“Tolerance is what keeps humanity together, I believe.”
—Anne Willem Meijer, Member of the Dutch Resistance
Tu B’Shevat in Terezin
A few years ago, an HUC student journeyed to Jewish sites in Europe and brought back to Cincinnati a handful of seeds, wrapped carefully in cotton, which she had gathered from a huge maple tree that had been planted next to the crematorium at the Theresienstadt Ghetto. Reverently, these seeds were put on display at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education. They came from a very special tree–a maple sapling that was smuggled into the ghetto in 1943. Its explicit purpose was to create a Tu B’Shevat celebration for the children. The following is a poem written by a young girl who had helped plant this tree:
There were three things the Nazis could not take from us.
They could not take the blue sky above us, for our gazing.
They could not take the flood of sunlight pouring into our courtyard,
nourishing our tree and us.
But most of all, they could not take Our Invisible God
who remained buried deep in our hearts.
This occurred forty miles outside of Prague, at the walled fortress of Terezin. In the autumn of 1941, a ghetto was established there that the Nazis called Theresienstadt. Administered by the SS, guarded by Czech gendarmes, and run internally by a Jewish Council, it appeared similar to other ghettos. It was, however, a unique construct in its character and function, devised by the Nazis who encountered an awkward problem: what to do with ‘special categories’ of Jews? What to do with German Jewry’s WWI veteransâ€”many of them highly decorated? What of the half-Jews and mixed marriages, and the ‘Aryans’ who refused to divorce or abandon their spouses? And the Jewish artists and musicians, actors and writers, and filmmakers, famous across Europe? What of the scholars and intellectuals such as Rabbi Leo Baeck? And the sticky problem of those Jews who held passports and visas of other countries? If these Jews ‘disappeared’, might there be an uproar that would upset the carefully constructed plan to implement the Final Solution? The head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, conceived of a ‘model ghetto a “town inhabited by Jews and governed by them.” The Jewish community of Prague, and a continued flow of humanity sent or enticed to come to Terezin, swelled to more than 50,000 at any one time in the overcrowded and starving ghetto. They lived in constant dread of deportation to the East to the death camps. According to Nazi statistics: 141,000 people passed through; 33,456 died in the ghetto, 88,202 were deported; 16,832 were liberated in 1945.
The Jews in Terezin had vowed, particularly for the children, to continue educational and cultural activities in the ghetto, often in secret. Famous artists and scholars taught lessons to the children and encouraged them to read, draw and to write. It was in this environment that one of the most famous and precious artistic expressions– the poem “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” by Pavel Friedmann was composed.
The deportations became constant. Volunteer teachers devoted themselves to the remaining children, filling their painful lives with meaningful and even joyful moments. The children put on plays and wrote a newspaper. Clandestine lessons flourished, including Jewish heritage and religion. Zionist youth movement leaders inspired and taught the vastly secular audience about pride in their own Jewish identity.
Irma Lauscher was one of the volunteer teachers in Terezin. She taught Jewish traditions and holidays. In January 1943, Irma decided to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the trees, and bribed one of the guards to smuggle a tree sapling into the ghetto. She organized a ceremony of dancing and singing with the children of the ghetto, and together they planted the tree, sharing their water rations. The children nurtured their tree, wrote poetry about it, and were inspired by it. They called it the Etz Hayim-the Tree of Life.
Of the 15, 000 children who were imprisoned in Terezin, about 150 survived. After the war, Ela Weissberger was among the handful of children who returned and found the tree still alive. They carefully transplanted the tree next to the crematorium and dedicated a headstone with the prophetic words of Isaiah: “As the days of a tree shall be the days of my people!” A poem was written dedicated to this Etz Hayim, which grew to be over 60 feet tall:
I returned home here to Theresienstadt.
I stand guard here on this rise of this hill
by this tree that moves slightly
as it creaks the names of the children
slowly to me.. every night.
We watch over this place. This tree and I.
We watch over the children of Theresienstadt.
We still hear their songs.
Shhh-hh-h.. do you hear?
While in Terezin, Ela performed in Brundibar, a children’s opera. This opera is currently performed worldwide, often with Ela present as a special guest. In 2001, on Tu B’Shevat, Ela and the Cincinnati Opera’s cast planted a commemorative maple sapling on the grounds of Hebrew Union College in honor of the children of Terezin.
Ela Weissberger returns often to lecture in the Czech Republic. This past year, she was devastated to learn that floods destroyed a lot of countrysideâ€”and uprooted ‘the children’s tree’ at Terezin. She remembered the seeds that the HUC student had brought back from Terezin. Full of hope, she asked if it was possible that any of the seeds were still viable? The seeds are now currently in an incubator at the Cincinnati Krohn’s Conservatory. As of this writing, we are waiting, hoping for signs of rebirth and continuity from this Etz Hayim–the Tree of Life.