Following the recent events at the Capitol, I couldn’t help but think of the last time I was at the historic building. My story from that event actually starts much earlier, when I was about 16. I felt very “adult” and important as I left Los Angeles to spend a few weeks in New York interning at The Anne Frank Center USA, where my grandfather was Chairman Emeritus, and his mentee, Yvonne Simons, was Executive Director. I always had a very special connection with my grandfather, but my interest in his work and in his and my grandmother’s story was only beginning to blossom.
My time at the Center wasn’t long, but I can still (from memory) tell you just about every project I worked on over 10 years later. One such project I worked on was sorting through applications for what was called “The Sapling Project.” The chestnut tree Anne wrote about in her diary had gotten sick, but saplings were salvaged, and a competition was announced to give organizations the opportunity to create new homes for these saplings, and subsequently new places to symbolize Anne’s message and ideals.
Cut to: 2014, my senior spring at Tufts University. I was writing the capstone project for one of my majors (Peace & Justice Studies) which focused on Holocaust education in the era post-survivors, and included memoir vignettes of lessons I was taught by my grandparents. My interest in their stories had grown immensely and I was leading the Holocaust and Genocide Education Initiative for the entire university.
My mother called me to tell me my grandmother (my Oma) was supposed to participate in a ceremony for planting an Anne Frank Sapling at the Capitol in Washington DC. However, Oma wasn’t feeling well at the time, so on the off-chance she wasn’t up to it, my mom asked if I would want to join her as the back-up option to represent the family at the event. We wouldn’t know it at the time, but my grandmother’s illness would end up taking her life shortly thereafter.
I was excited, of course (as any International Relations major would be), to get to walk around campus saying I would be missing class to “go speak at the Capitol,” but the importance of the event had yet to hit me.
On a rainy DC day that forced us inside the rotunda as opposed to outside next to the sapling, what occurred was something unbelievably inspirational. A bipartisan event to show that representing the ideals of Anne Frank and striving for a better world is not apolitical, but in fact should be on the agenda no matter where you are on the political spectrum. Representatives and ambassadors quoted the diary and expressed how these words have related to their lives. As my mom and I stood up there with these political leaders, my heart sang to know I was carrying on my family’s legacy.
Last week, when I saw the mob at the Capitol, I texted my mother, asking if she knew whether or not the sapling had been damaged. I am no botanist, and I have no idea the rate at which chestnut trees grow, but I felt my chest tighten and my breath quicken at the idea of this violent mob stomping on a baby tree that stood for so much.
We are hoping the tree is okay, and I believe this is a moment to start talking about what that tree means a little bit louder, and asking what the significance is of having it on the Capitol grounds. Perhaps, when the turmoil starts to settle, you will want to reach out to your representatives and ask what it means to them.
We must be sensitive when comparing recent events to what happened in the past to people like Anne Frank and my grandparents, but it is also important to speak up, take a stand against injustice and as my grandfather always said: “We are living in a wonderful country and we all need to work together to make this a better world. But this can only be achieved if people learn the lessons of the Holocaust.
Anne Frank LA
Stephen T Ayers: Architect of the Capitol
Congressman Eric Cantor
Senator Mitch McConnell
Frans Timmerman: Minister of Foreign Affairs from The Netherlands
Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz: (then DNC chairwoman)
Yvonne Simons: Exec. Director Anne Frank Center USA
Senator Harry Reid: then Dem Majority leader
Sofia Shield: AFLA Founding Member
Margrit Polak Shield: AFLA President