A Tree Grows in Indy

(April 20, 2015)

The universally resounding story of Anne Frank and her family has been told in virtually every genre over seven decades, but never with such a narrator as this:

“I did not like the sound of black boots marching on the cobblestone sidewalks, the sirens, or the shouting in the streets. Why wouldn’t people who liked different kinds of trees and flowers also like many different kinds of people? It made no sense to me. But I was just a tree.”

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Anne Frank’s father, Otto, said the teen “only found consolation in thinking about nature” during her long confinement.

Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s 14th book for children, Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree, takes the point of view of the horse chestnut tree that stood outside the doomed Dutch teenager’s Secret Annex not as a fantasy gimmick but as a historical imperative.

“It is a story that asks: How do we remember?” the Indianapolis author, teacher, lecturer and recently retired rabbi says, “We remember through symbols, through images. The tree evokes the story of Anne. And it died. But it is still alive. She died. But her story lives.”

Five years gone, the tree does live on, through saplings cut and replanted in places around the world that have been designated as memorials to peace and justice struggles. Among them are 11 venues in the United States, including the Capitol in Washington, the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, site of a seminal racial desegregation battle.

The first American recipient: The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which has honored Anne Frank, Indiana AIDS sufferer Ryan White and African-American Louisiana school pupil Ruby Bridges since 2007 with an aptly-named exhibit, The Power of Children: Making a Difference.The museum went on to create its Anne Frank Peace Park in 2009, with funding from Indianapolis philanthropists Gerald and Dorit Paul, both Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

In 2010 a powerful storm toppled the tree, but resiliently it sent up new shoots from its stump within a short time.

In 2010 a powerful storm toppled the tree, but resiliently it sent up new shoots from its stump within a short time.

Fittingly, the museum was asked by the Anne Frank Center USA to husband several of the saplings brought to this country. Dow AgroSciences provided the nursery during their months of quarantine; and two years ago this month, Indy’s tiny offspring was ceremoniously planted in the peace garden immediately south of the museum building. It’s now about as tall as Anne would have been when she wrote the diary entry about its ancestor, lines captured in a stone sculpture of the book nearby:

“Peter and I gazed out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air … ‘As long as this exists,’ I thought, ’tis sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?'”

A mother, a grandmother, a teacher to countless children during her 36 years at Congregation Beth-el Zedeck, Sasso reads this defiant paean to hope and finds affirmation of a couple of lessons she’s learned: The perceptiveness of the young should never be underestimated, and “their” literature is everyone’s.

“I’ve realized how important a responsibility this is. If you can explain the big issues — faith, belief, God — to children, then you really have a grasp of it. If you are resorting to abstract terms, to jargon, then you really don’t.”

The same goes for ye who would give pat answers to haunting questions. As Sasso told an inquiring child on at least one occasion, “The answer is inside you.”

The horse chestnut tree made for an inspiring vehicle to carry that message, Sasso says, not only because children are open to its anthropomorphic possibilities but also because its knowledge is limited. It doesn’t know why the bad men come. It doesn’t know why Anne and her siblings don’t return after they are taken away. That leaves the young readers, and those who are read to, with “space,” as Sasso puts it, to ponder and interpret.

“One child said to me, ‘Well, why wouldn’t they like different kinds of trees and flowers and people?’ That was so very powerful. It reminded me why I wrote the story.”

Sasso is an award-winning author for adults as well as children. The latter genre got her started about three decades ago when she was studying for her doctorate in ministry. She was drawn into children’s spirituality as her specialty and was struck by the dearth of good religious books for kids. Her first effort to take matters into her own hands, God’s Paintbrush, debuted in 1992 and remains her best seller.

Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree, with its purposefully realistic scenes by illustrator Erika Streiskal, is Sasso’s deepest and most challenging foray into the darkness of anti-Semitism, which cannot be separated from her spiritual and aesthetic life and mission.

A theological advisor for the Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, Sasso also serves on IUPUI's board of advisors and Butler University's board of Faith and Vocations.

A theological advisor for the Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, Sasso also serves on IUPUI’s board of advisors and Butler University’s board of Faith and Vocations.

“She was a Jewish girl. She was persecuted because she was Jewish. But her story resonates in a universal way — that you would kill people because they are different.”

Sasso has visited the Secret Annex in Amsterdam. She has read the letter Otto Frank wrote to the U.S. government, asking in vain for admission for his family. Yet she strives in her book — meant for ages 6 and above — to present an alternative to cynicism amid the boots and guns that shadow that family’s valiant domesticity.

“I didn’t deal with the politics,” she says. “In writing for children, I wanted to convey bravery, empathy and hope more than anything else.”

And they’ve handled it, with all the else. Feedback from kids has demonstrated to her — again — that they’re idealists who don’t shrink from grave realities. Jeffrey Patchen, president of The Children’s Museum and a close collaborator on the book project, likens it to the far-more-graphic Power of Childrenexhibit as a platform for parents to both teach and be taught. “We’ve had no issues with parents concerned about these topics,” he says. “The Kleenex is out — but it’s for the adults.”

Sasso is involved with developing an upcoming exhibit at the museum called National Geographic Sacred Journeys, which will take another grown-up look at a weighty subject. Meanwhile, she’s busy as a speaker, as director of a Butler University course she created on art and scripture, and sundry other activities befitting a history-maker — America’s first female Reconstructionist rabbi, and with husband Dennis a member of its first rabbinical wedded team.

Always, the stories.

“When I retired after 36 years I wanted to devote more time to books and to children’s spirituality — and how religion connects to art. I feel really spiritual when I’m really deep into my writing.”