August 23rd, 2010
10:59 AM ET
A chestnut tree beloved by Holocaust victim Anne Frank as she wrote her diary in hiding in the Netherlands fell down Monday, the Anne Frank House museum told CNN. The tree, which was more than 150 years old, had been diseased since 2005 and had a support structure to help keep it upright.
But it fell early Monday afternoon, Anne Frank House representative Maatje Mostart said. "It's a pity. It's an important tree," she said. "Anne Frank looked down on it from her hiding place. It was the only piece of nature she could see." "Something went wrong with the support," she added. "Happily it fell the right way. It didn't fall on the secret annex or on a person, so that was a relief for us."
Since the tree was found to be diseased, hundreds of saplings grown from its chestnuts have been donated to schools and parks around the world, the Anne Frank Museum said.
Frank admired the tree from the attic window of the secret annex where her family hid for two years, before being betrayed. "From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind," she wrote on February 23, 1944. "As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be."
The spring before her family and the others hiding with them were captured, the girl focused on the tree's budding life - and her own.
Frank died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen just weeks before the Nazi concentration camp was liberated in 1945. But her name, story and message live on through her diary and, also, through her ailing tree. A fungus had left two-thirds of it hollow, said Anne Frank House spokeswoman Annemarie Bekker. A battle began in late 2007 between city officials who wanted to chop it down and activists who insisted it should stay.
But a court injunction, a second-opinion analysis and a committee mobilization left it standing until Monday, barely alive and supported by steel. The tree was a horse chestnut, which is often called a buckeye tree in the United States and a conker tree in the United Kingdom. Through a project and contest launched last year by the Anne Frank Center USA, a New York-based educational nonprofit working with the museum in Amsterdam, 11 sites in the United States will see Frank's tree blossom. They range from the White House and various museums and memorials to a high school that changed U.S. history. A handful of winning applications were driven by youth inspired by Frank– who would be 80 if she'd survived - and her diary.
One girl in Boston, Massachusetts,12-year-old Aliyah Finkel, felt an immediate connection to the writer, so much so that she chose to have her bat mitzvah - the coming of age ceremony for Jewish girls - in the synagogue Frank's family attended in Amsterdam before they went into hiding. "It wasn't just a diary written by some person, it was written by a 13-year-old girl," Finkel said. "I was interested in the story of her life. She had so much hope. There are some parts [of the diary] that are really sad, but it's more inspiring." With the help of her family, and contacts they have with local officials, Finkel's inspired push will bring a tree to Boston Common and lessons about tolerance to the city's public schools.
Farther South, a public school in Arkansas, the only one in the nation to become a national historic site, will also see an Anne Frank tree bloom. Little Rock Central High School senior John Allen Riggins, 17, heard about the contest last summer while listening to National Public Radio. His school was racially integrated in 1957 by the "Little Rock Nine," a development that proved a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement. An avid follower of history and politics, Riggins saw parallels between Anne Frank's legacy and that of the Arkansas students. "From all across the world, in different time periods and different social struggles, young people have been caught up in history and these social tensions have come down upon them," Riggins said. "Anne Frank was 14 when she was hiding, and the youngest of the nine was 14."
For Elaine Leeder, it was in many ways her father's youth, and by extension her own, that made her reach out for a part of the tree. The dean of social sciences at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, Leeder is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father lost his mother, sister and brother when they were taken to a pit outside their Lithuanian village and gunned down along with about 2,000 other Jews. "The shades were always drawn in my house. We were afraid of neighbors," she said, describing the legacy she carried. "I became a genocide scholar over the years because of my personal story."
The sapling she competed for will be nurtured in the university's Holocaust Camp; Genocide Memorial Grove, where genocides across time are remembered. Beside it will be a sign quoting Frank: "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." Much of what his daughter wrote came as a surprise to Otto Frank, the family's sole survivor. He retrieved the diary and eventually published it after World War II. More than 30 million copies have been sold.
In a speech he gave in 1968, according to the Anne Frank House, he spoke of the reactions he had upon first reading his daughter's words. "How could I have suspected that it meant so much to Anne to see a patch of blue sky, to observe the gulls during their flight and how important the chestnut tree was to her, as I recall that she never took an interest in nature," he said. "But she longed for it during that time when she felt like a caged bird."
It turns out the saplings selected for sites in the United States are caged themselves. When they arrived in the country in December, the young trees were seized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because of sicknesses ravaging horse chestnuts in Europe, the trees will remain in quarantine for three years.
But even as the original tree finally falls, pieces of it are growing strong, reaching for blue skies and welcoming birds across the globe - a living legacy to a girl who understood what life could promise.
Editor's Note: Belief Blog contributor Jess Ravitz posted an indepth look at the tree earlier. Check it out here
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.