A piece of Jewish history with roots in Amsterdam has sprouted in Iowa City.
One sapling grown from an old chestnut tree — which stood outside of the secret annex where Anne Frank wrote her famous diary — was planted this spring at University of Iowa.
The tree died at an estimated 170 years old. But through its saplings, which have been planted in 13 cities across the U.S., the tree is finding new life.
Originally scheduled for spring 2020, the planting was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic and a fervent desire to host an in-person ceremony.
More than 500 people gathered for the planting ceremony at the campus Pentacrest, recognized as the symbolic center of campus.
“It was an incredibly moving experience to gather as one Hawkeye community the week of Yom HaShoah to watch the Anne Frank tree sapling being planted on the Pentacrest,” said Ashley Holt, executive director of Iowa Hillel.
Kirsten Kumpf Baele, a Holocaust scholar and faculty member at University of Iowa, secured this honor with a proposal to the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect’s Sapling Project.
During the sapling ceremony, Kumpf Baele shared a little-known detail: Anne Frank began her legacy in the state of Iowa as part of a pen pal exchange on April 29th, 1940. She wrote a letter to Juanita and Betty Wagner of Danville, Iowa.
“This is the first and only letter she would send. Eleven days later, the German army invaded the Netherlands,” Kumpf Baele said. “Anne Frank may not have been able to develop this Iowa connection any further, but by way of our collective caring of and attentiveness to this sapling, each one of us can help grow awareness of her story.”
The sapling was an opportunity to honor Anne Frank, an aspiring writer, in a place that has been teaching people to write for decades.
A UNESCO designated “City of Literature,” Iowa City has been touted as an international haven for lovers of the written word. University of Iowa, with top-ranked programs in creative writing and nonfiction writing, has created a vibrant writing culture in a small city in middle America.
Leading up to the ceremony, University of Iowa organized a three-part discussion series on “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Iowa City Public Library. Josh Hare, who serves as program director at Iowa Hillel, led the second session exploring Judaism and Anne Frank.
As a result of the planting, there have been hold lists at multiple libraries in the region for the “Diary of Anne Frank.” Some local bookstores had to order extra copies.
“When we talk about the ‘Diary of Anne Frank,’ there’s usually this somberness, this rain cloud that enters the conversation,” Hare said. “While there is sadness, we can also be guided by the positive themes of her story. And that brings people closer together.”
Hare became a member of the sapling project committee when he arrived on campus in June 2021. He rallied a team of Hillel students to help organize programs before and after the ceremony.
Sophomore Sami Simon, 20, was one of them.
“Growing up, Anne Frank was one of the first associations I had when learning about the Holocaust,” said Simon, an education studies and human relations major. “Especially as a Jewish student, it’s meaningful to be rooted to Anne Frank here on campus.”
The evening of the planting ceremony, students and community members gathered at Iowa Hillel to celebrate Shabbat. Hare and Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz, who leads Agudas Achim Congregation in Coralville, Iowa, led a song-filled service.
Ashley Holt said, “Although Yom HaShoah acknowledges a horrific time in the history of the Jewish people, the day's events brought hope and a sense of belonging to the students who felt like their Jewish identity was being celebrated, not just by the Jewish community but the whole Hawkeye community.”
Rachel Bernstein is a senior at University of Southern California.
Photo credit: Tim Schoon