A sapling descended from a tree planted in a Nazi concentration camp in 1943 will remind many of those who lost their lives there — but that wasn’t the primary objective of the woman whose family donated the little tree to Northbrook Junior High School.
Dede Harris said she wanted the five-foot-tall descendent of the tree of Terezin to be planted in the back yard of the Northbrook school to celebrate a way of thinking about life.
“No matter how difficult our circumstance, we can always find a way to make this world better,” said Harris, a former teacher and social worker who in May published a children’s book, “The Children’s Tree of Terezin,” about the original tree. The book tells the story of a secret school in the Terezin concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. There, a teacher named Irma Lauscher had an idea to bring hope to the children by raising a smuggled-in maple tree. The children shared their water rations to keep it alive.
“I also want to say that we have to listen to our inner voice, our inner inspiration, the way Irma Lauscher the teacher listened to her inspiration. That was an inspired thought,” she said. “Listen to your inspiration, and move it forward.”
The tree eventually towered over the camp, called Terezin in Czech and Theresienstadt in German. Harris said the original tree died a few years ago, a victim of endemic Prague-area floods. But shoots from the tree arrived in Israel and, in 2009, at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, where Dede Harris is a director, and her husband, Sam Harris, is a past president.
At a Thursday ceremony at the school at 1475 Maple Ave. to dedicate the tree, Steen Metz, 82, a survivor of Terezin, said what it meant to him.
“I’d like to honor the memory of 40,000 Jewish people that passed away in Terezin. That included my father. And, additionally, there were 90,000 Jewish people that were deported from Terezin to extermination camps like Auschwitz and very few of those survived. So, today, let’s make sure that we never forget the memory of a people that passed away.”
Metz, a Lincolnshire resident, said he regularly instructs junior high students to each tell four people that the Holocaust existed, because as time goes on, deniers could conceivably prevail.
“Maybe I can ask everybody here today to talk to at least four people, and tell them that the Holocaust took place, because you heard an eyewitness,” he said. “It’s more important than ever, especially with today’s environment, that we don’t forget the Holocaust.”
Dede Harris’s husband, Sam Harris, is a survivor, too, of Deblin and Czestochowa concentration camps, and he likes the idea of telling children the tree story as a low-key educational tool.
“You’re teaching the Holocaust as though you’re not teaching it,” he said. “You’re going into the Holocaust with a different frame of reference — not drilling it into them, just telling them a story.”
Sam Harris is known for his own 2001 book, “Sammy, Child Survivor of the Holocaust,” about his experiences as a young survivor, who was adopted at 12 by a Northbrook family. He’s also at the center of an award-winning 2016 documentary film, “An Undeniable Voice,” produced by actress Sharon Stone.
His wife’s book is available for sale at the Holocaust Museum building at 9603 Woods Drive in Skokie. The $18 price all goes to the foundation, she said. That price is no accident, Dede Harris said, as numbers, in Hebrew, are also words, and 18 is “chai,” the word for peace and life.
A few copies are also available at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, where the sapling was nurtured. A launch party for the book, which is not yet available in bookstores or on the internet, will be held at 11 a.m. June 25 at the museum.
The District 28 seventh graders had just finished what they called “a Holocaust unit,” and two of them spoke about it at the dedication.
“I can never imagine anyone being treated so badly,” Sophie Cohn said. “What they went through is unforgivable, and unforgettable.”
One of the lessons of the Holocaust, Kyle Burke said, is to “speak out for those who need support. Speak out for what you believe in, your political beliefs, or speak out about changing society.
“Change won’t happen if you stay silent. Silence drove Hitler.”
One of Lauscher’s Terezin students reportedly wrote a poem that has been engraved into a plaque that will be erected near the new tree at Northbrook Junior High.
There are three things the Nazis could not take from us
They could not take the blue sky above us, for our gazing.
They could not take the flood of sunlight pouring into our courtyard, nourishing our tree and us.
But most of all, they could not take our invisible God who remained deep in our hearts.