WWII life-saving tree unveiled in J'lem

Auschwitz escapee hid inside hollow 10-meter high birch in Poland.

By ETGAR LEFKOVITS
October 8, 2007 19:57
3 minute read.
WWII life-saving tree unveiled in J'lem

righteous tree 224.88. (photo credit: AP)

 
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He cowered inside the hollow trunk of the tree as the Gestapo officers searched for him just outside. It was the waning months of the Holocaust, but death was once again closing in on Jakob Silberstein, who weeks earlier had just escaped during a Nazi death march from Auschwitz, and, together with three other camp survivors, found refuge at the home of a Czech woman, Jana Sudova, along the border with Poland. As his heart pounded, he remained hidden inside the tree for nine hours, a time which seemed like a nightmarish eternity. He almost expected to be set on fire inside the hollow of the tree, which looked up to the sky but sequestered him from the outside, or to be axed to pieces. His only hope was that if he was caught he would be allowed to come out of the tree and be shot, and not be murdered inside the tree. Weeks earlier, Silberstein had first discovered that the tree - which was located in the woman's backyard - had a hollow trunk after he saw a hare taking cover inside. With the help of an axe, he widened the entrance to the tree for use as an emergency hiding place in case the Nazis came looking for him, not knowing just how soon he would owe his life to the hiding place. After hours of searching, the Nazis finally left the site empty-handed, and the helper of the Czech woman told him that the Gestapo officer had left the area. "My body refused to move. It was as if I had become paralyzed," Silberstein, 83, recalled Monday. "I had to fight myself in order to exit from the tree." (The three other Jewish escapees who also had been sequestered in the attic of the house had earlier been caught and murdered by the Nazis after making a fruitless attempt to reach the approaching Red Army lines over Sudova's and Silberstein's urging to stay put at the home due to the ever-present dangers.) After the war ended, Silberstein discovered that the Czech woman had in fact known that he and his friends were Jewish - and were not partisans as they had told her when asking for shelter - and never forgot her kindness. He would spend years trying to locate the family, in a half dozen trips to Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, finally locating the woman's daughter Ana in 2004. Jana Sudova was posthumously awarded Yad Vashem's highest honor last year, and declared a Righteous Among the Nations in a ceremony attended by her daughter, who was three years old at the time of her mother's heroism. Jana Sudova died in 1993. Having located the daughter of the woman who saved him six decades earlier, Silberstein had almost come full circle. But there was just one more thing for Silberstein to do to make the circle complete: to find the tree that had served as his hiding place, and to bring it to Israel. Silberstein had been searching for the family who saved him and the tree for almost five decades, having first returned to the country in 1955 when it was still under Communist rule. For years he came back empty-handed. Then, with the help of a Czech journalist who wrote up his story, he was finally able to uncover the family - who had moved from the village in question - and then locate the tree, which had changed hands multiple times since the end of World War II as the property was sold and resold. The current Czech owner of the property had sliced the tree in half and was preparing to use it for furniture when Silberstein suddenly turned up at the house with his story and offer to buy the tree. The dumbfounded owner refused to accept money for the tree trunk, and gave it to Silberstein free of charge to fulfill his lifelong dream of bringing it to Israel. Having acquired the tree trunk and shipped it to Israel, Silberstein was determined it should be part of Yad Vashem. He worked tirelessly to attain all the necessary permits: first to get it to Israel and then to have it exhibited at Jerusalem's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. On Monday, the tree trunk in which he hid that fateful day in 1945 went on permanent display at Yad Vashem just above the Garden of the Righteous, its strong trunk hovering over the names of those non-Jews who, like Jana Sudova, singlehandedly worked to save lives amidst the horrors of the Holocaust. "This tree, for me, is life," said Silberstein, whose shaking left arm still bears the concentration camp number branded into his skin. "I believe in divine shelter," he said. "I had someone protecting me from above."

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