LITTLE ROCK -- On Oct. 2, 2015, nearly 1,000 people, including former President Bill Clinton, gathered for the planting of a rare sapling at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.
The thin sprig of a tree had been propagated from the white horse chestnut tree mentioned by Jewish teenager Anne Frank in the diary she kept as she and her family spent more than two years hiding in a 450-square-foot Secret Annex in a home in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam during WWII. The tree was one of the few connections to nature Anne had while confined indoors.
"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," she wrote on Feb. 23, 1944.
Speaking at the 2015 dedication, Clinton said: "We could do worse in this deeply troubled time where people all over the world are so divided by what appears superficially to be religious or racial or ethnic or tribal differences. We could do far worse than to spend a little time every single day, for the sake of the young people here, reflecting on the life of Anne Frank."
The sapling displayed that day died this spring at Good Earth Garden Center in Little Rock.
The tree wasn't at the Clinton Center installation long. Before the dedication, it had been acclimating to the Arkansas climate at Good Earth, which maintains the Clinton Center's grounds. Immediately after the 2015 ceremony it was taken back to Good Earth for further acclimation and an identical horse chestnut sapling, with no relation to the Anne Frank tree in Amsterdam, was put in its place.
Gregg Curtis, owner of Good Earth, said the original Anne Frank sapling was kept in an unheated, cold frame greenhouse under a shade cloth and watered by hand.
"It was a pretty small tree when it arrived," he said. "We gave it the best opportunity we could. It was years of struggle. Finally, this spring, were we like, it's just not going to make it. We would see a little bit of growth every fall and every spring, but when 90-100-degree weather hit, what new growth we would see would usually die back."
After it died, it was placed in Good Earth's compost pile, Curtis said.
Last summer the replacement tree, which was having difficulty growing, was taken from the exhibit on the Clinton Center campus to Good Earth, where Curtis said it also died.
In a July 14 email, Calista Ross, the Clinton Center's director of development, told donors to the Anne Frank installation about the tree's fate.
"While the sapling will no longer be present, the permanent installation will continue to honor the legacy of Anne Frank and the tree she wrote about so fondly."
Asked why it had taken so long for the center to acknowledge the loss of the tree, Clinton Foundation spokesperson Rebecca Tennille said, "It was an oversight. We didn't update our information. That's on us."
Another sapling, also a descendant from the horse chestnut mentioned in the classic "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl," was supposed to have been planted at Little Rock Central High School, but it was too weak and never even made it to the campus. It died in the summer of 2015 while at Good Earth.
"It was quarantined at our place for a little while," Curtis said. Like the Clinton Center tree, it struggled.
Central High Principal Nancy Rousseau said she checked on the tree several times while it was at Good Earth.
"It didn't look very healthy," Rousseau said earlier this month. "It was such an honor to get the tree, and I was pretty crushed when it died."
In a June 12, 2015, email about the sapling to Rebecca Faulkner of the Anne Frank Center USA, which distributed the Anne Frank saplings to sites in the United States, Rousseau wrote:
"Our sapling is barely alive -- no buds. I went by to check on it at the nursery, and at this point, it is a stick. ... It makes me so sad. It is in the perfect environment at the nursery where it is being cared for closely, but not thriving."
She learned when she visited the nursery on July 18, 2015, that the sapling had died.
"I am sick about this but not surprised," she wrote in an email the next day to Faulkner.
The large, 170-year-old white horse chestnut seen from the Secret Annex was one of the oldest in Amsterdam, according to annefrank.org, website of the Anne Frank House.
Anne was 15 when she died of disease at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp March 12, 1945, but the tree that gave her solace lived on at its spot in the courtyard garden of number 188 Keizersgracht and in the pages of her diary, where she mentioned it three times.
By 2005 the big tree's health was waning. The Anne Frank House oversaw the gathering of chestnuts from the tree, which were germinated and the saplings donated to schools and other organizations. On Aug. 23, 2010, the old tree was blown down by high winds during a storm.
In 2009 the Anne Frank Center USA began a program to distribute saplings in the United States, and the following year a few of the tree's progeny came to America. After a three-year quarantine -- some at a USDA facility in Beltsville, Md., and others at a greenhouse at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis -- they were cleared for planting.
Thirty-four groups applied for the saplings, according to a March 24, 2013, Associated Press article. Thirteen were eventually distributed to their new homes in Seattle; Boise, Idaho; Indianapolis; Aurora, N.Y.; Rohnert Park, Calif.; Washington; Little Rock; Iowa City and Farmington Hills, Mich. Two were planted in New York City, one at United Nations Headquarters and one at Liberty Park, commemorating Sept. 11, 2001.
The Clinton Center's Anne Frank installation, which the Clinton Foundation created in partnership with Sisterhood of Congregation B'nai Israel in Little Rock, is located in front of the Clinton Presidential Center, just a few steps north of the Clinton School for Public Service. The foundation designed the space in collaboration with Little Rock landscape architect Cinde Bauer and Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the exhibit designer for the Clinton Center and The National Holocaust Museum.
Near a parking lot and facing west, the installation features five framed, etched glass panels that are intended to evoke the sense of being inside a room. They also reference the fraught history of human rights in Arkansas, the U.S. and globally.
