My First Wife Stella
“My first wife, Stella,” was a phrase my father often repeated when speaking about his life after the war, and before my mother and I entered the picture. He met Stella in 1940, when he was a young 17 year-old Jewish kid in Prague that enjoyed the outdoors, music, and geography. “It was teenage love,” he told me. “Nice, clean, teenage love.” Soon thereafter, The Nazi’s sent him to his first labor camp in 1941, and over the course of three years, six months, three weeks, and two days, he survived Terezin, Auschwitz, and Dachau. He was liberated by American troops in April, 1945. “I was one of those shuffling skeletons you may have seen pictures of,” he tells me.
After gaining some strength and returning to Prague, where it was confirmed that his family had been murdered in the camps, along with most of the city’s Jews, my father was told that someone was looking for him. He went to the address, rang the doorbell, and there was Stella. “She opened the door and asked, ‘What can I do for you, sir?’ She did not recognize me.” Through what can only be described as pure luck and good instincts, both he and Stella had made it through their own separate ordeals in the camps.
They moved Paris and took up painting, making friends with Americans studying art under the GI Bill, and eventually arrived in New York in 1952, “the day Eisenhower was elected.” My father soon became a full-time artist, and he and Stella made a life for themselves in a small apartment in Manhattan. Being an artist was a suitable occupation because it allowed him to monitor Stella’s traumatized and unpredictable emotional state. Suicide attempts were common, and on more than one occasion, she tried to kill him. My father’s relationship with Stella lasted nearly 30 years, until they officially separated in 1975. By then, she was at Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic nearly all the time.
In 2011, I found a box of Kodachrome slides while poking around the house. The pictures were taken by my father in 1967, when he and Stella were on a road trip along Route 1 in California. He told me later that these vacations had a calming effect on Stella. Perhaps I had seen a photo of her here and there, but I felt that I was viewing her, and their relationship, with fresh eyes. The experience was like looking at a contact sheet, their days on the road traced together by my tourist father’s observations. Craggy cliff-sides in Big Sur; portraits of Stella reclining on the beach; boats chugging beneath the Golden Gate Bridge; my dad sitting on a Ford Galaxie in Yosemite.
I began to think of the route they took together and my desire to stand in the same places they had been 45 years prior grew. Stella died of cancer in 1982 before I was born (my father had remarried by then), but by following in their footsteps, I sought to settle my anxiety over losing someone I had never actually met. I was interested in seeing how the landscape had aged since ’67, and I wondered if it was possible to sense Stella’s presence by absorbing the sites and people in front of me.
The first Occupy Wall Street protests were taking place while I drove up Route 1 from LA to Portland. Along the way, I shot video footage of landscapes and tourist sites, much of which comprises the film component to this project (“My First Wife Stella,” 33:02, 2013). The portraits I made were secondary to the video shooting, made when I wasn’t “working.” I took them in between, on breaks, or on days when the shooting had wrapped up. The photographs document the places where I camped, the friends I stayed with in Oakland, the weed trimmers and farmers I met in Humboldt County, and the group of cooks, poets, and musicians I met in Portland. The people I met were a respite from the film project, and while they had nothing to do with my family history, in many ways the subjects were the closest thing I had to family when traveling alone.
I never “found” the Stella I was looking for on my trip, and it was only recently, when I revisited my film, that I became comfortable with the fact there’s only so much I can glean from my father’s past memories. Today he’s 95 years-old and we live together in Brooklyn. His name is Fred Terna.