A tree planted outside the Museum, with roots born of the Holocaust, branches out to a better future.
On a January day in 1943, a woman named Irma Lauscher gathered a group of Jewish children and planted a tree with them in recognition of Tu B’Shvat, a Jewish holiday honoring the “new year of the trees.” This Tu B’Shvat observance was anything but traditional, however—because the tree was planted by a Jewish woman and Jewish children in Theresienstadt (Terezín), a Nazi concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia.
The Nazis allowed children at Theresienstadt to be educated as part of a promotional ploy to hide the camp’s genocidal purpose. A group of adult prisoners at Theresienstadt established a council of educators. Irma Lauscher was a member of that council.
Theresienstadt (Terezín) functioned as a garrison city, ghetto, concentration camp, and transit camp. It was positioned by the Nazis as a model ghetto, a place that demonstrated the “Fuhrer’s decency to the Jews.” In reality, it was a means of concealing the Reich’s actual intentions from the inquiring world.
Of the 144,000 Jews imprisoned in Theresienstadt, 88,000 were shipped to Auschwitz where they were murdered. 33,000 died in the camp, whose crematoria could burn 169 Jews a day. Less than one in six survived the war.
Of the 15,000 children incarcerated in Theresienstadt, fewer than 200 survived.
And yet the camp is known for its vibrant intellectual life and for the care that it took to educate the children, even as the reality that so few would survive became ever more apparent. Children drew their anguish and their hopes. They wrote poetry and essays. They even produced a newspaper.
One of the legendary teachers in this camp was Irma Lauscher, who survived to tell the story of the tree planted by children in Theresienstadt.
On the eve of Tu B'Shvat in 1943, Irma Lauscher decided to teach the children interned in Theresienstadt a lesson of great importance: even those who have little, can do much. She enlisted the help of a sympathetic guard to bring her a tree. The next day the guard presented her with seedlings about 4 inches high and the children and their teacher planted the tree in the children’s quarters. Lauscher told them the tree needed water and sun to grow. She asked each of the children to give up a portion of their water each day so that this living plant could be nourished and thrive. It is difficult to fathom asking these children, living in conditions of squalor and starvation to give up a portion of their daily water when the ration was so small. But they did.
Lauscher survived the camp, allowing the story of the children and the tree to survive as well. She asked to be buried beneath her tree which, by the time of her death in 1985, stood 30 feet tall.
After World War II, seeds and cuttings from the tree were sent abroad. Its saplings have been spread widely across the globe, including Jerusalem, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
In November 2021, a tree grown from the cuttings in Philadelphia was transported to New York and planted in front of the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The silver maple tree planted in front of the Museum bears the name “The Children’s Tree” in memory of Lauscher’s students, many of whose lives were most likely cut short not long after the 1943 tree-planting ceremony.
But the tree is also named for the children of today and tomorrow, who will visit the tree and learn its history, and for the students at PS/IS 276: The Battery Park City School, located across the street from the Museum, who will become the tree’s caretakers for generations to come.
The Museum’s Permanent Collection contains artwork made by children in Theresienstadt. A few examples are in the slideshow below.