This Tu B’Shevat, as we celebrate the New Year of the Trees, let’s take a moment to consider the story of an extraordinary tree that lives right in our community — a story of survival which stretches from the Holocaust to the present day, and from Eastern Europe to here in Philadelphia. It’s called the Theresienstadt (“ter-RAISIN-staht”) Tree.
A concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, Theresienstadt was a gruesome way-station to death: Over 120,000 Jews were deported to extermination camps or lost their lives in Theresienstadt in the three and a half years of the camp’s existence. And yet, while suffering under unimaginable conditions, the Jews of Theresienstadt fought for survival by engaging in the life of the mind, encouraging the children to read, draw and write. It was in Theresienstadt that one young man, Pavel Friedman, wrote the famous poem “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” And it was there, too, that one day in 1943, a maple sapling mysteriously appeared. Legend has it the tree was smuggled in by a volunteer teacher for Tu B’Shevat, and it was cared for by the children with their meager water rations.
Nearly all of the 15,000 children of Theresienstadt perished. But the tree lived on for decades. By the 1990s it stood over 60 feet tall, towering over the camp. Though the tree died in a 2006 flood, visitors retained this great symbol of life and hope by taking its seedlings and saplings for replanting all over the world.
In 2008, one of those saplings was brought to Philadelphia. Here, it was lovingly nurtured first by the synagogue Mishkan Shalom and then by Longwood Gardens before it was transferred to the New Hope farm of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s immediate past President Bud Newman. Newman, who is passionate about Holocaust education, was humbled by the opportunity to care for the tree. But he was in for a surprise: The horticulturist delivering the tree arrived not with just one large tree, but also with ten little saplings that had been cut from it. Improbably, the Theresienstadt tree had spawned a third generation.
Construction on an enhanced Holocaust memorial space on Benjamin Franklin Parkway is currently underway, and once complete this fall, it will become the new home for the 12-foot-tall Theresienstadt tree. For now, the eleven trees sit together in a quiet grove by a creek, drinking in the sun, growing taller and stronger each day.
At the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, we keep the memory of the six million alive. For information on our Holocaust education resources and programs, click here. Questions? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 215.832.0536.