A Holocaust survivor's take on importance of planting trees in Israel

'To me that forest represented a small victory in the Jewish struggle for survival.'

A FIREFIGHTER battles a blaze in the Jerusalem Forest (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A FIREFIGHTER battles a blaze in the Jerusalem Forest
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I never thought that I would cry over trees.
But I did.
For much of my life there’s been one thing that I have hardly ever done: I would not cry. I suppose psychologists or psychiatrists could probably discern some deep underlining reasons for this strange behavior, but for me, it was very simple. Crying could be considered a sign of weakness – something I was inclined to avoid.
I vividly recall the group of boys who chased me through the fields behind our house in Brno, Czechoslovakia, back in the mid-1930s, before the Shoah, when I was about seven years old. They were yelling, ”Let’s get the fat little Jew!” and other similar endearing expressions of their desires. Well, they were right. I was somewhat overweight and I was a Jew, but that did not give them the right to chase me. They finally caught up with me and the biggest one put my head into his forearm and squeezed and twisted my head. He promised to release me if I cried.
Under the circumstances it did not take much more inducement. I was really in pain and I was also furious. So, I cried and, after a few additional twists and squeezes, I was released. The boys stood there laughing at me as I tried to control my tears. I recovered some of my composure and ran off in the direction of my house. Somewhere about this time, I must have decided that, in the future, I would learn to control my impulse to cry.
In recent years, I’ve become more prone to allow myself the luxury of responding to some situations with tears. In 1978, when a robber’s bullet brutally tore my brother Steven away from us, I was completely distraught but dry-eyed. But when his oldest grandchild celebrated her bat mitzvah 25 years later, that earlier loss overtook my emotions. These days, on Yom Kippur I will arrive early for the services so that I can spend a few quiet moments before the memorial plaque in our synagogue. All the memorial lights are burning, including the three marking the names of my parents and my brother Steven. Then, when the services reach the Yizkor memorial ceremony and my thoughts turn to Steven, my parents and the 15 family members who were innocent victims of the Holocaust, I find relief in the tears that mix with my prayers.
In private moments, I will now indulge myself with a tear or two as I contemplate the choices my children have made or the challenges that they will yet have to meet, or as I am overcome by the joy of watching our grandchildren, or as I wonder over the miracle of my wife’s love and the 59 years that she has so loyally devoted to me.
BUT CRY over trees?
These days, as Israelis and Palestinians are trying to find a way to live in some form of harmony in the postage-stamp-sized territory they occupy, there are many elements that distinguish the two parts. When I visit Israel, nothing is more obvious to me than the relationship of each side to the land. In the over 140 years, since the founding of modern Zionism and the 72 years since the founding of the Jewish state, Jews have tended the land with love and care, firm in the knowledge that this little country is all that will ever be ours.
For decades, dedicated pioneers came to Palestine from the teaming ghettos and crowded cities of Europe, from the slums of North Africa, from the villages of Poland and Russia, from India, Ethiopia, South Africa, Yemen and even from the United States in order to work on the land. Immense labor and great sums of money have been dedicated in the effort to convert the barren land into a green island. What little water was available was carefully diverted and sent where it would do the most good. Pioneers, such as my Uncle Alfred, would struggle with the land to determine which crop might survive and thrive in this harsh climate. Many attempts failed, but Alfred and his fellow pioneers persisted and slowly the land began to bloom.
One of the major efforts in this endeavor was the planting of trees. Each year, the Tu Bishvat holiday is dedicated to the planting of trees. On that day, schoolrooms empty out as the Jewish children, clutching seedlings in their little hands, march out to the countryside, plant trees, and spend the day singing, dancing, and celebrating the joys of spring. These efforts, combined with the formal reforestation program of the Jewish Agency, started, ever so slowly, to turn vast areas of rocky hills into patches of green. The little seedlings grew and, as years turned into decades, the patches of green met each other and formed a carpet of green trees covering the bare rocks. The forests have become a symbol of the rebirth of the Jewish people and of the Jewish State.
After the 1967 Six Day War, a new four-lane highway was constructed from Tel Aviv that reaches Shaar Hagai. Then, as the road starts to rise into the mountains on the way to Jerusalem, the forest on both sides makes a great impact on the driver. By the year 1990, the trees that had been planted decades ago had risen to a substantial 25, 30, or more meters and the forest had become quite impressive as it rose majestically to the hilltops and beyond. When the road reached the top of the mountains, the observant driver could look left or right and see that the forest stretched out past the next valley and beyond the mountaintops to as far as one could see. Each time I drove this route, my heart was filled with joy and pride seeing what decades of hard work and dedication had accomplished.
