Monday, October 11, 2021

Planting Hope: The Anne Frank Tree Arrives in Iowa

On February 23, 1944, a 15-year-old girl gazed from an attic window at the topmost branches of a tree. The tree had become a sort of friend to her, a reminder of life beyond the small space to which she was confined and one of the few things she could see from the only window that was not blacked out. In her diary that day, she wrote, “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, these cloudless skies, while this lasts, I cannot be unhappy.”

Those words represent the hope that has made their author, Anne Frank, one of the major figures of World War II and a ubiquitous symbol of optimism in the face of unthinkable darkness. The fact that she came so close to surviving is also part of her story. She died almost a year after that entry, at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, likely from typhoid. British forces liberated the camp only weeks later.

Germinating history

A large tree in the winter time without leaves.
The horse chestnut in the courtyard behind the annex where Anne Frank lived for two years in Amsterdam.

Meanwhile, the white horse chestnut that had provided camaraderie to Frank during the two plus years she and her family were in hiding in Amsterdam, lived on. It was one of the oldest of its kind in the city and became an icon in the decades after Frank's passing. Because of its significance, The Anne Frank House—the museum that serves as the keeper of Frank’s story and is built around the annex where she and her family hid—collected and germinated chestnuts and donated the saplings to schools in Europe named for Frank. The first sapling to make its way to the U.S. was planted in 2013. There are now trees derived from the Amsterdam chestnut at the U.S. Capitol, the Boston Commons, and a 9/11 memorial park in New York City.

On April 29, 2022, the thirteenth Anne Frank Tree will be planted on the northeast corner of the University of Iowa’s Pentacrest. Its arrival is due to the work of Frank scholar and UI German Department faculty member Dr. Kirsten Kumpf Baele. Her proposal to bring a tree to Iowa City was accepted a year and a half ago by the Anne Frank Center USA; however, the pandemic postponed the original planting ceremony, which is now slated for April 29, 2022.

Pentacrest as site of social justice protests

Kumpf Baele contended that a tree linked to one of the most famous youth authors of all time belongs in Iowa City because of its literary heritage; ours is a UNESCO City of Literature and home to the illustrious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and International Writing Program. Kumpf Baele also noted the significance of the site: the Pentacrest has been a focal point for youth-driven, peaceful protest movements over the years, including during the Vietnam era of the late 1960s, the anti-Apartheid divestment strikes of the 1980s, and the recent Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. In 2019, just blocks away from where the tree is to be planted, Greta Thunberg and local youth climate activists greeted a crowd of several thousand people.

People holding Black Lives Matter signs with an old building with columns and a cupola in the background.
Recent protestors gathered on the University of Iowa Pentacrest.

Finally, for its excellence in tree stewardship, the UI campus holds the recognition of a Tree Campus Higher Education institution by the Arbor Day Foundation. The person most responsible for that recognition is UI arborist Andrew Dahl (Facilities Management), who oversees the more than 8,000 trees on campus. In addition to caring for some of the University’s magnificent older trees, Dahl plants trees that represent the foci of the UI, such as a group of trees that was planted outside the Writers’ Workshop Dey House last fall that have direct connections to writers like Robert Frost, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Faulkner.

Of the new addition, Dahl says, "To be a recipient of this tree, a piece of the very tree that Anne saw and wrote about is an incredible honor for the University of Iowa. We look forward to being stewards to this tree which Anne Frank saw as a symbol of hope and freedom, while it serves as an inspiration to others."

Ceremony to honor Frank’s spirit

A man and two women sitting in a grassy area with trees behind them.
Dahl, Kumpf Baele, and New are at the heart of the planting ceremony team.

The planting ceremony scheduled for April 29, 2022 is currently being planned by Kumpf Baele, Dahl, Jennifer New of the Obermann Center (a major supporter of the planting ceremony), and a small community-campus team that is committed to making it an inclusive, celebratory event. “We want to honor Anne’s legacy as a person who brings others together,” says Kumpf Baele. “Without a doubt, we know that there will be music, poetry, and a very strong sense of the community ties that exist between the campus and greater Iowa City.” She adds that the group is currently fundraising to help support the event.

In the months prior to the planting, multiple events will provide context—reminding contemporary audiences of Frank’s contributions and linking them to current issues. “As we’ve thought about events for this upcoming year,” says Kumpf Baele, “it’s remarkable how many ways one can connect with Anne’s story—whether it’s as an immigrant whose plight echoes those of people at our border today, or as a voice demanding social justice that echoes those of protestors all over the world, or as an upstander who fights against prejudice and demonstrates personal accountability, or as a lover of trees and nature at a time when the natural world is imperiled.”

Events begin October 18

An adolescent girl with long brown hair looking to her right.
Anne Frank photographed before she went into hiding. 

