by Gillian Walnes, Co-founder, Anne Frank Trust UK

Gillian Walnes

Gillian Walnes

LAST MONTH I retired from my full-time role as executive director and co-founder of the Anne Frank Trust UK. For the past year I have been its full time vice-president, a role I will continue in an honorary capacity, while I take on new challenges in the UK and US and write a book.

My retirement party and the task of clearing out my physical and electronic files gave me an opportunity to reflect on the past quarter of a century and the great changes in society I have seen over that time.

Anne Frank certainly took over my life from the day in the summer of 1988 when I received a call from my rabbi, David Soetendorp (a friend of Otto Frank), asking me if I could help to bring an exhibition about her to our home town of Bournemouth.

And Anne lived metaphorically in our house for 16 years as the charity established by Soetendorp, Bee Klug, Eva Schloss and myself was based in my home until we moved to our north London offices in 2004.

In my many years running and growing the Anne Frank Trust I have met presidents, prime ministers and government ministers, Hollywood A-list movie stars, rock legends, British and Dutch royalty and civic leaders.

But more importantly, I have met people who knew Anne and have shared first-hand recollections about her. I have spent unforgettable times with Holocaust survivors and liberators of concentration camps, survivors of more recent genocides, community activists, passionate educators and children whose lives and character have been changed by their engagement with Anne Frank.

I have witnessed seismic societal changes. When the trust was launched in 1991, the charity defined itself firmly in the fields of Holocaust and anti-racism education.

Holocaust education was just starting to establish itself in the school curriculum, thanks to a campaign by the Holocaust Educational Trust and several important events in the late 1980s.

Anne Frank in the World 1929-1945, the first Anne Frank exhibition in the UK, was created and brought to London from the Anne Frank House in 1986, and staged at the Mall Galleries. Thirty years later, the large community exhibition is called Anne Frank + You, but most Anne Frank exhibitions are now seen by pupils when they are staged in their schools.

In the 1980s and 1990s, racism was a white-on-black issue, characterised by the killing in Feltham prison of Zahid Mubarak by his white cellmate (one of the prompts for starting our Anne Frank prison project in 2002). Immigration has since made the issues more complex.

There has been xenophobia shown against eastern Europeans perceived to be coming here to take jobs from British people, but some of those same immigrants have brought their own prejudices too, notably against Muslims and gays. Anti-Semitism does not abate.

I do feel those young people we have educated about the Holocaust will take an empathy for Jews with them through their lives, but there are new and different forms of anti-Semitism out there.

Sadly, I have also seen the passing of many Holocaust survivors, many of whom were involved with the Anne Frank Trust as hugely valued exhibition guides and speakers.

Most of our exhibition guides are now actually part of our peer-to-peer education programme, secondary school pupils trained by our dedicated team to become the educators, a proven successful programme in increasing Holocaust knowledge and understanding and raising self-esteem and aspiration in the young participants.

History reminds us of the choices ordinary people are forced to make: whether to oppress, to comply with oppression, to stand by when persecution is happening or to give help to those in peril. And that can mean putting yourself in peril too.

The human is a self-preserving animal, so those whose whole being is run by the highest of morals and responsibility for others tower above most of us.

By getting the story of Anne Frank to a large number of people, and facilitating the outstanding educational work done by so many people along the way, I hope I have done a little something to make the world and our society a better place.