Fol­low­ing Anne Frank’s birth­day over the week­end, The Tree in the Court­yard author Jeff Gottes­feld is guest blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

There is a moment every artist dreams of, when an idea that is at least good gets trans­formed into some­thing poten­tial­ly tran­scen­dent, if only the artist can exe­cute it. 

In my case, I can’t remem­ber where I read the sto­ry of how the 172 year-old horse chest­nut tree in the court­yard behind 263 Prin­sen­gracht, Ams­ter­dam, had cracked in half in a storm. 

The lede choked me up. I had gazed at that tree on a drea­ry day in 1981, stared at it as Anne Frank might have though the attic win­dow of the hid­ing place above the same court­yard — the only win­dow in the annex that had not been cov­ered by impro­vised cur­tains that Anne had helped her father to sew. I learned lat­er how Anne wrote about the tree three times in the diary, includ­ing an aston­ish­ing entry dat­ed 23 Feb­ru­ary, 1944:

The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chest­nut tree glis­ten­ing with dew, the seag­ulls and oth­er birds glint­ing with sil­ver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.

In the decades after the cam­paign of exter­mi­na­tion­ist anti­semitism roared out of Ger­many across World War II Europe, the chest­nut tree became an etz chaim, a tree of life. After the Franks’s annex became a muse­um, mil­lions gazed upon this tree as Anne and Peter once had. The tree sick­ened in the decade before its demise; botanists and tree sur­geons had brought their best sci­ence to bear, engi­neers had erect­ed a sup­port­ing scaf­fold for her in all-out effort to save its life. It was to no avail. The tree was gone.

I stared at my desk­top mon­i­tor, sad and bit­ter all at once. A mem­o­ry from Schindler’s List blew through my mind. It was the liq­ui­da­tion of the Krakow ghet­to, seen and heard from afar. So many had per­ished there, and so few had tried to save them. In Ams­ter­dam, so few had tried to save the girl. Six­ty-odd years lat­er, human­i­ty was mak­ing its best efforts for a tree. A tree! The con­trast ran­kled. Bile rose. I near­ly clicked out of the story. 

I’m glad I didn’t. A few moments lat­er, I reached what for me was the most impor­tant part, about how oth­er sci­en­tists were sprout­ing healthy baby saplings from the tree’s trunk and her seed­pods. These would become new trees to be plant­ed the world over. Eleven of them had been promised to the Unit­ed States, in loca­tions mean­ing­ful in the strug­gle for human dig­ni­ty. I have pho­to­graph of my book, The Tree in the Court­yard, rest­ing against one of these saplings at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Cen­ter in Farm­ing­ton Hills, Michi­gan. There are oth­ers at the Sep­tem­ber 11th memo­r­i­al in Man­hat­tan; Cen­tral High School in Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas, and more.

Just as Anne Frank’s diary may live on for a hun­dred gen­er­a­tions after we are dust and ash­es, these new trees will drop tens, then hun­dreds, then thou­sands of seed­pods. So will their prog­e­ny, and their progeny’s prog­e­ny. There could come a time when every school, syn­a­gogue, church, mosque, town hall, and cour­t­house that want­ed one might have a tree-from-the-tree-in-the-court­yard grow­ing as a mas­sive etz chaim, a liv­ing reminder of mankind’s con­found­ing nature: our poten­tial for good and pen­chant for evil. 

There it was, that gold­en artis­tic moment. There was the sto­ry. It was one worth telling. Yet good as the idea was, I was left with a mas­sive prob­lem. How could I tell it in a way that would be worth read­ing? I got the cocka­mamie idea that I should write this as a pic­ture book for grade school kids — I’ve been for­tu­nate to have a rea­son­able career as a writer and author, but I’d nev­er writ­ten a pic­ture book man­u­script in my life. 

That prob­lem would occu­py me for five weeks. It end­ed with me giv­ing up. Then, two years lat­er, I got the line that would become the spine of the book: The tree recalled how few had tried to save the girl. It was the seed I need­ed. I was on my way. 

Jeff Gottes­feld is an award-win­ning writer for page, stage, and screen. He has pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten for adult, teen, and mid­dle-grade audi­ences; The Tree in the Court­yard is his first pic­ture book.

Relat­ed Content:

Jeff Gottes­feld is an acclaimed writer for page, stage, and screen. His work has won awards from the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca, and the Nation­al Coun­cil for the Social Stud­ies. He has pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten for adult, teen, and mid­dle-grade audi­ences; The Tree in the Court­yard is his first pic­ture book, and No Steps Behind is his second.