The Secret Lives of Two Trees

A photograph in a recent National Geographic article caught my attention. It showed an immense, gnarled apple tree with limbs spreading high above a country home at Woolsthorpe Manor, England.

Trees, especially old and gnarled ones like this, have long fascinated me.  What events did they stand witness to?  What stories might they tell if only they could speak?

In the case of the National Geographic apple tree, what was noteworthy was not the tree’s size or location, nor the fact that it was centuries old.  What made it noteworthy was what happened under the tree.

Newton’s Apple Tree – Woolsthorpe Manor, England

In 1666, Isaac Newton sat under the tree. In a contemplative mood, he observed a falling apple. Why does an apple always drop perpendicularly to the ground? he wondered. He reasoned that some type of force made the apples fall as they did, and from that Newton went on to the derive laws of physics that stand to this day.

Another Tree
Irena in her nurse’s uniform

Seeing the photograph reminded me of a lesser known apple tree I researched while writing At the Edge. This one stands in a garden in Warsaw, Poland, and it too played a pivotal role in history.

During Poland’s occupation in World War II, the Nazi rounded up Warsaw’s 450,000 Jews, and herded them into a 16-square block section of the city. Disguised as a nurse, Irena Sendler – an administrator with the Warsaw Social Welfare Department – infiltrated the heavily secured Warsaw ghetto. She visited families, administering medicine where needed to avoid suspicion, but intent on something far riskier – smuggling Jews, especially children, out of the ghetto.

Often, Irena escaped with children hidden in sacks, boxes, body bags or coffins inside an ambulance. Other times, Irena led them to freedom through sewers or holes in the ghetto wall.

Once outside the ghetto, the children were given new names and false family histories. A network of fellow conspirators placed the children in homes, orphanages and convents around the country. To track the location of the rescued children so they could be returned to their proper families at the end of the war,  Irena then made a trip to a neighbour’s garden.  In the dirt below an apple tree, she hid glass jars stuffed with tissue paper containing the original names and new identities of the children.

I was taught by my father that when someone is drowning you don't ask if they can swim, you just jump in and help. Irena Sendler

For 16 months, Irena continued her dangerous mission, rescuing over 2500 children from the ghetto. On October 20, 1943, she was arrested. Interrogated, tortured, and sentenced to death by firing squad.  With the help of of other conspirators, Irena escaped and went into hiding for the remainder of the war.

After the war, Irena recovered the glass jars. Equipped with lists of names, she spent years tracking down rescued children.  When possible, she reconnected them with parents or grandparents.

In 1999, four Kansas teenagers working on a school project about the Holocaust uncovered Irena Sendler’s largely forgotten story. They tracked her down and wrote a short play about her deeds called Life in a Jar. With her story now public, Irena received awards and commendations.  In 2007, at the age of 97, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Visitors to Irena Sendler’s applie tree
Remarkable Indeed

So there you have it.  Two apple trees, unremarkable in appearance, but remarkable for the secrets they harbor from history.


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