AMSTERDAM – “ … And the sun was shining as it’s never shone before in 1944. Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It’s covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year.”
One of the best known and most poignant tragedies of the Holocaust is that of Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager who kept a diary of her more than two years in hiding from the Nazis in a cramped, secret annex of a building in Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
During her 25 months in hiding, Anne’s only connection to the outside world was a chestnut tree that gave her hope and comfort when she gazed at it from an attic window of her hideaway.
“ As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky and as long as I can enjoy it how can I be sad.”
More than half a century later, gusty winds off the North Sea still buffet the bare, 150-year-old tree that gave Anne Frank strength.
It stands alongside a canal in a courtyard behind the house at 263 Prinsengracht, where the Franks hid upstairs. Seagulls still fly over the tree, swooping down suddenly to seek fish in the oily canal.
But now a deadly fungus is killing Anne’s chestnut tree. Soon it will soon be cut down.
“I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all that suffer.”
The Frank family and four other Jews went into hiding on July 6, 1942, and lived in the secret annex for two years until they were discovered on August 4, 1944, and sent to death camps. More than 100,000 Dutch Jews — 70 percent of the Jewish community — were sent to concentration camps. Only 5,000 came home. Anne Franks wasn’t among them.
Anne Frank’s diary is regarded as one of the most compelling personal accounts of the Holocaust. Thirty million copies of her diary have been sold, and it has been translated into 65 languages. The home in which she hid for two years is now a museum — the Anne Frank House. It has had 20 million visitors since it opened in 1960.
A moveable bookcase concealed the narrow stairs that led to the family’s hideout. Anne’s room still has the images she pasted on a wall: the yellowing photos of the Dutch Royal Family, Princess Elizabeth of England (now the Queen) and Hollywood movie stars. These were her vicarious links to the outside world. These, and the chestnut tree.
“The only thing she could really see was the top of the chestnut tree. It had a very strong symbolic value of hope for her,” said Hans Westra, the museum’s executive director.
“That tree has been part of my life since 1974 when I came to work here. I see it every day. I see the changing of the seasons. It will be a moment of loss when it’s cut down.”
A new Web site — www.annefranktree.com — offers visitors an opportunity to express their feelings about Anne Frank. Her chestnut tree is the core of the Web site. Visitors can leave their name on a leaf or attach a story, poem or drawing.
Passages in Anne Frank’s diary reveal how the chestnut tree and all of nature infused meaning into her life:
“The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. For then, and only then, can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature’s beauty and simplicity.”
The tree was damaged in 1990 by an underground oil spill and other toxic pollutants. For 17 years, the city government tried to save the tree, spending $200,000 to pump out the polluted water surrounding it, as well as trying other methods to preserve its roots. Nothing worked.
“The city felt it was its moral obligation to do this because it was so important to Anne and gave her spiritual comfort during her bleak days in hiding,” said a city official.
On February 23, 1944, Anne wrote in her diary:
“The two of us [Anne and her friend Peter Van Pels, a teenager also hiding in the annex] looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the sea gulls and other birds, glinting with silver as they swooped through the air and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.”
Years later, in 1968, Anne’s father, Otto, who survived the Holocaust, reflected on the meaning the tree had for his daughter:
“How could I have suspected how important the chestnut tree was to her?” he said. “But she longed for it during that time when she felt like a caged bird. She only found consolation in thinking about nature.”
“She saw the tree flowering in spring,” Anne’s best friend, Jacqueline Van Maarsen, said in an interview. “She saw it when the leaves were gone. It was part of her life. She couldn’t see anything else except the chestnut tree and the sky.”
Van Maarsen, who is now 78 years old, has many happy memories of Anne. They attended a Jewish secondary school until July 6, 1942, when the Frank family suddenly disappeared and went into hiding. She treasures two letters Anne wrote to her from the secret annex that were never mailed. Otto Frank gave Van Maarsen the letters in 1945 when he returned to Amsterdam from Auschwitz. A friend of the Frank family had saved the letters and the diary.
“I am writing this letter in order to bid you goodbye,” Anne wrote to her friend. “That will probably surprise you, but fate has decreed that I must leave. Jackie, I hope things go well with you, that I hear from you soon and that we’ll meet again soon.”
Anne signed her letter, “Your ‘best’ friend. Anne,” with a P.S.: “I hope that we will always stay ‘best’ friends until we meet again.”
Anne Frank’s legacy remains alive in Holland. It is visible on the facade of the Montessori school on Nierstraat 41, a quiet street in the southern part of the city. Excerpts from her diary are inscribed in light blue across multicolored brick bands. Anne attended the school for seven years.
A plaque in the lobby lists the names of 90 children who were taken from the school and the names of the concentration camps in which they died. On the list is: “Anne Frank, Bergen-Belson 3/45. ” Anne and her sister, Margot, died of typhus during an epidemic at the Bergen-Belson concentration camp in March 1945. Only weeks later, British troops freed the starving prisoners and found thousands dead.
“The history of Anne Frank is in the DNA of the school,” said Bas Moll, its young principal. “It’s in the walls and the rooms of this school. That’s why we keep the classrooms the same way they were in 1940 when Anne was here, and that’s why we have the list of all our Jewish pupils who were killed, so today’s students will never forget what happened in their school.”
In spite of such efforts to remember, these lessons of the Holocaust have not erased anti-Semitism in Holland. The Anne Frank Foundation recently reported: “More and more we hear from teachers that they are confronted with anti-Semitism from their students when they teach about World War II and the persecution of the Jews.” They say Holocaust denial comes largely from the growing Muslim minority.
Even among those most determined to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, its images fade with time. Westra says that when the chestnut tree comes down, “It will be a moment of loss. ... Another step away from the Holocaust.”
But not entirely. The German government has planted a chestnut tree where thousands, including Anne and her sister, Margot, were buried by the British troops who liberated Bergen-Belson.
And a sapling from grafts of Anne’s tree is now growing in a nursery. As soon as her tree is cut down, this sapling, with the same DNA, will be planted in its place.