As we look to virtually commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands this year, we are reflecting on our ASH connection and how we have stood in solidarity with our host country over the years. You may not know it, but every day when school is in session, each person that enters and exits the campus passes the Peace Tree, a memorial for the Dutch liberation; to remind us of peace, freedom and commemoration. This landmark captures the spirit of remembrance that all of the Netherlands and ASH honor on May 4 and May 5 each year and the ending of WWII.
Located just to the right of the main campus entrance, this unique sculpture was made with unity and peace at its core. The story of the Peace Tree starts in 1994 when our school community was just getting comfortable on this “new” Wassenaar campus. At that time there were a number of staff members who were eager to bring awareness to ASH students of the impact of World War II in the Netherlands, and that we must work together as a community to preserve the blessings of freedom itself so everyone can share this privilege. The school’s superintendent at the time Dr. Bill Greenham was in great support of this idea, with a series of programs coming to light under his leadership including a student-driven art project that resulted in the sculpture we see today.
The Peace Tree sculpture grew from the ideas and inspirations of seven students that came together to work on the project, who were “as diverse as ASH and had many artistic talents”, remembers staff alumna Roberta Enschede, who worked on the art project with the students. Each student brought forth their own interpretations and thoughts about peace, freedom, libration and the war; which we see reflected in the symbolic objects that are purposefully placed within the tree’s delicately bare branches. These students shared these ideas and impressions with artist and sculptor Evert den Hartog and it was at his Rotterdam studio where the sculpture began to come to life. The students were actively involved in handcrafting the original plaster art piece, this model was used to make a mold for the final sculpture, and was on campus for some time before the unveiling of the final beautiful bronze, made by den Hartog, that stands in its original place today.
The Peace Tree came home to ASH on May 4, 1995, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands at the end of WWII. An unforgettable ceremony took place, with the students themselves speaking and reflecting on their contributions and what it all meant to them. Staff alumni, Gary Cramer and Roberta Enschede, worked together on original music and poetry to commemorate the occasion. Most notably, Professor Scholte Nordholt spoke as the guest of honor; a truly gifted poet, biographer, professor (and founder) of the American studies program in Leiden. He shared the story of his hardships through the war; including how he was unable to say goodbye to his friends before they were taken away and he would never see them again. The words of one student, Emily Weija, clearly captured how meaningful this art project was and its resonating impact:
“Working on the Peace Tree sculpture was a great opportunity...I thought the design of the tree was fitting because it gives the impression of life and renewal, and also a sense of the roots of history. The small objects placed in the branches...symbolize various personal remembrances of war and loss. I hope that those walking in and out of ASH who view this sculpture might stop and look and reflect a bit on these various aspects”.
So next time you walk past this humble yet detailed sculpture, take a few minutes to ponder each object, the tree itself, and the liberties of freedom and peace that so many of us in the world are thankful for, each day. With this thanks united in our minds, there is no greater way to commemorate the Dutch liberation this year, virtually, as we united in solidarity.