Native to a small mountainous region in the Balkans, the horse-chestnut ( Aesculus hippocastanum ) is a deciduous tree that has been cultivated throughout temperate regions around the world.
In both world wars, it played a decidedly sinister role — as a source of starch that was turned into acetone to make cordite, a smokeless propellant used in military armaments.
But during World War II, a single horse-chestnut tree meant hope to a girl who would posthumously become one of the most famous victims of the Holocaust: Anne Frank.
On June 12, 1942, Frank received a diary from her father for her 13th birthday. In it, she chronicled her life from that day until August 1, 1944.
Three times in her diary she mentioned a horse-chestnut that she could see from the attic window of the house in Amsterdam where she and her family hid from the Nazis for two years.
“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,” she wrote on February 23, 1944.
Now around 170 years old, this famous horse-chestnut is dying.
Anne Frank House spokeswoman Annemarie Bekker said that a fungus has hollowed out two-thirds of the famous tree, which has been sick for the past decade, according to Jessica Ravitz of CNN.
“A battle began in late 2007 between city officials who wanted to chop it down and activists who insisted it stay,” writes Ravitz. “But a court injunction, a second-opinion analysis and a committee mobilization later, it still stands, barely alive and supported by steel.”
Five years ago, the museum began collecting the tree’s nuts to grow seedlings. Saplings of the tree have already been sent to parks and schools around the world named for Anne Frank. Later this year, a sapling will be planted at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust memorial of Israel.
On April 18, 1944, Frank wrote, “Our chestnut tree is already quite greenish and you can even see little blooms here and there.”
In March of the following year, Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. Just a few weeks later, the concentration camp was liberated by the Allies.
In 1947, The Diary of a Young Girl was published in Amsterdam. The Guardian listed it as one of the top 10 definitive books of the 20th century.
Of her beloved horse-chestnut, Frank wrote, “As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be.”