In Prague, at the site of what was once the crematorium of the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt, stands an etz chaim — a tree of life. In San Francisco, locked in the freezer of a nursery at Golden Gate Park, six seeds taken from that tree are now striving for a life of their own.
"There is an incredible story behind all this," said Don Friend, a San Francisco Jewish community leader who helped bring the seeds to one of the top arborists at Golden Gate Park, who is attempting to germinate them.
The story — about a kindly Czech guard, a devoted teacher and the children she loved — is one that Friend has begun to share with the Jewish community.
He first told it to participants at a family Tu B'Shevat seder at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, where he volunteers as a song leader. Then he repeated it to more than 100 people gathered in the city for the Jewish Family Education Project's second annual mini-conference, Family Matters: Families Matter!
Friend is advisory committee chair of the project, funded by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund and co-sponsored by the JCF and Bureau of Jewish Education.
The story of the seeds began on Tu B'Shevat, 1943, when a guard at Theresienstadt smuggled a tiny oak seedling into the children's barrack. With help from their teacher Irma Lauscher (one of the few Jewish instructors the Nazis allowed to hold classes), the children planted the seed in their courtyard. Miraculously, thanks to meager water rations the children were able to spare, the tree sprouted.
By the time of liberation, the red maple had grown to become 5 feet tall. The children gave it one last drink before digging it up and replanting it near the crematorium where the ashes of 38,000 fellow Jews lay scattered. Declaring it their etz chaim, they left a sign at its base which translates: "As the branches of this tree, so the branches of our people!"
Friend had the opportunity to stand under the tree, now an incredible 60 feet high by 30 feet wide, when he visited the camp in 1992 as part of a JCF mission. It was led by Mark Talisman, then director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Council of Jewish Federations and vice chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
It was Talisman who mailed Friend the seeds, a mitzvah he performs annually to honor Lauscher, the godmother of his daughter Jessica. So far the seeds have been planted in 600 locations throughout the world.
"Before her death in 1985 at age 81, Irma [Lauscher] asked that seeds from her tree be planted in memory of the children at the camp. So each year I send one to a different person, to be planted in their community," said Talisman.
Jessica was just 10 years old in 1983 when Talisman brought her to Theresienstadt. Lauscher took her by the hand, led her to the tree and asked her to read an English translation of a child's poem. After Jessica read the poem aloud, Lauscher revealed that it had been written by one of the children of the camp, who, coincidentally, was named Jessica and was 10 years old on Tu B'Shevat, 1943.
"As a kid I used to think that was such a corny story. I used to cringe every time my father would tell it. But as I got older that moment gained so much meaning and beauty," said Jessica, now 22.
An elementary school teacher in Oregon, Jessica today is determined to keep alive the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. She currently teaches a course about the Holocaust to a group of high school kids at a Reform synagogue in Portland and is pushing to have the subject taught in the public school where she works.
While the seeds given to the Talismans by Jessica's godmother have been planted in the United States before, the Golden Gate Park project marks the first attempt to grow the trees in California.
But, cautioned arborist and Golden Gate Park nursery specialist Phil Rossi, it is too soon to tell if the seeds, which were harvested in October, are still viable. "Right now we're working on duplicating the climate of a winter in Prague by keeping the freezer at 40 degrees and should know by the beginning of April whether or not the germination process was successful."
Waiting to see if the seeds become viable has made Friend feel "something like an expectant father." If just one of them successfully sprouts and is planted "in an appropriate spot in San Francisco," he said he would consider it a blessing.