A silver maple tree with a genesis from Czech ghetto and concentration camp Theresienstadt found a new home at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, due in part to the Philadelphia Jewish community.
Before arriving at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the tree took root outside of Philadelphia, tended along with nine other Theresienstadt saplings by former Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia President Bud Newman on what was formerly his farm in New Hope.
“I look at these trees as being symbolic of more people recognizing what Jews have gone through, and more people recognizing that Jews are survivors, and their strengths and their attitude towards continuing through survival is miraculous,” Newman said.
The 15-foot tall sapling’s dedication at the Museum of Jewish Heritage took place on Dec. 2, with more than 150 guests in attendance virtually and in person. Ambassador and U.S. Representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Czech Consul General Arnošt Kareš and museum leadership spoke at the event; Theresienstadt survivors Fred Terna and Rene Slotkin watered the newly-planted tree.
The tree, dubbed the “Children’s Tree,” which faces directly across PS/IS 276 — Battery Park City School — will be cared for by the students there, much like it was in 1943 when the children of Theresienstadt used their water rations to feed the tree.
Battery Park City School students attended the event as well, having the opportunity to meet the Theresienstadt survivors.
Museum of Jewish Heritage President and CEO Jack Kliger, who is the son of two survivors, said the children were “honored” to have attended.
“I said to a 10-year-old, ‘Well, now you’ve met a witness; now you become a witness,’” Kliger said. “That’s both an honor and a responsibility.”
Jewish Theresienstadt teacher Irma Lauscher planted the original silver maple in 1943 on Tu B’Shevat, after she bribed a guard to smuggle in the tree.
Theresienstadt was home to thousands of prisoners during the Holocaust, many of whom were educators and scholars, who gave the children there an informal education. Fifteen thousand children were imprisoned in Theresienstadt, and fewer than 200 survived.
Historian and Museum of Jewish Heritage Consulting Curator Michael Berenbaum called the tree a symbol of “spiritual resistance,” a way for those imprisoned to find meaning in times of suffering.
“We make a hero of those who led us in armed resistance,” Berenbaum said. “We should also make a hero of those who refuse to surrender their humanity, even in conditions of enormous oppression.”
Though the original Theresienstadt tree was destroyed along with the camp in a flood after the camp was liberated in 1945, cuttings from it were distributed across the United States and Israel.
Newman received the saplings from former Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation President Steve Kessler. Kessler told Newman that Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square was housing a sapling descended from a Theresienstadt tree that belonged to the memorial, which was then undergoing construction. That made it impossible for them to keep it, as it had grown too large.
Nine other smaller saplings, originally cuttings from the larger one, accompanied it. According to Berenbaum, these trees were originally brought to the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation by Philadelphia landscape artist Stuart Appel.
Newman, who had both a proclivity for farming trees and a passion for Holocaust remembrance, happily accepted the saplings.
Newman remembered visiting Auschwitz with his wife many years ago, where he saw old oak trees still standing proudly at the camp, with acorns scattered across the ground.
“I turned to the guide, who was Polish, and said to her, ‘Boy oh boy, if these trees could talk, what a tale they would tell,’” Newman said. “And then she turned to me and said, ‘Well, it’s funny you say that because we refer to them as the silent witnesses.’”
The sapling was planted and dedicated to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in early December, the ideal time to plant a tree to ensure its survival.
Newman contacted the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum to be home to a sapling. He has reached out to other Holocaust museums around the country, with the help of Berenbaum and Kliger, about future tree dedications, which they hope will continue to not only be a symbol of spiritual resilience and renewal but also an opportunity to engage with greater audiences about the impacts of the Holocaust, past and present.
“The fight against hate and antisemitism has not gone away,” Kliger said. “The lessons of history can only be valuable if you apply them and learn from them and teach from them.”
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