Looking out of the window of her secret annex, Anne Frank saw beauty in a chestnut tree as the horrors of the Holocaust were closing in on her and her family. See how saplings from that tree are helping to plant seeds of tolerance all over the world.
From her only window to the outside world, Anne Frank could see the sky, the birds, and a majestic chestnut tree. “As long as this exists,” Anne wrote in her diary, “how can I be sad?” During the two years she spent in the secret annex, the solace Anne found in her chestnut tree provided a powerful contrast to the Holocaust unfolding beyond her attic window. And as war narrowed in on Anne and her family, her tree became a vivid reminder that a better world was possible.
Anne’s tree would outlive its namesake by more than 50 years, before succumbing to disease and a windstorm in August 2010. But today, thanks to dozens of saplings propagated in the months before its death, Anne’s tree lives on in cities and towns around the world.
In the United States, The Anne Frank Center USA’s Sapling Project is bringing 11 of these precious trees to specially selected locations across the country. As the saplings take root, they will emerge as living monuments to Anne’s pursuit of peace and tolerance. In the process, they will serve as powerful reminders of the horrors borne by hate and bigotry and the need for collective action in the face of injustice.
Planting Seeds of Tolerance
Anne’s tree was a white horse chestnut tree, of a variety found throughout the Northern hemisphere. At the time of its demise, it was over 170 years old, making it one of the oldest trees of its kind in Amsterdam. Throughout that period, it stood in the courtyard garden of number 188 Keizersgracht—right outside of Anne’s secret annex window.
“Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It’s covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year.” — Anne Frank’s diary, May 13, 1944
As decades passed, the majestic tree became infected with a moth and fungus infestation. Determined not to let the tree be lost forever, The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam decided, with the permission of the tree’s owner, to gather chestnuts, germinate them, and donate the saplings to schools and organizations dedicated to Anne Frank.
In 2009, the Anne Frank Center USA (AFC) received 11 of those saplings with plans to plant them across the United States. After a lengthy selection process, the AFC chose planting sites which memorialize incidences of intolerance and discrimination and share its mission to promote equal rights and mutual respect. The sites include: Little Rock Central High School and the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Arkansas; Sonoma State University in California; the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights in Idaho; The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis; Boston Common; the Holocaust Memorial Center in Michigan; Liberty Park Commemorating 9/11 in New York City; the Southern Cayuga School District in New York State; the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, and the West Front Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
After a three-year quarantine, the saplings were cleared for planting in 2013. Holocaust survivors, school children, and local dignitaries attended the public dedications of these saplings, which were celebratory and deeply moving events that remind us how tolerance can grow in the face of bigotry and racism.
Congressional leaders will plant the next sapling this Wednesday, April 30th, on the West Front Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. The remaining five saplings are scheduled to be planted in 2015. In conjunction with the plantings, AFC has launched a “Confronting Intolerance Today” speaker series to showcase global approaches to combating intolerance.
As Americans, we sometimes think of the horrors of the Holocaust as events that only happen in far off places and not on our own shores. But the United States has its own human rights issues, as evidenced by treatment of Native Americans, slavery, segregation, and by the ongoing struggle for full civil rights for women and people of color. These chapters in our shared history become the stories from which today’s generation can learn to fight intolerance in all forms, to identify prejudice, stereotyping, polarization, and to advocate for a world based on mutual respect. By attending a planting ceremony or a “Confronting Intolerance Today” event, you can help honor Anne’s vision of a more just world.
Rebecca Faulkner is the Special Projects Manager for The Anne Frank Center USA.
Visit the Sapling Project website for information on where the next event is taking place. You can also join the discussion on the Speak Up! page to participate in a dialogue on topics as diverse as the inequalities in the American justice system, genocide in South Sudan, poverty across the United States, and the rights of the LGBT community.