Legacy takes root at SSU
By JEREMY HAY / The Press Democrat
The sapling was about 5 feet tall and surrounded by towering fir and cypress on the Sonoma State University campus, and its variegated leaves glowed an almost
electric green in the unobstructed sun.
Cut from the horse chestnut that stood outside the house in Amsterdam where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis for 25 months, the slender tree is now a keynote of Sonoma State University’s 30-year effort to mark and memorialize the Holocaust and other genocides.
See more photos from the event here
One of 11 such saplings in the United States, it was ceremonially planted Sunday at an event attended by about 200 people including a handful of Holocaust survivors.
Lillian Judd lived through Auschitwz but lost her family there. Sitting in the Erna and Arthur Salm Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove listening to speakers recount Frank’s story of persecution, hope, fear and courage, was for her a moment of mixed emotion.
“I felt I was there in that same place with Anne, back in that time,” Judd said. “And then it goes away. The thing is, I don’t want to forget. I forgive certain people, but I do not want to forget.”
The original, massive chestnut tree was visible from the attic where the the teenage Frank and her family hid until they were betrayed. It was her only real marker of the passing seasons, a glimpse of the world that lent her hope.
“Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs,” she wrote in her diary in 1944. “From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind.
“As long as this exists . . . and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies — while this lasts I cannot be unhappy,” she wrote.
Frank died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945. She was 15. Her diary, translated into more than 70 languages, became one of the most read documents of the Holocaust.
Cuttings were taken from the chestnut when it became clear it was ill — a 2010 storm felled it — and awarded to sites dedicated to fighting intolerance.
“It’s my legacy because I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors,” said Elaine Leeder, dean of the School of Social Sciences, who is retiring this year and helped coordinate the effort to bring the tree to SSU. “It’s a memorial to the family I could not know and whose graves I could not visit because they have no graves.”
SSU was chosen to receive one of the young trees in 2009 because of its long-term emphasis on Holocaust studies and because those studies extended to other genocides, said officials with the Anne Frank Center, USA.
Also accounting for the decision was the university’s proposal to plant the tree near a 10-foot glass light tower bearing a Martin Luther King Jr. quote — “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Vianney Mugabo of Fairfield waited in the shade for the ceremony to begin. He wore a purple T-shirt on the back of which was written “Never forget.”
“We had our own genocide,” said Mugabo, a Rwandan native, explaining why he was there.
“It’s very important to always remember what happened, so it is not repeated,” he said.
The tree is expected to grow to 125-feet tall with an 85-foot-wide canopy. It was quarantined before Sunday’s event for three years to protect both its health and that of the trees it would be planted near. Jim Silva was the SSU gardener who tended it daily.
“It was important to me that I could nurture this tree and that it could be a symbol for people to take a stand against prejudice,” Silva said. Later he would take the sapling away for storage until a wrought iron fence is erected to properly protect it.
As speakers addressed the crowd on Sunday, a stiff breeze rose and fell. It made the sapling quiver. It blew into the microphone and rushed out of the public address system. It seemed, perhaps, that history was being stirred.
“Let’s listen to Anne, listen to the past, and listen to those who survived the Holocaust,” said Ard van der Vorst, the Dutch deputy consul general. “Safeguarding tolerance today is a shared responsibility.”
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.