Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree

by Judith Stanford Miller, M.Ed., M.A. June 6, 2017 – On this day in 1944, Allied forces launched the D-Day invasion along the beaches of Normandy, France to liberate European countries from Nazi occupation. Millions of children were displaced during WWII and 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered. Anne Frank and Margot, her older sister, were in hiding in Amsterdam with their family on D-Day. In August their family was betrayed. Anne and Margot died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp weeks before British troops liberated the camp in spring 1945.

As Jewish residents of Amsterdam, Anne Frank, her family, and four friends were hiding from the Nazis in the Secret Annex behind Otto Frank’s business. They lived there for 25 months from July 1942 until August 1944 when they were captured and sent away to concentration camps.

As they listened to news of D-Day on BBC Radio, they had renewed hope they would soon be free to again walk the streets of Amsterdam. It was not to be.

A chestnut tree from a cutting of the large horse-chestnut tree that grew in the backyard of the Secret Annex in Amsterdam is flourishing in a courtyard at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. (Photo: Student News Net at the Center on June 4, 2017)

From her window in the Secret Annex, Anne had a view of a large, white horse-chestnut tree, which she observed season after season. More than 150 years old when it toppled during a storm in 2010, cuttings from the tree have been sent around the world the tree keeping Anne’s story, her legacy, and the memory all of those who perished in ghettos and at concentration camps alive.

Student News Net interview at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan on June 4, 2017

At the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan, a cutting from the chestnut tree that grew behind the Annex until it toppled in a storm in 2010 is flourishing. Anne mentioned the tree in her diary.

Rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the Kindertransport

Under Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, Germany had changed from a democratic republic into a dictatorship in a relatively short period of time. World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and then marched across Europe invading sovereign nations, forcing the countries to surrender to German rule.

For nine months from December 1938 until the war started, Jewish children up to 17 years old were able to leave Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. They said goodbye to their families, boarded a train, and moved to England where they were placed in foster homes. About 10,000 children escaped Nazi oppression in this way. These trains to freedom came to be known as Kindertransport.

At the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan, large patchwork quilts tell the Kindertransport story. In 1988, Anita Grosz, daughter of Hanus Grosz who was a Kindertransport child, had the idea to preserve these stories through patches. Each patch represents one child’s story. Visitors can push a button to hear the story behind each patch design. It’s a powerful and moving display.

One quilt in the Kindertransport display at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan shows patches made by families of Kindertransport children. (Photo: Student News Net at the Center on June 4, 2017)

The Frank family in Amsterdam
As the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, many Jewish families decided to leave their homeland. Otto Frank, Anne’s father, moved to Amsterdam in 1933 to start his business. He sent for his family in 1934 as he thought they would be safe there from antisemitism being instigated by Adolf Hitler’s government in Germany. Similar to the Frank family, thousands of Jewish families moved to Amsterdam where they lived in the same neighborhoods, socialized together, learned the Dutch language, and enjoyed Dutch society.

Anne and Margot had a normal life in Amsterdam until May 10, 1940 when Germany invaded Holland (The Netherlands). Within 5 days, the Netherlands surrendered after German bombers leveled the city of Rotterdam and threatened to turn other Dutch cities into ruins.

The first two years of the occupation were relatively calm for Jewish residents in Holland but then in 1942 as new rules limited their ability to work, to live, and to go to school, life became very difficult. Soon entire Jewish families disappeared. They were deported from their homes and sent to concentration camps where most of them were murdered. Of about 107,000 Dutch Jews who were deported, only 5,000 survived, according to information from the museum.

On June 12, 1942, Anne received a red plaid diary for her birthday. After Margot received a notice to report to a labor camp soon after, Otto moved his family to the Secret Annex on July 6, 1942 to hide. The Annex was a space behind his office. He had been preparing the Annex for such a day. Anne took her red plaid diary with her to the Annex.

The Annex was located behind a bookcase in Otto’s offices. There were three floors in the Annex, two floors with rooms and a small attic. From Anne’s room, she could see a large chestnut tree in the backyard. She often wrote about the tree in her diary as it changed from season to season. In the spring, it had beautiful white flowers that always gave Anne hope of a new beginning and freedom for her family and four others who were hiding with them in the Secret Annex.

On Aug. 4, 1944, someone called police to report the families hiding in the Annex. Police came and took them away. Miep Gies, one of Otto’s employees who helped hide the family by bringing them food and supplies, found Anne’s diary after the Germans took the family away. She never read the diary. She kept it in her desk waiting for Anne to return.

After the D-Day invasion just weeks before in June, the Allies were pushing back the Germans. In late August 1944, the Allies liberated Paris, France. But it was not fast enough for the Frank family. From a transit camp in Holland, they were sent on the last train from Holland to Auschwitz, a death camp.

From Auschwitz, Anne and Margot were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. Their mother and father stayed in Auschwitz. Anne and Margot succumbed to typhus, a disease spread by lice, in February 1945. Edith, their mother, died in Auschwitz in fall 1944. Only Otto survived Auschwitz and the Holocaust. He returned to Amsterdam.

After Otto and Miep learned that Anne and Margot had not survived, Miep gave the diary to Otto. During their time in hiding, Anne heard on the radio that there was interest after the war in first hand accounts of war experiences so she thought her diary could become a book. She wanted to become a writer so she began editing her diary. She also wrote new stories on individual pieces of paper given to her by Miep.

Many years after the war, the Secret Annex became the Anne Frank House, a museum. Otto worked the rest of his life to fulfill Anne’s wish to have her writing published and to promote peace and tolerance.

White horse-chestnut tree

During a 2010 storm, the horse-chestnut tree toppled. It had been afflicted with insects and fungus before the storm so caretakers of the Anne Frank House began taking cuttings from the tree. Eleven saplings were sent to the Anne Frank Center USA to distribute to worthy educational institutions. Through a grant process, the Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills, the only Holocaust center in Michigan, was chosen.

Michael Liebowitz, tour guide at the museum, said during a tour Sunday that when the sapling arrived in 2013, it was about as thick as his thumb. It was planted in a protected courtyard between the walls of the museum. It is flourishing and could once again produce flowers in a few years.

On May 13, 1944, Anne wrote about the horse-chestnut tree in her diary. She said:

“Our chestnut tree is in full bloom. It is covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year.”

Anne’s chestnut trees are growing around the world as symbols of a time in the past that cannot be forgotten and a time into the future when the hope and diligent work of millions of people today must ensure experiences of children of the Holocaust will never be repeated.

© Copyright 2019. All rights reserved. Judith Stanford Miller/Student News Net. No portion of this article can be copied, disseminated, or distributed without the author’s permission.