42. The Tree

By Peter Fraenkel

Winters were harsh in this city. Snowfall was heavy. The great river Oder froze over. The bolder kids skated on the frozen river but we were warned. The ice could be thin in places. We might find ourselves plunged into icy water.

But at long last spring came. The ice on the river broke and thick sheets started floating downstream.

“Time for a bit of fresh air”, said my father. We had been indoors too much during the winter. We walked down to the river. Ice piled up against the piers of the bridges. We stood on a bridge to watch. More ice came down and the river pushed new layers on top of the old. Could it bring down the bridge?

Action was needed.

The town’s street sweepers were called out. They brought long poles with ends like rakes. But standing on the bridge they could not reach the ice. Then they brought a barge with men carrying giant rakes. They could now get close enough to push ice away from the piers. They sent it floating downstream.

It was not only ice that came down the river. Clumps of soil – small floating islands – also came. Why didn’t they sink? Perhaps they were held up by ice below. A few of the floating islands were big enough to support a small tree.

I remember my father and I standing on the bridge as we watched the men working. It was cold but it was fun. One of the small islands with a tree floated under our bridge. I ran over to the other railing and watched it coming through.

On the next bridge (and I think there were five) there were other men on a barge to hasten along the ice But I noticed one little floating island with a tree got stuck.

The men in the barge ignored it. It had stopped at the shore and there it could not endanger the bridge.

A boy who was watching near me started to whistle. I knew the song and joined in – singing. “I stand on the bridge and spit in the boat. Now the spittle is happy, free and afloat.

Silly song!

Before we went home I had another look at the little island with that tree. It seemed firmly stuck. I thought “It might take root there.”

Next weekend my father wanted to take me to the nearby South Park, but I asked to be taken to the River Oder.

“It’s a long walk and when you’re tired you’ll start moaning,” said my father.

I promised faithfully I would not, so in the end he agreed. And there, indeed, we found the tree – I was now calling it “my tree” – still stuck and attached to the bank of the river. Perhaps its roots had started to anchor it down.

I wanted to go again the following weekend but now my parents were too busy. We were packing up to leave Germany. The Hitler government was making life too difficult for Jews. (Jon can tell you all that history – or I will when we next meet.) War came.

Hitler lost the war. My home town, Breslau, now became part of Poland and got a new name – Wroclaw. It was not until fifteen or more years after the war that I came again to visit what had been my home town.

I walked down to the River Oder, now called Odra in Polish, to look for that tree. There was now a large and sturdy tree – two or three times my height,

Was this the tree that I had seen floating under the bridge all those years earlier? I can’t be sure. It could have been another that came down later. But I want to believe that this big tree to which people now tie their boats and under which they sit and have picnics is, indeed, my tree.