Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Chestnut from Anne Frank's Tree

Sometimes, you read something in the paper or on-line and you just don't quite know what to make of it.

Like many of you, I'm sure, I first read Anne Frank's diary when I was a teenager. I can't quite remember what brought me to it. I don't believe it was assigned to us in school. I was too young to see the original dramatization on Broadway (it ran from 1955 to 1957), although I believe my parents saw it. I wouldn't have seen the 1959 movie either-the one with Lou Jacobi and Shelley Winters-or at least not when it first came out. (I was six years old in 1959.) But, somehow, I was drawn to the book and, eventually, I read it. As was the case for many people, it changed my life, drawing me into an area of my Jewish identity I hadn't had the courage previously to explore in real depth. Later, there were other Shoah books that had profound, life-altering effects on me-Elie Wiesel's Night, Andre Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just, Anatoly Rybakov's Heavy Sand, and Anatoly Kuznyetzov's Babi Yar come most quickly to my mind, although there were many others-but, somehow, Anne's diary, in which the actual horrors of the Shoah were all unspoken (and unknown to the people in the book, and to Anne herself) retains its place in my own sense of my development as a post-Shoah Jew (not a survivor in the technical sense, but a Jew whose sense of self, and whose sense of destiny, is inextricably tied up with the Shoah and the implications and ramifications of its details) that it has never ceded to any of the books mentioned above, or to any others.

It was, therefore, with all this in mind that I noted just a week or so ago that someone had paid $10,240 on e-bay for a single chestnut from the chestnut tree that grew outside Anne's window in the hidden annex. It's a bit of a stunning number-we're talking about a single nut, surely the most valuable piece of fruit ever-but I don't know that I view the purchase as an entirely positive thing. The whole story has to do with the tree itself. It's apparently dying of some sort of fungal chestnut blight and there's been this huge brouhaha going on in the course of these last few months in Amsterdam between the owner of the house adjacent to the secret annex, on whose property the tree actually stands (and who wants to take it down before it falls down on his house,) and the rest of everybody who sees it as this great symbol of resistance against tyranny and who want the municipality to do whatever it takes to ensure its continued survival. (The tree is 150 years old and weighs about twenty-seven tons. So I can see both sides. On the one hand, this is Anne's tree, we're talking about, the one Anne was still writing about as a source of comfort and hope in May, 1944, just a few months before she was arrested and shipped to Bergen Belsen, where she died. On the other, I don't believe I'd like a twenty-seven ton tree falling on my house either. You can read the whole ABC News story at .)

So why do I find myself ambivalent about someone spending that kind of money to buy one of the chestnuts? Part of me feels, as I'm sure many do, that it's encouraging to know that there are people for whom Anne's memory-and, by extension, of all the Jewish children who died, all 1.5 million of them-is so sacred that even a sum of money like the one offered (and, apparently, accepted) is worth spending to make the point clearly that none of our children will ever be forgotten, even those who didn't leave behind beautiful diaries, or grieving parents or more distant relatives. But another part of me finds the willingness of even a truly wealthy person to pay $10,240 for a chestnut just a bit peculiar. The real memorial to Anne's memory will not be built of chestnuts! How many children are still paying the price, even today, for the heartlessness of their parents, of their parents' generation, of the world in general? As we've often said at Shelter Rock, we never grow tired of mourning our own martyrs, but how many of us are similarly moved, or even moved at all, by the plight of children in other places who are still being tortured and abused in camps or who are still dying daily from malnutrition, or who are being sold daily into slavery.

It's easy to read books, and it's easy to be moved by the stories in those books...and, especially, when they are written by bright, decent, sensitive children like Anne Frank clearly was. But to be moved by her plight, but not quite moved enough to be unable to tolerate the knowledge that untold numbers of children are still paying the ultimate price for their parents' politics or ethnicity, or for their parents' poor fortune to live on the wrong side of some border someone made up for some reason no one quite remembers....that seems like a lot of weight for a single chestnut to bear, even one that cost someone more than at least some the people reading this probably paid for their first homes.

It's always a complicated set of ideas that any of us brings to the question of how exactly to translate the stories of the Shoah into lessons that are relevant to our actual lives. Remembering the martyrs, revering their sacrifice, honoring the righteous Gentiles who saved Jewish people, feeling a sense of responsibility towards the liberators--these are all parts of it. But then there's also the other part, the part that that chestnut symbolizes to me...the part where remembering the past inspires us to work for a future in which there are no children hiding from their would-be murderers...and in which Anne's vision of the world outside her hiding place is not a persecuted child's fantasy, but the reality that all children, regardless of their ethnicity or faith, recognize easily as the world in which they live...and thrive. (February 8, 2008)

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