Two front panels contain quotes by Anne Frank and Clinton. The other three feature quotes from Chief Heckaton, the hereditary chief of the Quapaw during Arkansas' Indian Removal; George Takei, the Japanese-American actor who was interned at the Rohwer Relocation Center in Desha County in 1942; and Melba Patillo Beals, a member of the Little Rock Nine.
A small plaque features a photo of Anne with a short biography of her and the story of the horse chestnut tree.
The centerpiece was the sapling, and visitors approaching from the front could see the thin tree framed by two of the panels, almost as if they were looking at it through a window, a subtle design element symbolizing how Anne saw the original horse chestnut tree.
Of course, it wasn't the actual sapling from the tree outside the Secret Annex. In its 2015 news release on the dedication, the Clinton Foundation noted that the original sapling would be returned to "a local nursery where it will be cared for until it has matured and can thrive in its new home, located on the grounds of the Park."
There was no indication at the installation that the tree seen by visitors was a replacement horse chestnut sapling that Curtis said had been provided by Good Earth.
The replacement sapling was taken to Good Earth after it struggled to grow last summer. A sign was later placed at the installation that read: "Unfortunately, the Anne Frank Tree sapling has been temporarily removed to receive special care. We hope to return it to the installation soon." The sign was still at the exhibit as recently as June 18.
Paul Minsker of Alexander would stop by to see the tree when he was a volunteer in 2018-2019 at nearby Heifer International.
"It meant a lot to me to see something like that -- something that was so important to the Jewish people and all people -- was here," he said in an interview last month. "I've also always had a love for plants."
It wasn't until this month that Minsker learned from a reporter that the tree he saw at the Clinton Center was a stand-in.
"It's disappointing to know that there were multiple parties involved with bringing an Anne Frank tree sapling to Arkansas and not a single one of them was able to express adequately what tree was where," he said.
On his visits to the exhibit Minsker had concerns for the sapling's health after noticing brown spots on its leaves. He says he emailed the Clinton Center and tried to speak with security guards on the grounds about the state of the tree.
"All of my contacts were to no avail," he said.
Minsker said he feels the installation's location and design weren't conducive to an already vulnerable plant.
"That's a tree that is not used to the crazy hot, humid climate that happens around here and is also not suited to areas that dry out easily," he said. "Given the nature of that area, right beside a parking lot, directly taking in western sun in the afternoon with no shade whatsoever and the glass panels where the sun was beaming through ... that worried me."
White horse chestnut trees are native to southeastern Europe. They can be found in other areas of Europe, Canada and the northern U.S. Around these parts, not so much.
"They're just not well-suited to the South," said Janet Carson, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette horticulture columnist who spent 38 years with the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. "They would need to be planted in a place where they got shelter from the hot afternoon sun, and they would have to have great soil and lots of water. I think it would be difficult to make it thrive."
Curtis said the replacement sapling "did amazingly well until the past couple of years."
Most of the other 11 Anne Frank saplings planted in the U.S. are flourishing.
Representatives with the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif., United Nations Headquarters, the Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills, Mich., the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the U.S. Capitol grounds, Southern Cayuga School District in Aurora, N.Y., and the University of Iowa all confirm their trees are doing well. Attempts to contact Liberty Park were unsuccessful, though the tree is featured on its website, https://www.officialworldtradecenter.com/en/local/learn-about-wtc/liberty-park.html.
The sapling at the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise, Idaho, was dedicated May 13, 2015, but wasn't planted at the site because it was near a construction project, said Dan Prinzing, executive director of the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights, home of the Anne Frank memorial. A replacement sapling was planted and "is doing very well," he said, adding there wasn't a sign indicating the tree wasn't from the Anne Frank tree in Amsterdam.
The original sapling, which is "doing even better," is still in a nursery and is being cared for by Boise City Parks and Recreation, Prinzing added. There are plans to place it in the memorial, he said, though no date has been set.
One other descendant of the Anne Frank horse chestnut planted in the United States has died. The sapling dedicated June 4, 2013, in Boston Common was removed in 2014.
"Survival of the sapling became the concern of Parks Department arborists after it seemed to fail to thrive and evidence showed the tree may have been vandalized with an unauthorized cutting," according to a June 20, 2014, news release. The tree was quarantined at Boston Parks and Recreation's Franklin Park greenhouses, but didn't survive.
Tennille said the legacy of Anne Frank will remain a part of the Clinton Center's campus even without the tree, adding that the center has hosted several Holocaust-related events including a Jan. 31, 2018, talk by Holocaust survivor Irene Butter, who met Anne while they were the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and a conversation with Holocaust survivor Ben Stern on Oct. 4, 2018.
"It's really sad that our sapling never acclimated," she said. "We built a structure for it, and we're still going to use that as programming material. It's been the jumping-off point in a lot of really great programming."
Rabbi Barry H. Block, with Congregation B'nai Israel, said in an email that the Clinton Center had contacted him about the fate of the tree but he was "not ready to comment on this matter."
Minsker wondered if a native tree blessed by a rabbi might be a suitable replacement.
"I have trees growing in pots beside my house that I'd donate if they wanted one," he said.