The tree that symbolised hope, fortitude and tolerance
I was just fourteen years old when I first heard about Anne Frank’s chestnut tree - around the same age as the world’s most famous diarist, when she mentioned the tree in the poignant jottings that chronicled her experiences in hiding during World War II.
That tree, which Anne Frank viewed as a symbol of the freedom she would never recapture (she died at 15 in the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp) has now fallen outside the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam.
Back in 2007, I wrote a blog post after I received a couple of emails telling me the 150-year-old tree had been declared a safety hazard and was about to be cut down. But events progressed very quickly and a court injunction prevented authorities from bringing the tree down.
I followed the reports closely. The tree was diseased. Fungus had taken hold. As the stalemate continued, it was decided to plant cuttings of the controversial tree.
I approved. But why on earth do you reckon I would care - or have any attachment at all - to a tree in a city several thousand kilometres away from me?
You want to know why I feel such a strong connection to the Anne Frank hideout, right?
As a 14-year-old, I learnt that my school, St Joseph’s College, was to produce a play in collaboration with our sister school, Loreto Convent. The play was `The Diary of Anne Frank’. I still remember clearly the moment I found out that I was to play Peter van Daan, the boy who fell in love with Anne.
The play turned out to be one of the widely-acknowledged benchmarks of school theatre. More than three decades later, I am still in contact with the star of the show, who played Anne Frank and who now lives on the opposite end of the world.
That play was not my first time on stage, nor was it my last, but I can honestly tell you that the role was one of the most intense experiences of my adolescent years and it touched my heart in ways that I’m sure found an echo in the hearts of the other teenage actors.
Sixteen years after I had played that role, as I prepared to become a father for the first time, I finally made my long-awaited pilgrimage to the real building in Amsterdam where the families had hidden during the Nazi occupation of Europe.
My wife and I were in London, en route to Toronto. But this was a side trip we had to make, I because I simply had to see the place, and my wife because she knew how deeply the role of Peter van Daan had touched my soul. Having flown several thousand miles west, we made a very quick detour in the opposite direction. We caught a pre-dawn flight from Heathrow to Amsterdam, before returning the same afternoon to London. We weren’t going as sightseers. We just had only one place to visit.
This was the pilgrimage I had wanted to make since I was a teenager.
The Anne Frank house wasn’t even open when we got there, because we were so early. We sat in our overcoats and scarves by the silent canal, the same ancient canal that had run past the red-brick buildings during the war. And when the doors finally opened, we were the first to walk in.
The silence, somehow, was absolutely appropriate. I felt as though I were walking into a place I knew so well. I was so grateful for the fact that there was no one else there.
In some mysterious way, it was a little part of Amsterdam that I had - and always have - carried around in my heart and in my soul since I understood the message of fortitude and tolerance that characterised the writing of a little girl forced into hiding in this very same building.
When I walked to the little window, it was like visiting a shrine. Even before I walked over to peer out, I knew exactly what the view would be, because I had read so many descriptions of it before. Yes, there was the canal. There was the deserted street.
And there was the tree, the sight of which had sustained Anne Frank in her world of dangerous isolation.
But I don’t think the good people of Amsterdam realise how that tree has sustained many others as well.
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