Man wants Anne Frank story shared through national monument

Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Ala.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – The man who spearheaded the planting of a horse chestnut tree, like the one mentioned in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” in Kelly Ingram Park doesn’t want the tree to be forgotten once tours of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument begin.

The tree planted on April 11, 2010 was dedicated to the “victims of intolerance and discrimination,” states an inscription on a plaque near the tree.

Joel Rotenstreich, an executive board member of the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, said Anne Frank, who died at 15 at a Nazi concentration camp and the four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing are connected.

“All five of them were young, innocent, their futures ahead of them,” he said. They were “killed only because of hate, intolerance, bigotry, prejudice and injustice.”

In the coming months, when park rangers begin offering tours of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, Rotenstreich wants the story of the Anne Frank Tree to be told as well.

Additionally, the former Mountain Brook School Board member hopes the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center will take ownership of the tree and use it as a teaching tool.

The national monument includes portions of the historic Birmingham Civil Rights District, including the A.G. Gaston Motel, the neighboring Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the 16th Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the Colored Masonic Temple, St. Paul United Methodist Church and portions of the 4th Avenue Business District.

Birmingham Mayor William Bell and other city officials continue to be briefed by the National Park Service on the timeline and possible dates for the next community meeting.

Bell said he expects the Park Service staff will be in place shortly, and an official event to be set within the next 30-45 days.

The restoration of the A.G. Gaston Motel has already begun.

NPS spokesperson Saudia Muwwakkil said the first priorities of the National Park Service include meeting with community partners about the next steps, planning a public event to mark the park’s establishment and identifying a physical location for visitors to access National Park Service information.

The process of establishing the national monument could take two-three years.

A horse chestnut tree was a symbol of hope for Anne Frank. The one outside her Amsterdam window was one of her only connections to nature as she and her family hid for two years from the Nazis.

Frank mentioned the tree in her diary, which was later turned into the best-selling book, “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

That very tree, which became diseased and rotten over the years, was toppled by wind and heavy rain in August 2010. Eleven saplings grown from the tree’s seeds, though, were given away to cities in the U.S. as part of a project aimed at preserving Frank’s legacy and promoting tolerance.

After reading about “The Sapling Project,” Rotenstreich formed a group, made up of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Birmingham Public Library, the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center and the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, to complete the application.

Birmingham’s proposal focused on Birmingham residents’ efforts to improve race relations, civil and human rights and the city’s image, he said.

Unfortunately, Birmingham wasn’t selected.

According to The Sapling Project, the locations chosen “memorialize incidences of intolerance and discrimination across the United States and around the world. The Anne Frank Tree saplings provide an opportunity for these sites to abstract the story of Anne Frank and connect them to incidences of injustice witnessed here in the United States.”

The saplings were in quarantine for three years and planted at various sites across the U.S., including at the White House, in 2013.

Rotenstreich wasn’t deterred.

He received approval from Birmingham Parks & Recreation Board to plant a horse chestnut tree in Kelly Ingram, and then began a search for another tree.

The only horse chestnut tree he could locate for purchase in the U.S. was at a large nursery in Omaha, Neb. He purchased it himself for $1,500, and a friend who owned a landscape service in Birmingham sent a worker to pick it up.

The tree was dedicated with a Sunday afternoon ceremony nearly seven years ago.

The plaque in front of the tree inscribed with a quote from “Anne Frank’s Diary”: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

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