This post is dedicated to the memory of Neil Drapkin

Respect for the natural world is an intrinsic part of Judaism. As such, there is an annual Festival for Trees, named in Hebrew Tu b’Shevat or Fifteenth of Shevat which is the day in the Hebrew calendar on which it is marked.

It is for this reason that a Czech school teacher called Irma Lauscher did something beautiful during the Holocaust while she was imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp.

Steven Frank BEM, a much loved member of our Survivor family (pictured below) was a child prisoner at Terezin.

Steven Frank BEM, National Holocaust Museum 26th Anniversary, October 2021

Here is Steven's account of what Irma Lauscher did:

The Terezin Tree

Terezin concentration camp, Czechoslovakia; in German, Theresienstadt.  Morning, January 21st 1943.  Cold and bleak.  A group of children is secretly gathered in a courtyard near their barracks.  They are there because it is Tu B'Shevat, Fifteenth of Shevat 5703 in the Jewish calendar, the festival of the New Year for Trees.

The Nazis had forbidden schools but teachers managed to run clandestine religious classes in an effort to give the children some feeling of normality. One of the teachers, Frau Lauscher, planned a tree-planting ceremony to celebrate Tu B'Shevat.  She persuaded one of the men who worked in the fields to smuggle a seedling into the camp. He brought it in hidden in his boot.  This was the tree the children had come to plant.

The tree became a symbol of hope, and groups of children nurtured it carefully. When they were sent to the East - which meant being transported to the extermination camps in Poland  - they passed the care of the tree on to other children, and then to others and so on. By the end of the war 15,000 children had passed through Terezin, of whom only about 100 survived.  The tree survived, though, and so did Frau Lauscher, her husband and her daughter. She returned to Terezin after the war  to find the tree, and transplanted it in the cemetery just outside the camp. There it has stood and flourished and became a great tree over 60 ft high, a memorial to the murdered children and a shout of defiance.

Frau Lauscher continued to look after the tree, and told its story to people she took to see it.  Her daughter, (who had been sent to the camp on her sixth birthday and was suffering from typhus when the seedling was planted,) took over from her mother the duty of looking after the tree and telling its story to visitors to the camp and is still doing so today.  She is often accompanied by her granddaughter, who has already promised to take over when the time comes.

Irma Lauscher, 1936 (c) Czech State Archives

A party from the Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue (now called The Ark Synagogue) went to Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, in October 1996 and in the course of the tour visited Terezin. Their leader Rabbi Goldstein conducted a service of remembrance under the tree.  A member of the group scrabbled around in the ground under the tree and found some seeds, which he brought back to England and planted in his greenhouse.  Four seeds germinated and he and a colleague grew them on until they were a few inches high. Sadly only two survived.  One of the saplings was taken to  The Holocaust Centre at Laxton in Nottinghamshire, where it was planted on the 27th January 2001 in a spot in the garden of remembrance overlooking the children's memorial and is called the Terezin Sycamore.  The other was planted on the verge by the Green Lane car park in Northwood on Sunday January 27th 2002, National Holocaust Memorial Day, the eve of Tu B'Shevat and is dedicated to Anne Frank.

Irma & Jiri Lauscher, 1984 (c) Michaela Vidlákova's private archive

Sadly heavy flooding in Prague and Terezin in 2003 has taken its toll and the old tree in Terezin has died. Seeds from the trees in Laxton and Northwood have been germinated and a third generation of the old Sycamore is flourishing here in the UK. It is hoped that perhaps one day we shall be able to take one of these saplings back to Terezin and plant it near its late grandmother in remembrance and gratitude.

May all these trees, wherever they are planted, be memorials to all those who have died through tyranny and especially the children of Terezin.

Steven Frank (child survivor of Terezin), 26th June 2012


It was another Terezin survivor, Arek Hersh (pictured below) who planted the sapling in our gardens in 2001. Arek is also also a much loved member of our Survivor family who endured the Łódz ghetto and Auschwitz before finally being liberated from Terezin in 1945.

Arek Hersh MBE with daughter Michelle at our 26th Annoversary, October 2021

In 2015, Steven Frank decided to plant some ‘grandchildren’ of the original Terezin tree in locations around the south of England. To be precise at: 

  1. St Phillips School, Chessington, Surrey
  2. Lownes Park, Chesham
  3. Amery Hill School in Alton, Hampshire
  4. Bournemouth Girls Grammar School
  5. Winchester University
  6. Wood Green chool, Witney, Oxfordshire

 Steven collected the seeds for germination from the ‘child’ tree Arek had planted in our memorial gardens. 

Steven, who has 11 grandchildren, once explained to the BBC why he wanted to do this: 

"The original tree is the equivalent of me: we were both young when the war ended. I am now taking care of what you could call the grandchildren of the original. They look lovely, just as my grandchildren do." 


Much credit for the entire Terezin Tree UK initiative goes to the late Neil Drapkin and his wife Cynthia. It was they who, on behalf of the Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue, organised a trip to Terezin in 1996. And it was Neil who Steven Frank described as the person who “scrabbled around in the ground under the tree and found some seeds, which he brought back to England and planted in his greenhouse”. All the Drapkin family, including the next generation Jonathan, Debbie and Jane, have long supported the National Holocaust Centre & Museum. We wish all of them wonderful memories of Neil, who sadly passed away in August 2021. He was widely respected for his services to the community as marked by The Jewish News in its ‘120 over 80’ piece in 2021:

We fondly remember Neil and Cynthia’s conversation with Steven Frank and others about the whole story, here at the Museum, which you can watch here:

In fact, seedlings found their way not only to Britain but to Israel and the USA. Other ‘Terezin Trees’ are now to be found at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and at places of Holocaust remembrance in San Francisco, Philadelphia and at the US Holocaust Memorial & Museum in Washington DC. As recently as December 2021, a further tree was planted at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York:

On 16th January 2022, it will be Tu b’Shevat once again. This post is dedicated to the memory of Neil Drapkin and in gratitude to him and his widow Cynthia. May Neil's memory be a blessing on Steven, Arek and all the children of Terezin — the 200 or so who survived it and on the souls of the approximately 14,800 who did not.

Footnote:

The USHMM in Washington hold the Jiří Lauscher Collection which consists of reports, albums, artwork, writings, photocopies, photographs, copy prints and diary entries documenting the Jüdische Kultusgemeinde’s work related to emigration and job training in Prague; the administration, history, and culture of Theresienstadt; and Holocaust-era ghettos and concentration camps. Jiri Lauscher was Irma Lauscher’s husband. He collected the materials during his internment in Theresienstadt from 1942-1945 and acquired many of them from friends and acquaintances as they were deported to killing centres in Eastern Europe.

Jiří Lauscher (1901-1989) was born near Prague. He was an artisan and designer and was the technical director of a fur factory. He married Irma Kohn (1904-1985), a graduate of Charles University who taught children at the Jewish School in Prague. On December 22, 1942, Jiří, Irma, and their daughter Michaela were deported to Theresienstadt.