Page last updated at 10:14 GMT, Monday, 21 September 2009 11:14 UK

'Tree of life' planted for peace

By Marc Settle
BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House

The sapling being planted at a Surrey school for United Nations Peace Day is the latest of about 600 trees grown worldwide all derived from the same original plant - and each offering an inspiring symbol of hope and survival.

The original Theresienstadt tree
The original Theresienstadt tree (photo courtesy The Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education)

Trees have played a special part in Steven Frank's life, and now the keen gardener is hoping a special tree will play an important role in the life of many others.

Mr Frank is a survivor of a World War II concentration camp.

He is marking UN Peace Day by planting a sapling, derived from a tree which grew in the very camp he survived.

He spoke to Radio 4's Broadcasting House programme about his life and the sycamore which has come to be known as the "Tree of Life".

"I was born to an English mother and a Dutch father.

"After we were all taken from our home in Holland, by September 1944 we ended up at the Theresienstadt concentration camp (in what is now the Czech Republic.)

"It was something of a 'holding camp' for people before they were sent further east to their deaths. Himmler decreed that we were all to be exterminated on 15 May 1945 - we were liberated on 9 May," he said.

But amid all the death, there were small signs of life.

Several years before his arrival at Theresienstadt, one woman had begun to grow a tree, something Mr Frank only became aware of many years later.

"A primary school teacher, Irma Lauscher, was allowed to celebrate Tu Bishvat, the Jewish new year for trees.

"Somehow she persuaded a workman to bring in a sapling, hidden in his boot.

"It was kept alive by children who used some of their meagre water rations.

"As they went to their deaths in Auschwitz, so other children took their place and continued to nourish it," he said.

Frau Lauscher survived the end of the war and when she told the authorities about the tree, the 5ft-tall (1.5m) sapling was uprooted and placed in front of the camp as a memorial to those who had perished.

Of the 15,000 children imprisoned in Theresienstadt, only about 150 survived.

Direct descendants

The tree continued to flourish and grow, and a visit by some British Jews eventually led to Steven Frank coming into contact with his past.

"In 1996, a group from a London synagogue went there, and noticed that the now 60ft (18m) tree had shed some seeds.

"They collected them, brought them back and planted them at the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire," he told Radio 4.

Holocaust survivor Steven Frank

I am now taking care of what you could call the grandchildren of the original

Holocaust survivor Steven Frank

"About three years ago, I was visiting Beth Shalom and as it was now shedding its own seeds, I took some and germinated them in my own greenhouse."

He has since grown three saplings, one of which he is planting to mark United Nations Peace Day at St Philip's School in Chessington, Surrey.

It will become one of around 600 similar trees planted around the world, each of which is a direct descendant of the Theresienstadt tree.

Others can be found at Israel's main Holocaust memorial centre, Yad Vashem, as well as Washington DC, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Mr Frank's successful growing of the three saplings has special significance for the 72-year-old, who now has some 11 grandchildren.

"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."

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