THEN ONE day, during a visit in 1995, I first got an inkling that something terrible was happening on the road to Jerusalem. The reports were incomplete, but one thing was certain: The road to Jerusalem was closed to all traffic in both directions. In a country that, unfortunately, is used to bad news, this nevertheless sounded very ominous. Slowly, more information made it obvious that a major disaster was occurring. It wasn’t until the following day that the road was reopened and it was two more days before I was driving on that road on my way to Jerusalem.
I was completely unprepared for what greeted me when I reached Shaar Hagai. What had been the beautiful green forest just two days earlier was now a sea of gray and black. As far as I could see, the trees, those magnificent symbols of Jewish rebirth, had been turned into ashen monuments. I was stunned. I stepped on the gas and pushed the car up the hill hoping to reach the end of the devastation. But kilometers passed by and still there was nothing but ruination on both sides of the road. Then, when I reached the top of one of the hills, I could see that the fire had reached well beyond the road and into the valleys on both sides of the highway and up and over the next mountainside. It was all devastation. Those proud beautiful and majestic cypress trees were just blackened stalks standing forlornly on the mountainside. It wasn’t until I reached the village of Shoresh, nearly six kilometers from Shaar Hagai, that the countryside once again turned green. For me, the disaster was monumental.
I pulled off the road and I wept.
IT WASN’T just the trees – although that was reason enough to cry – it was what they represented.
My thoughts went back many decades to the time before World War II and the Holocaust and to the thousands and thousands of little blue-and-white metal coin boxes that had been part of nearly every Jewish family’s life for generations all over the world. In every country, on every continent, the little metal pushka with the coin slot on top, the locked trap door on the bottom and the blue Star of David on its front was as much a symbol of a family’s or a business’ Jewishness as a menorah or mezuzah. I thought of the millions of hard-earned and carefully saved coins that were dropped into these containers. Each coin was a promise to resurrect the Jewish people by the planting of trees in Palestine. Each little donation represented a silent prayer for the restoration of a Jewish homeland. Each time the box was shaken to measure the growth of its precious contents, the fulfillment of a dream came nearer. I thought of the many businessmen who had the coin box stationed right on the sales counter or on their office desk and were not embarrassed to urge their customers or visitors to drop a few coins into the slot before leaving.
Our family in Czechoslovakia was not different from the others, and our parents encouraged us to make regular contributions into our pushka. A man from Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund would visit from time to time with his magic key that would unlock the bottom of the box so that he could collect the contents. I thought of all the other children who proudly brought these boxes to the Keren Kayemeth offices to have them unlocked and watch the flood of coins spill from the opening.
Then I remembered all the births, brit milahs, weddings, bar mitzvas, anniversaries, and other happy occasions that were celebrated with generous donations to plant one, two, five, 10, 20, 100, or even several hundred trees on the barren slopes of Palestine. These gifts were honored with a beautifully framed certificate proudly mounted on the wall for everyone to see. A dreadful thought was mixed in with these recollections. I realized that most of these good, hopeful, and faithful souls, whose generosity, dedication, and determination had made these forests possible, had mostly been brutally wiped out during the Holocaust. And now, a substantial portion of their living memorial had just been destroyed in virtually the same fashion as their lives. Each blackened dead tree stood there like a silent witness to the destruction of those whose generosity had created the trees. Here and there, just like in the Holocaust, a tree or a group of trees stood untouched having been, somehow miraculously saved, like our small family. But the vast majority were just ashes.
Yes, I cried over trees, and each time I pass through this area I am gripped again by the same sadness. To me that forest represented a small victory in the Jewish struggle for survival. For two millennia the world has tried to wipe us off the face of the earth. In the last century it almost succeeded. But we are still here and we remain, despite our small numbers, a major force in the life of the civilized world. New trees have been planted and some day proud trees may once again cover the mountainside. It is the task of our children and grandchildren to see to it that these young trees survive and thrive. I know they will. This fact is one of the great joys of my life.
The writer, a Holocaust survivor, lives in the US but comes to Israel for extended visits twice a year. He was a film producer/director and was involved in the earliest years of Israel’s film production efforts. Since his retirement, he’s been recalling his life experiences by writing articles.