The Legacy of Anne Frank
Last week we celebrated Tu Bishvat, or, The New Year of the Trees. The tree is an important symbol in Judaism. The torah is, after all, called the “Tree of Life” and the wooden scrolls upon which the parchment of the Torah is attached are called the “Etz Chaim” or, “The Tree of Life”. Trees are compared to human beings in the Book of Deuteronomy. We are warned not to cut down a fruit tree when besieging a city, for “are trees like human beings, that they may run away?” There is the famous story told in the Talmud of Choni, the circle maker. He passes by a man planting a carob tree. “How long, will it be until you can eat the fruit of that tree?” Choni asks the man. “It will take 70 years for this tree to bear fruit,” was the reply. Choni thought to himself how foolish it was to labor so hard when one will not enjoy the fruit of the tree one has planted. A Jewish Rip Van Winkle, Choni then goes to sleep for 70 years. When he awakens, he passes by the same spot where he saw the man planting a tree. Now there is a man picking the fruit of the tree. “Were you the person who planted this tree,” asked Choni, unaware of how long he had been asleep. “My grandfather planted this tree,” replied the man, “had he not done so, I would not be picking its fruit today.”
Trees still play an important role in Jewish life. In the past one hundred years, the Jewish National Fund has planted over 250 million trees in Israel, helping to reverse years of environmental degradation brought on by the exploitation and neglect of the Ottoman Empire when it ruled our Holy Land. A tree also plays an important role in “The Diary of Anne Frank”. In May, fifty Congregation Beth Shalom members will travel to the Writers Theater in Northbrook to see a production of the play based on the diary. On my Sabbatical, in preparation for our congregational trip, I studied the Diary of a Young Girl, written by Anne Frank. Anne began the diary when she was thirteen; the final diary entry was made when she was fifteen years old. I do not believe I had ever read the book before – I would have had to read it on my own, as a teen, and I doubt whether a book entitled “The Diary of a Young Girl” would have appealed to me. Nowadays, it is required reading for students. Like many classics that students are required to read for school, it is hard to understand how they could fully appreciate the book at the tender age at which they are reading it. In addition to reading the Diary itself, I viewed “Anne Frank Remembered”, a film that won an Academy Award in 1995 for best documentary. I also read a study of the Anne Frank by an author named Francine Prose title Anne Frank, The Book, The Life, The Afterlife. Prose , an accomplished contemporary American author and essayist, recognizes Anne Frank as a literary prodigy and as one of the greatest and most important writers of the 20th century. As I said, a tree plays an important part in Anne Frank’s story. Outside of the Annex that hid Anne Frank and her family for 2 years and one month, there stood a Chestnut tree. In a passage dated Feb 23, 1944 Anne wrote:
Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs, 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. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.
When the Anne Frank house was turned into a museum, millions of people saw that Chestnut tree that stood outside of the attic window of the house. It came to stand for Anne’s hope to one day be free, her despair at her imprisonment, and the inhumanity of intolerance and war. The tree became diseased, and efforts were made to save it. The 150 year old Chestnut tree was finally felled by a storm in 2010. But prior its demise, the Anne Frank House decided to gather its chestnuts, geminate them, and donate the saplings to locations around the world. Eleven locations were chosen in the United States, including the West Front Lawn of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, DC. In a ceremony there in 2013, leaders of Congress gathered to plant the tree and to speak about the values of liberty, of justice, of tolerance and of equality that both the Chestnut tree and the United States Capitol building symbolize.
Since its first publication in Dutch in 1947, Anne Frank’s diary has been the source of inspiration to millions around the world. It has been translated into 67 languages and has been read by an estimated 250 million people worldwide. Many people only know about the Holocaust from having read this book. Nelson Mandela read it when he was a prisoner on Robben Island in South Africa. He said in an interview, “It kept our spirits high and reinforced our confidence in the invincibility of the cause of freedom and justice.”
Anne Frank’s final diary entry was dated August 1, 1944, about 70 years ago. Her hiding place was discovered shortly thereafter, and she died of disease in the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp in 1945. She wrote in her diary, “I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or to bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death.” Like the man who planted the carob tree so that his grandchildren could eat of its fruits, Anne Frank did not live to see the impact that her diary had had on the world. But like that man, the seeds that Anne Frank planted have produced fruit that continue to nourish the generations that follow.