Hussain and Jinnah believed in is not the country that it came to be. At the ceremony for independence Jinnah said, “We are starting in the days when there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state.”

In 1947, Amritsar had a population of roughly 400,000 Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Hussain’s family, he says, had been living there for a hundred years. Later that year, on August 14th, Pakistan became independent and India followed the day after. On August 15th, Hussain says, rioting Hindus burned down the house where he lived with his extended family. His mother died in the fire—his father had already passed away—and he walked 34 miles from Amritsar in day-old India to a refugee camp in Lahore in Pakistan—making good on his vow.

1.6 million people were killed during the partition of India and Pakistan. And when Hussain tells his story, he rubs his hands roughly and twists the skin on his forearms. He is in his seventies now and has just a small tuft of hair like a baby. His first change of homes  was followed by many others in his life. From a refugee camp in Lahore he was sent to Sargodha — a planned city in northern Punjab built as an airbase by the British.

When he finished his schooling, he got a job at Pakistani International Airlines that took him to East Pakistan in the late 60s. He was there in 1971 when the province seceded from Pakistan to become an independent Bangladesh and the idea that Pakistan could be one state for all Muslims was lost.

His job at the airline got him on the last plane crossing Indian air space from Dhaka in East Pakistan to Karachi in Pakistan. In the plane, he says, “The mood was as though everyone had just left their home,” he says, “And in this place we all lived together, Bengalis, Pakistanis. And it hurt in our hearts that we all had to leave.” They were feeling this sadness,” he says “that this is our country and that now we have to leave it.”

For him, the creation of Bangladesh happened much like the creation of Pakistan. The movement started with rumors of a name, Bangladesh, and the name encapsulated the feeling: Bangladesh translates to “Country of Bengal,” in reference to the Bengali culture and language spoken there; Pakistan translates to “Land of the Pure” in reference to the purity of Islam. Both show a pride for being different from others. But if the creation of a place called Pakistan was about commonality among Muslims, Bangladesh’s secession showed that there were differences that could not be overcome.

When he got back to Karachi, after roughly ten years of absence, it was a different city. He continued to work for the airline, he says, but when he reached retirement he came to the United States, on December 20th, 2000. “Now I am free,” he says.

“Recently I had an operation” he says about his life in the US, “and no one asked me, ‘Are you Hindu? Are you a Muslim? Are you Sikh?’” “Ladies can go down the street at night at 2 am here and they will still feel safe,” he says. “In Karachi people would do horrible things to that woman.”

When Hussain was young “We all played together. The Hindus, Sikh. Only when they told us, that’s a Hindu, that’s a Sikh — that’s when we knew.” The creation of Pakistan “didn’t benefit anyone.”

Hussain got another tattoo at the mela that day, on his inner forearm — the image of a peacock, the kind that he would feed in the school gardens of Amritsar. And although his crescent and star was supposed to be something for the future, when he looks at it now it reminds him only of the past in Amritsar, he says, “It was free then.” Both tattoos are now pictures of childhood.

Hussain shares his name with another Altaf Hussain, a Pakistani politician currently hiding in England under threat of assassination. When he discusses this similarity Hussain dismisses it, just as he dismisses the idealism of the crescent and the star and Terna dismisses his number. “There is no meaning in your name,” Hussain says, “Just in the work you do.”

You couldn’t say that either man enjoys talking about the events that led to the marks on his hand or arm. Hussain tries to change the subject to his love for singing. Terna continues because he feels obligated to teach his history. And as they slowly finish their stories, they arrive at the same place. As Terna explains for the two of them, after his long history he has come here to Brooklyn and has gotten past what any mark on his arm has tried to make him. “Here,” he says, “I will not become a refugee.”

Mariya Karimjee contributed reporting to this article.

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One Response to “Marked, But Only
Skin Deep”

  1. really good job broo. Because the tattoo is a permanent image that stuck forever in your body.

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