Anne Frank’s tree: Two Holocaust picture books

(Jewish Journal, April 27, 2016)

“The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window” by Jeff Gottesfeld
In 2010, the aging horse chestnut tree located outside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam collapsed and died. The tree was 172 years old and well-known, because Anne Frank referred to it three times in her famous diary. In 1944, she wrote about her view of the “bare chestnut tree glistening with dew” as she and her friend Peter looked out the window of the secret annex.Two different children’s authors have recently used this tree as the entry point toward a gentle introduction to what happened to Jews during World War II. The books are appropriate for young children ages 7 and up. Stylistically, they are very different, but both are good. The first book listed here has just been published this month, and is truly exceptional— surely destined to garner future children’s literary awards.

“The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window,” by Jeff Gottesfeld. Illustrated by Peter McCarthy. Knopf, 2016.

The story opens with a quote from Anne’s diary about the tree and the birds that are swooping through the air above it. She and Peter are “so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak”. The same is true for readers of this profoundly affecting book by the time we turn the last page. Local author Gottesfeld uses slight anthropomorphism as the tree subtly notes what she sees around her, whether it is “strangers invading the city” or two sisters who come with their family to live in the house across the canal. About Anne, who remains unnamed throughout the whole story, Gottesfeld writes, “The tree loved the sight of her.”  With a poetic voice, the tree celebrates Anne’s love of writing, peeks through the curtains at her family Chanukah rituals, but eventually watches her grow “pale and thin”. After four years of war, Anne continues to peek out her window at the tree, and never stops writing.  The exquisite brown pen-and-ink illustrations by Caldecott honoree McCarthy beautifully express the powerful mood.

Eventually the tree is witness to betrayal. She watches as “men in gray uniforms” come to the factory, rip the curtains, throw the diary upon the floor, and herd the family into black cars. Although the tree keeps a vigil for “the girl,” only her father returns after the war. The tree lives on, but “she was never the same”.

Fast forward 50 years to the modern concern about the aging tree’s health. In a devastating few simple sentences, the author describes how numerous strangers tried to save the tree. They built her a steel support and collected her seedpods like gold coins, but the “tree recalls how few had tried to save the girl.” However the tree lives on in other ways, as does Anne herself. The thought-provoking afterword explains that saplings from the tree have been planted at 11 important American locations, such as the Sept. 11 memorial in New York, Capitol Hill, and Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Other saplings have been planted around the world as a sign of peace.

“Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree” by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. Illustrated by Erika Steiskal.  The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, 2015.

Prolific children’s book author and rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, tackles the same subject of Anne Frank’s horse chestnut tree, but her tree is anthropomorphized in a different way. In this story, the tree speaks as first person narrator and has much more to say. Sasso’s tale is often informative, offering vocabulary words such as “Nazis” (“The Nazis hated anyone who was not like them, especially the Jewish people.”) or “secret annex”. The tree does not understand the prejudices of human beings, stating, “It made no sense to me. But I was just a tree.” The tree somehow knows everything that occurs within the secret annex and narrates about what she sees, calling to Anne and Margot to come play with her, but knowing that they cannot. When the Nazi soldiers come to take away the family, the muted watercolor illustrations depict a solider holding a handgun shouting at the Frank family.  After the passage of time, the illustrations eventually show how, until recently, various citizens of the world were able to peer out the window of the present Anne Frank Museum, before the demise of the famous tree. Referring to how the saplings have been planted throughout the world, the tree says, “I was just a tree, but Anne had made me famous. I was glad that people remembered Anne and Margo when they saw me…I was just one tree, but now I am many.”