On Thursday, December 2, 2021, the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust and Battery Park City Authority held a special ceremony to dedicate “The Children’s Tree”, the descendant of one planted by Jewish children inside the Theresienstadt (Terezín) concentration camp.
The tree’s remarkable history is a moving tribute to resilience and hope. The Nazis allowed children at Theresienstadt (in what was then known as Czechoslovakia) to be educated as part of a promotional ploy to hide the camp’s genocidal purpose. In January 1943, a teacher named Irma Lauscher bribed a Czech camp guard to smuggle a tree sapling into the camp. She wanted to plant the young tree in a secret ceremony to celebrate Tu B’Shevat. Together with a group of Jewish children imprisoned in the camp, Lauscher planted the sapling. The group used their water rations to nurture it.
“The children at Theresienstadt cared for the tree every day, knowing that it would endure and live a life that they would not,” said Michael Berenbaum, world-renowned historian and Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University.
Most of the children who planted the tree were deported to Auschwitz, the largest extermination camp in Poland, and died there. Of the more than 15,000 Jewish children who were imprisoned in Theresienstadt during the Holocaust, fewer than 200 survived.
After liberation, survivors placed a sign at the base of the tree, proclaiming, “As the branches of this tree, so the branches of our people!” Although the tree was later destroyed in a flood, saplings had been cut from it and planted in Yerushalayim, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, but not in New York City, home to the largest community of Holocaust survivors and their descendants of any city outside Israel.
A Jewish philanthropist recently purchased a historic farm in Pennsylvania where seven trees grown from cuttings of the original tree are thriving, and agreed to donate one to the Museum. That 15-foot tree recently was transported to Battery Park and replanted – seventy-eight years later — and will be cared for by students at PS/IS 276 for generations to come.
The tree bears the name “The Children’s Tree” in memory of the Jewish children in Theresienstadt who first planted the tree, and in honor of the students at PS/IS 276, located across the street from the Museum, who will become the tree’s caretakers for generations to come.
The dedication ceremony featured remarks from Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Czech Consul General Arnošt Kareš; Museum President and CEO Jack Kliger and Paul Radensky, Senior Director for Education at the Museum of Jewish Heritage; Dr. Michael Berenbaum, and music from the Advanced Student Chorus at PS/IS 276: The Battery Park City School.
“With roots born of the Holocaust, the tree—now firmly planted in the ground outside our museum—has branches that point us towards a brighter future,” said Museum President and CEO Jack Kliger. “We are calling this silver maple “The Children’s Tree” because of you, the children of today and tomorrow. By learning about the children who planted and nurtured the original Tree of Life 80 years ago, you are becoming witnesses to the story of the Holocaust and caretakers of a piece of history in your own backyard.”
“We are all moved by different exhibits, different ways of telling the stories of the Holocaust. For me, personally, the story of this tree is one of the most powerful I have ever come across,” Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.
Several Holocaust survivors, including Theresienstadt survivor Fred Terna, and Mara Sonnenschein, a great-granddaughter of Dorette Roos, who died at Theresienstadt, attended as well.
After an indoor program, attendees moved outside, and Mr. Terna and Ms. Sonnenschein were among those who watered the tree, joined by a number of current and future members of the New York City Council.
“My feeling of the tree is one word: memory. This an occasion of remembering. This planting is a form of remembering and that’s what this tree is: continuity,” Terna said in his remarks.