A sapling seeded by Anne Frank’s horse-chestnut tree in Amsterdam is growing at Yad Vashem, near its International Institute for Holocaust Research. (photo by Gil Zohar)
treJerusalem and its environs have many historic trees, including the grove of gnarled olives in the Garden of Gethsemane, under which Jesus may have sheltered two millennia ago; the looming cypress planted by Godefroy de Bouillon, today the site of Hôpital Saint Louis, but where French knights camped in 1099 during the first Crusade; and the 700-year-old Kermes Oak that stands alone in Gush Etzion, south of the city. And now, there is another – a sapling seeded by Anne Frank’s white horse-chestnut tree in Amsterdam, which is growing at Yad Vashem, near its International Institute for Holocaust Research.
Initially, Yad Vashem was concerned that the chestnut tree would not acclimate to Jerusalem’s long, dry summers, but it is doing well.
For more than two years until her arrest on Aug. 4, 1944, Frank (1929-1945) hid in her family’s secret annex at Prinsengracht 263-265. Through a window in the attic that was not blacked out, she admired the chestnut tree, planted around 1850, that stood in the courtyard of a neighbouring residential block, at 188 Keizersgracht just north of the landmark Westerkerk. The tree was her only connection to the outside world and the changing seasons.
Frank wrote about the tree three times in her diary. On the last occasion, on May 13, 1944, she observed: “Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It’s covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year.”
A month earlier, on April 18, 1944, she wrote: “April is glorious, not too hot and not too cold, with occasional light showers. Our chestnut tree is in leaf, and here and there you can already see a few small blossoms.”
The first reference was on Feb. 23, 1944, when Frank noted: “The two of us [Peter van Pels and Frank] looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.”
For decades, the storied tree was cared for by Amsterdam’s Pius Floris Tree Care at the behest of the city’s Central Borough Council. In 2005, it was determined that the tree was ailing, and valiant efforts were made to save it.
In the meantime, Anne Frank House asked permission of the tree’s owner to gather and germinate chestnuts. The saplings – grown and cared for by Bonte Hoek Nurseries – were donated to schools around the world named after Anne Frank, and other organizations. In 2009, 150 saplings of the tree were donated to Amsterdamse Bos woodland park.
A sapling was recently planted in Vienna’s 2nd district – a neigbourhood that had many Jewish residents before the Anschluss in 1938. Another was planted in Ajaccio, Corsica, to honour the Righteous Among the Nations there. And 11 chestnut trees are growing in the United States, including one at Manhattan’s Liberty Park commemorating 9/11, thanks to the sapling project of the New York-based Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect.
As for the original tree, in 2008, the Support Anne Frank Tree Foundation placed iron struts around it to prop it up, hoping the tree would remain standing for further decades. But it was already too rotten. During a violent rainstorm on Aug. 23, 2010, the tree collapsed together with the girders supporting it, leaving a one-metre high stump.
On its website, the Dutch-based Support Anne Frank Tree Foundation responds to the question, was the battle to save the tree all for nothing?
“The answer is a resounding no!” they say. “The tree and the struggle to preserve it … has fulfilled an important task in an extraordinary manner: the reawakening of the world’s collective memory of the Holocaust and a call for tolerance and mutual respect. The seedlings planted all over the world will continue to spread the message, a grand and dignified final stage in the life of this tree. This would not have happened were it not for the battle for its preservation.”
Gil Zohar is a journalist based in Jerusalem.