Storied Tree, Rooted in the Holocaust, Is Planted to Cheers in BPC

As PS 276 students watched, The Children's Tree is planted by BPCA staff David Wallace, Kevin O'Toole and Manuel Rivera at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on Nov. 17, across the street from their school. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Nov. 18, 2021

Many trees have been planted in Battery Park City, but only this one was honored with a rousing ovation.

On Wednesday, students from PS 276 cheered as Battery Park City Authority horticulturists unfurled the leafy branches of what’s being dubbed The Children’s Tree, and set it in a freshly dug tree pit outside the Museum of Jewish Heritage, across Battery Place from their school. 

The storied 15-foot silver maple, rooted in the Holocaust, is a symbol of survival, to be studied and cared for by the school’s students for years to come. A dedication ceremony will take place at the museum on Dec. 2.

Dedication ceremony of the Children's Tree on Dec. 2. Video by the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

The tree was grown from a cutting of a tree planted in 1943 by children and their teacher, Irma Lauscher, interred by the Nazis in the Theresienstadt concentration camp (also known as Terezín) in what then was Czechoslovakia.

According to the museum’s account, the teacher convinced a sympathetic guard to bring her seedlings for the children to plant on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees. The children nurtured it by giving up some of their water rations each day. Of the 15,000 children deported to Theresienstadt, only about 200 survived. After liberation, survivors placed a sign at the base of the tree. “As the branches of this tree so the branches of our people,” it read.

When you talk about resiliency and strength and the inspiring nature of the human spirit, this is it,” said Nicholas Sbordone, the Battery Park City Authoritys vice president for communications and public affairs.

The tree grew to over 60 feet at the former prison site, and though it died during a flood in 2006, visitors took seedlings and saplings and planted them in Jerusalem and several U.S. cities, but never before in New York City. The Children’s Tree was grown from a third-generation sapling nurtured in Pennsylvania and donated to the museum by a Jewish philanthropist who raised seven descendents of the original tree on a New Hope, Pa., farm. 

Holocaust studies, in partnership with the museum, is part of the 5th grade curriculum at PS 276, and “teachers are already planning how they can integrate the idea of the tree” into the school’s studies, said Principal Terri Ruyter. “The teachers and the kids are really excited about doing this work,” she added.

“It is especially appropriate that the teachers and students will help honor and commemorate what a brave teacher and a group of brave children did almost 80 years ago,” Jack Kliger, the museum president, said.

Manuel Rivera has been planting and caring for the trees in Battery Park City since 1988. But being part of the crew that planted this one, with kids there to celebrate it, was something special, he said.

“Oh my God,” Rivera exclaimed. “For me, it’s a blessing!”

The Dec. 2 tree dedication will take place at 11 a.m. and include remarks by two Theresienstadt survivors, and by Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a historian and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University. The PS/IS 276 student choir will sing.