New life at Sonoma State for Anne Frank tree

When it arrived at the Sonoma State University greenhouse three years ago, it resembled little more than a stick. Yet it harbored life.

The sapling is an offspring of the famed Anne Frank chestnut in Amsterdam, the same tree Anne looked out on during her years hiding in the attic. Though the nearly 200-year-old tree, suffering disease and rot, was toppled by wind and heavy rain in 2010, botanists had taken seeds and cuttings before that fateful day.

The saplings are now spreading Anne’s message of tolerance around the world. That message will take root locally during a public ceremony on Sunday, April 14 at the Erna and Arthur Salm Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove on the Sonoma State campus in Rohnert Park.

The former stick is now a leafy 5-foot-tall tree. It will join 18 other trees donated to the grove by Holocaust survivor Helena Foster.

“Anne Frank is quoted in [her diary] saying she would look at the tree,” noted  Elaine Leeder, dean of the university’s School of Social Sciences, a Holocaust scholar and one of the leaders of the project. “She couldn’t see much out the window except this flowering tree. In spring she had enormous hope for herself, her family and her future. We now have a cutting of it.”

And a prized one, at that, as the Anne Frank Center USA selected only 11 locations, from 34 applicants, across the United States for plantings.

The tree at Sonoma State will grow next to a 10-foot light tower sculpture created by SSU art professor Jann Nunn. Featuring railroad tracks that symbolize Nazi deportations, the sculpture also includes the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Bricks between the rails point out where genocides have occurred, including Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.

A sign near the tree will be inscribed with the words of Anne Frank from her diary: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

In addition to Sonoma State, other locations chosen for saplings include the White House, a park in New York City that memorializes 9/11 victims and Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., site of an infamous desegregation fight in 1957. The plantings will occur in public dedications throughout the year, with the first at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, beating Sonoma State by only a few hours.

And how did Sonoma State get the nod? Solid credentials, Leeder said: the university’s Holocaust lecture series, now in its 30th year; its Holocaust education curriculum; and the pastoral setting of the grove, which includes sculptures and monuments dedicated to tolerance.

Yvonne Simons of the Anne Frank Center USA said she felt the university “connected all the dots by writing an inspiring proposal, drawing all aspects of tolerance together … We particularly like the concept that the sapling would be placed near the Martin Luther King sculpture — and the fact that both [King and Anne Frank] were born in 1929, both slain by ignorance and hatred — both lives committed to contribute to human dialogue.”

“The addition of the Anne Frank tree will solidify the Sonoma State campus as a major center on the West Coast for the study of the Holocaust and genocide,” Leeder noted.

The April 14 event will include speeches by Holocaust survivor Hans Angress, 84, who attended school with Anne Frank; Sonoma State Unversity President Ruben Armiñana; Myrna Goodman, director of SSU’s Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide; and Netherlands’ deputy consul general, Ard van der Vorst.

Jim Silva, a landscaper at Sonoma State, tends to the sapling. photo/sandy destiny

Like Anne Frank, Angress was born in Germany and fled to Amsterdam in the early years of the Nazi regime. He and Anne attended the Joods Lyceum (Jewish School) at the same time, but were in different grades and didn’t know each other. Hidden during the war, Angress later immigrated to the United States, where for the last few years he has been tirelessly educating people about the Holocaust.

“It’s significant,” he said of the Anne Frank Tree project and the planting less than five miles from his home in Cotati. “Hopefully it will not only be in memory of Anne Frank but of the millions of kids who lost their lives during the Holocaust. I hope it will be a powerful symbol.”

Leeder said once the sapling arrived in 2010, it had to be kept in quarantine for a long time to make sure it contained no potentially harmful plant diseases. Sam Youney, SSU’s director of landscaping, built a special greenhouse to store it.

“It just grew and grew,” Leeder said, “because Sam knew the proper temperature and knew how to water it.”

In her famous diary, Anne Frank made several references to the tree, commonly known as a horse chestnut or conker tree, that she could peer at through her small attic window.

“Nearly every morning,” she wrote in her Feb. 23, 1944 entry, “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.”

A global campaign to save the 27-ton tree was launched in 2007 after Amsterdam officials deemed it a safety hazard and ordered it taken down. The tree was granted a last-minute reprieve after a court battle, but age and nature ultimately brought it down.

Leeder, the daughter of European Jews who lost family in the Holocaust, knows that a single tree on a college campus won’t stop the genocide she constantly teaches about. But she does hope it will make visitors stop and think.

“I’m afraid we’re going to lose the memory,” Leeder said. “I’m hoping when they see the tree and understand it, they will realize there are barbaric people in the world and that we have to fight back.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Anne Frank sapling will be planted at 1 p.m. Sunday, April 14 in the Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove at Sonoma State University. 2 p.m. reception. Tours of the grove begin April 22.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at