How Anne Frank’s tree lives on

Anne Frank’s tree in Amsterdam, before it was felled by a storm in 2010 © Jeroen Broeder

On May 18 this year, students in Islington, north London, gathered to attend a tree-planting ceremony. A slim, but healthy, horse chestnut sapling was bedded into the earth at Highbury Fields, with a small plaque explaining that the tree had been planted “in the hope that the young people of Islington will live in a society of mutual understanding and respect for diversity”. The guest of honour was Dr Eva Schloss, an 87-year-old Auschwitz survivor, who saw the horse chestnut as “a symbol of hope”.

Any young tree can suggest hope. The very act of planting a sapling is forward-looking because although its slim trunk looks impossibly vulnerable at first, there is a good chance that the tree will outlive the planter by many years.

Yet the sapling in north London was no ordinary one. It grew from one of the last chestnuts culled from Anne Frank’s tree in Amsterdam. Eva Schloss knew Anne before the second world war. She survived, but Anne did not. Afterwards, Anne’s father Otto married Schloss’s mother. So, at the ceremony in Islington, she was overseeing the foundation of a memorial to her lost stepsister, as she had in Bradford, northern England, last year. The hope in these young horse chestnuts sprang from a very dark past.

Planting of the sapling at Highbury Fields, London © Ellie Hoskins/ Islington Gazette

Anne Frank’s tree never belonged to Anne in any legal sense. It had been growing in Amsterdam for more than 150 years before she was even born. When her diaries were recovered after the Holocaust, the old tree was changed utterly because of what it had meant to the adolescent hiding in the secret annexe behind the warehouse at Prinsengracht 263. The Frank family and their friends the van Pels (or van Daans, the pseudonym used by Anne to describe the family in her diary) went into hiding in July 1942. They stayed there until August 1944 when they were all betrayed to the Gestapo, taken prisoner and packed off to different concentration camps. Only Otto survived the war, but when he finally returned to Amsterdam he was given his younger daughter’s diaries, rescued after the raid by one of the family’s courageous helpers. Otto then had the harrowing experience of hearing Anne’s clear voice speaking out from their pages.

Anne Frank © Alamy

Once in hiding, Anne was never to venture freely beyond the confines of the annexe again, but early in 1944 she was transported by the sight of the horse chestnut tree. It was visible through the attic window, where she loved spending time with her fellow hideaway, Peter van Daan. That day, she wrote: “From my favourite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops glisten like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind.” The teenage girl, cooped up for months and living in constant fear of bomb blasts and discovery, was understandably moved by the freedom of the gliding birds, but it was the bare winter branches, transfigured by light, that were truly transporting. This was the moment Anne decided that “the best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God.”

A few weeks later, on April 18, she was celebrating the “superb spring”, observing that “our chestnut tree is already quite greenish”, with even the odd sign of blossom. In May, the budding promises were fulfilled: “Our horse chestnut is in full bloom, thickly covered in leaves and much more beautiful than last year”. By the time it blossomed the following year, Anne had died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen.

The tree continued to turn greenish each year, putting out white candle blossoms every May, as if in remembrance of the young girl who had gazed on it so intensely. Publication of Anne’s diaries in 1947 made “Our horse chestnut” an international celebrity. As the Dutch warehouse became a museum, visitors travelled from all over the world and tried to see through Anne’s eyes. The tall horse chestnut, with its huge, five-fingered leaves, seemed at once to be holding her secrets and sharing them among all comers. It was the living link to her lost voice. So when signs of bleeding canker and terminal decay were spotted in 2005, prompting a felling order, there was an outcry: “Our horse chestnut” must not perish.

Horse chestnuts rarely live more than 150 years so the tree was already a veteran when it took up its role in Anne’s story. Despite valiant efforts to treat the disease, the elderly horse chestnut was finally destroyed by a storm in 2010.

Fortunately, at the first signs of serious decay, Anne’s supporters had had the foresight to raise several saplings from the original tree. In 2013, ready for planting, they were dispatched from Amsterdam to sites across the world.

A sapling being planted at Liberty Park in New York © Michael Mahesh/PANYNJ

The horse chestnut tree in Highbury Fields has relatives in Bradford, west Yorkshire; at the 9/11 Memorial in New York’s Liberty Park; at the White House in Washington DC; and at a number of schools and Holocaust memorial sites. These young trees may seem rather slender, even frail, as symbols go. However, there is no false optimism in the horse-chestnut planting by people like Eva Schloss, who remember the bleakest human capabilities and yet still hope for better.

Fiona Stafford is a professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and author of ‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’ (Yale University Press), £16.99

Photographs: Jeroen Broeder; Ellie Hoskins/ Islington Gazette; Alamy; Michael Mahesh/PANYNJ

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