The Radical Empathy of a Chestnut Tree

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Front cover of Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree, a girl looking out a window from a tree.

Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree
by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Erika Steiskal
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and Skinner House Books, 2015
For over a generation, National Jewish Book Award winner Sandy Sasso has blazed a trail in the genre of children’s spiritual literature. While her work is steeped in Jewish tradition, her books are popular with readers of all faiths. She has a remarkable talent for rendering complex theological ideas into accessible narratives that appeal to a child’s sense of wonder. She has written about universalism (God’s Paintbrush), the human-divine encounter (In God’s Name), process theology (And God Said Amen), Edenic awe (Adam and Eve’s First Sunset), and eternal life (For Heaven’s Sake), to name a few. All of her books share the common theme of radical empathy, and in her latest work, Sasso applies this vision to a story about tolerance.
The subject of Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree is the horse chestnut tree that grew outside the Franks’ Secret Annex and which Anne Frank wrote about in her diary. The tree serves as narrator and witness, and shares its observations of the rise of the Nazis, the Franks’ family life in the annex, the SS invasion, the years of silence, Otto Frank’s return, and much later, the tourists who visit the Anne Frank Museum. Erika Seistel’s illustrations are gently emotive, and complement the text beautifully.
The chestnut tree possesses a sense of empathy and a moral conscience. The tree observes Anne writing in her diary and remarks: “She wrote that as long as she could see blue sky and clouds and me, she could be happy. Her words made me happy too.”  This connection is generative: “Being a tree doesn’t stop you from feeling what people feel. And when someone loves you, you know it and it helps you grow.” After the Franks are arrested, Margot and Anne are lost to the tree forever. In a particularly poignant spread, the tree witnesses Otto Frank’s return to the annex, his head bowed as he holds Anne’s checkered diary in his hands.
After the actual chestnut tree collapsed in a storm in 2010, the Anne Frank Center in New York and the Anne Frank Museum of the Netherlands initiated the Sapling Project as a way to educate new generations about Anne Frank and keep her legacy alive. The project donated saplings to be planted in eleven select locations that demonstrate a commitment to continuing education about tolerance. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the book’s co-publisher, was the site of the first planting in the United States.
The Remembering Tree is steeped in the notion of radical empathy. The book concludes with “the promise of two young girls who loved a tree and the tree who remembered them.” In Sasso’s lyrical and moral vision, Anne Frank’s beloved chestnut tree serves as witness, persona, and educator. This gentle, powerful book deserves to be a classic work about tolerance for children and educators of all faiths.

Amy Gottlieb is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Beautiful Possible (Harper Perennial, 2016).