Why Is a Tree Falling Front Page News?

An interview with Anne Frank House executive director Hans Westra

Hans Westra, a teacher and educator, has been executive director of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam since 1983. He spoke to Haaretz about the 170-year-old chestnut tree that stood outside the Anne Frank House until it fell on Monday.

Hans Westra - Anne Frank House - Aug 25 2010
Anne Frank House

Do we need tangible aids to help us comprehend and remember the Holocaust? When Anne Frank's chestnut tree falls, as has just happened, or - even more to the point - as survivors pass away, does it become more difficult for the next generations to connect with and understand the Holocaust?

For our part, here at the Anne Frank House, we are doing everything we can to keep this story alive. For example, we have created a website where you can see the original tree and also go through the rooms of the house and into the secret annex. We've also captured testimony from many of the witnesses to Anne Frank's story on film.

What is remarkable actually is how much the younger generation remains interested in this history. Our visitors are typically six or seven years younger than the visitors of any other museum in the city. And this is not a story that speaks only to Jewish or Dutch people. People come here from all over the world - from China, Argentina, Russia.

A tree falls due to bad weather. Why is this front page news all over the world?

It is a tree with a long history. The attic was the only room out of which Anne Frank could properly see outside. And what she saw from the window there was the top of this chestnut tree - the oldest such tree in Amsterdam. It symbolized her longing for freedom.

Why did it fall?

The tree had became a danger several years ago, because it was sick and on the verge of falling down. It was a security problem and a question developed as to whether it was possible to save the tree. This then became a worldwide discussion, with many people following the fate of the tree.

There was a group of people who fought to save it - both tree lovers and those who realized its symbolic importance because of Anne's story. People felt the tree was the last witness to her suffering.

Finally it was decided to give it an iron support system, which was meant to give the tree support for many years, and also gave me peace of mind that it would not fall onto the annex. As it happened, it was only able to support the tree for three years. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Will you plant another tree in the same spot?

We do not know yet, as this is a decision to be made by the owner [of the plot of land] and the city of Amsterdam, but we sincerely hope that a graft from the tree will be planted in the spot.

How could something as simple as a tree give Anne Frank so much solace and hope?

She lived in true hiding, in a house where all the windows were covered with curtains. The only small window without a curtain was a one-by-one window in the attic, out of which she could look outside without fear of anyone seeing her. So, she would sit there and look out to see some sun and the top of the chestnut tree. All her longing for freedom and connection to nature came to be symbolized by that tree.

On weekends, when the staff was away, she sometimes went downstairs and was able to look through the curtains and see life on the streets. But the tree remained the one constant that most touched her.

How do you explain the enduring power of the Anne Frank story? Why do so many people come to Amsterdam to visit the house, and continue to read her diary?

Anne Frank is a symbol for the persecution and death of millions of Jews in World War II. Her suffering stands as a symbol of a much larger story - and people want to connect to that. This all took place in a civilized part of the world, and people are resolved to try and understand how it happened.

Moreover, Anne was a fantastic writer and her diary is a very lovely story that people can relate to strongly. It's a story of a young girl, having trouble with her mother, interested in boys and wrestling with her future. It's such a normal story, mixed with the tragic story going on outside, and it has become a window on the Holocaust that people can identify with.

And finally, the family photographs were saved. There are some 450 images of her, from when she was a baby up until she was 12 years old - and this also helps people connect to her and her story.

Is there any noticeable correlation between the increasingly critical attitudes toward Israel in Europe and interest in Holocaust history, or in specific places like the Anne Frank House?

True, the strong tradition in Holland of support of Israel is weakening, as it is elsewhere - but this is not affecting our public. They are coming to the Anne Frank House independent of what is happening in Israel.

We have only about one incident a month in which visitors write negative comments in the visitors book, but this is mainly schoolboys who don't know how to behave and not any intelligent comments about Palestinians or any such thing.