Wednesday, October 07, 2015

TOP STORY >> Planting of tree is symbol of hope

Leader executive editor

“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... and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies — while this lasts, I cannot be unhappy.” — Anne Frank, Feb. 23, 1944.

President Clinton on Friday helped dedicate a small sapling taken from the chestnut tree outside Anne Frank’s window in Amsterdam and now planted in 11 cities in the U.S.

The dedication took place in front of the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock with hundreds of local students, invited guests and families of Holocaust survivors.

Before the ceremony, my children asked me if their grandmother knew Anne when they were prisoners in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in Germany. My 19-year-old mother, Ilona, survived, but Anne, just 15, perished a few weeks before the British overran the camp on April 15, 1945.

Anne and Ilona were also at the Auschwitz death camp the summer before, but probably not at the same time, since my mother was sent west to Germany in August 1944, just weeks before Anne and her family were shipped east to Poland and imprisoned in Auschwitz after an informer betrayed them and four others who were hiding in the annex.

I tell my children that Bergen Belsen, with about 8,000 women prisoners, was much smaller than Auschwitz, which held hundreds of thousands of inmates.

My mother, who will be 90 next week, might have caught a glimpse of Anne and her sister Margot in the camp. Margot died from typhus in February, and Anne died the next month.

Peter Van Pels, the boy who lived with Anne in the annex, died in Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where my father, Frank, was a prisoner and who two years later married my mother in their native Hungary.

The Nazis ransacked the annex on Aug. 4, 1944, and tossed Anne’s diary across the floor because they figured they were just words no one would read. “The Diary of a Young Girl” has sold more than 25 million copies.

“She has certainly gone on living long after her death, through her writing, through the Anne Frank House and its counterpart, the Anne Frank Center USA,” Clinton said.

The former president called her “a brilliant talent with a sweet good heart. The sapling will grow, and the people will come.

“Young people should be able to go to places like this and see symbols of life, unity and hope,” Clinton said. “And we will remember the wisdom of a 14-year-old girl, whose spirit is depending on us to redeem the years she did not have.”

The sapling came from a 170-year-old white horse chestnut tree that was uprooted in a storm five years ago. Some 150 descendants of the tree have been distributed worldwide.

The installation honors Anne and other victims of persecution, including the removal of American Indians in the 1830s to the West, the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War and the 1957 integration crisis at Little Rock Central High School, where another sapling from Anne’s hiding place is being planted.

Little Rock is the only city in the U.S. with two saplings from Anne’s tree.

Ronald Leopold, executive director of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, said at the dedication, “Anne Frank took great solace from the horse chestnut tree that grew outside the secret annex on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, where her family and four others were in hiding during World War II. To Anne, it represented life in the face of death, the freedom to blossom and prosper.”

From June 1942 to August 1944, she confided her dreams and hopes, Leopold said, but did she still believe people are really good at heart, as she wrote in perhaps the most famous passage in her diary?

Some 55,000 prisoners survived Bergen Belsen, among them my starving mother, who held onto life, probably just a few yards from where Anne and Margot perished.

When the U.S. Army liberated my father on May 6, 1945, at Mauthausen-Gusen, some 38,000 prisoners were still alive, including Peter, the boy who gave Anne her first kiss as they hid in the annex.

Leopold told me after the tree dedication that he found out recently that Peter was still alive when the U.S. Army entered the camp, but he soon died from disease and malnutrition. My parents were just hours away from suffering the same fate as Peter. My mother wrote in her memoir she felt very close to death even after she was liberated.

The number of concentration camp survivors are found in a recently published book, “KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps” by Nikolaus Wachsmann, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux — an exhaustive history of Nazi brutality that details the horrors of the Third Reich as no other book has done before.

Wachsmann estimates that some 150,000 prisoners died in the first months of 1945 even as the Nazis fled in advance of the Allied armies.

Otto Frank, the father of Anne and Margot, was the only survivor from the group of eight people who hid in the annex. When he returned from Auschwitz, Miep Gies, the Christian woman who helped them hide in the annex, handed Otto his daughter’s diary, the work of a gifted young writer who found her voice at age 13 and was silenced, along with a million other Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust.

Clinton made a plea for tolerance and acceptance of our common humanity.

“The people who were butchering Anne Frank and her family and fellow Jewish citizens were 99.5 percent the same, biologically, as they,” Clinton said.

While Clinton spoke, our 8-week-old grandson Isaac — Ilona’s and Frank’s great-grandson — cried for a minute, perhaps for the millions of victims who perished.