Contemporary relevance is at the center of the first event of the academic year connected to the planting. “Why Anne Frank Still Matters” is the topic of a virtual Obermann Conversation on Monday October 18, from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. Kumpf Baele will speak, along with Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz of Agudas Achim Synagogue, Mallory Hellman of the Iowa Youth Writing Project, and undergraduate Meghan Maleri, who has participated in Kumpf Baele’s popular course “Anne Frank and Her Story.” They will share favorite passages from the Diary and situate Frank’s continued relevance.

Kumpf Baele also hopes that this will be an opportunity to bring Frank more to life. “Anne was a gregarious, clever, and funny person who wanted nothing more than human happiness,” she says of the teen. “She loved literature and the arts but was also a fan of films and the pop culture of her era, like most adolescents.”

The Iowa Youth Writing Project is overseeing a writing competition that uses Frank’s experience of being in hiding as a prompt for teenaged authors: “Write about a time when you felt isolated or trapped. How did you work through that time, and what did you learn from the experience?” The IYWP is accepting poetry and nonfiction submissions from junior high and high school writers through February 2022, with winners incorporated into the planting ceremony. Kumpf Baele and her students taught a summer workshop for IYWP students based on Frank; additional workshops will be offered over winter break.

The focus of the writing competition is aligned with the theme of a traveling exhibition that will open at the UI’s Old Capitol Museum at the start of the spring 2022 semester. Let Me Be Myself, which is curated by the Anne Frank Center USA, provides an in-depth history of Frank and her family and connects Anne’s experiences to those of contemporary teens who have experienced prejudice and discrimination. Later in the spring, the exhibit will travel to half a dozen Iowa communities, courtesy of funding from UI International Programs.

Teaching Anne Frank

Woman standing against a small outdoor landscaping vehicle holding a shovel
Kirsten Kumpf Baele standing at the spot where the chestnut sapling will be planted.

This year’s Provost’s Global Forum (PGF), a premier annual campus event focused on international and global issues, will take place February 28, March 1, and March 2, and is titled “Teaching Anne Frank.” Funded by International Programs and co-directed by Waltraud Maierhofer (German), Saba Vlach (Language, Literacy, & Culture), and Kumpf Baele, the PGF will bring together faculty experts with national and international thought leaders from a variety of fields to raise awareness about and contribute to debate on the foremost issues of the day. It kicks off with WorldCanvass on February 28 from 5:30–7:00 p.m., hosted by Joan Kjaer, and will feature Ronald Leopold, director of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam; Doyle Stevick of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Understanding at the University of South Carolina; Stephanie Morris of the Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa; Lisa Heineman (UI, History), and Kumpf Baele. They will address questions about the place of Frank's personal experience in public history and reflect on how her story helps educate contemporary students to thoughtful consideration of today's human rights issues. The PGF’s keynote event, the Joel Barkan Memorial Lecture, will be given by Leopold. Specific information will be available on the PGF website as it becomes available.

Also in March 2022, the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA) will host its annual Women’s History Month lecture with a focus on Jewish history. Jeannette Gabrielle, Director of the Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha, started the Jewish Women in Iowa Project as a graduate assistant with the IWA. She spent several years collecting materials and building relationships with Jewish families in Iowa and neighboring Midwestern states. Her talk, tentatively titled “Welcoming the Immigrants: Refugee Resettlement in Jewish Iowa,” will be given at the Iowa City Public Library on March 1 at 4:00 p.m.

Percolating plans

While these are the major events planned to date, others are still percolating. Students at Iowa Hillel are considering forming a reading group around the Diary. A UI printmaking class will study youth activists and make stenciled quotes to highlight their words. Kumpf Baele is meeting with students at Agudas Achim to develop a special project that connects with the sapling. She also is working with the IWA to begin yearly projects together with students in her seminar. And Dahl will be offering campus tree tours.

“We have been meeting with a wide variety of people from campus and the community,” says Kumpf Baele of the whirlwind of planning that has enveloped her in recent months. “There are many wonderful ideas, and we invite anyone who wants to do something around the themes that the tree offers to do so! We’re also already looking forward to next year and beyond, to continue to recognize the tree that will be growing in our community and thereby Frank’s legacy.” One such plan for the 2022–23 academic year is a public reading of the Diary organized by Kumpf Baele and faculty members in the Division of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, representing the myriad languages into which the work has been translated. Another idea involves bringing one of the graphic artists who has depicted Frank’s story to Iowa City as part of a future Iowa City Book Festival.

To learn more about the Anne Frank Tree and events surrounding it, please visit The planting ceremony is supported by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies; UI Building and Landscape Services; the Division of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures; and the UI German Department.