A Living Memorial

For June 5, 2019

Rooted in history and living in hope, a third-generation descendant of a silver maple tree that grew at the Terezin concentration camp, near the city of Prague in the Czech Republic, has found its home at the Horowitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. One of only several descendants of the storied tree of Terezin, its journey has been long and a symbol of survival.

The story began in 1943, when a camp guard gave a maple seedling to Irma Lauscher, a teacher interned in Terezin who held clandestine classes for children. Irma and her children planted the tree in celebration of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish Arbor Day, with each child adding part of his or her meager water ration to nurture it.

When the camp was liberated in 1945, the tree still stood as a memorial to the 38,000 Jews -- including 15,000 children -- who had perished there. The tree survived for decades and was over 60 feet tall when it was destroyed by a flood in 2006. Before its death, ten saplings were sent all over the world as a reminder of the spirit of these children. One sapling was gifted to Philadelphia’s Holocaust Memorial, but it needed to be tended until it was big enough to plant at the memorial site.

In 2007, a request came to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to help care for the sapling until the memorial on the Parkway was ready to receive it.  The request was directed to Mindy Maslin, PHS Tree Tenders Project Manager and a congregant at Mishkan Shalom in the Roxborough/Manayunk neighborhood. Mindy contacted her rabbi and Deenah Loeb, another congregant and member of Mishkan Shalom's Site Stewards, to discuss the possibility of protecting and nurturing the tree at Mishkan.

“Our congregation was officially selected by the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation to care for the tree in 2007,” says Mindy. “We served as stewards for this living monument. It was an honor as well as a serious commitment.”

The young tree was planted in the ground in a container so that it could be easily transplanted into larger pots and moved when it was time. It flourished under the care of the Mishkan congregation. “We embraced caring for the tree,” says Deenah. “The whole community was involved with the nurturing of this special tree: our religious school, as well as the adults. The site stewards created a protective fence around the sapling while ensuring that it was watered and protected. We honored the spirit of the tree and its history and recognized the opportunity for what it would represent to others.”

As the tree grew larger, “it needed to be planted in a permanent home, but the memorial on the Parkway was still years away from being able to accept it,” Mindy explains. She and others began contacting arboreta that could adopt it, and in 2012 the tree was relocated to Longwood Gardens.

Longwood cared for the tree and took cuttings that grew into ten saplings. The young trees were planted at the private farm of a Jewish community member, Bud Newman, to mature. In fall 2018, one of these was chosen to be planted at the memorial on the Parkway.

The expanded Horowitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza was completed in October 2018. The plaza includes six pillars commemorating the six million Jews who lost their lives during the Holocaust, train tracks from the Treblinka concentration camp, and a small tree grove representing how the forests protected the resistance to the Nazis. 

On May 2, 2019 -- Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) -- the memorial and the Terezin tree stood together as a symbol of life.