The Anne Frank Center USA: Q&A with Executive Director Yvonne Simons
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
By Ethan Wolff
Seventy years ago, Annelies Marie Frank died at Bergen-Belsen, just a few months after her family’s hiding place was betrayed to the Gestapo. Anne left behind her writing, in what is arguably the most famous diary in the world. The hope and courage she expressed still resonate in the galleries of The Anne Frank Center USA in Lower Manhattan. Drawing on Anne’s words, family photos and artifacts, the Center brings the story of the Holocaust to new generations.
Thought Gallery interviewed AFC Executive Director Yvonne Simons about the continuing relevance of Anne Frank and the Center’s place in the political and cultural mosaic of NYC.
Thought Gallery: How does The Anne Frank Center USA fit into the cultural landscape of New York City? What do you feel it adds?
Yvonne Simons: We are the oldest partner of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and show authentic materials from the House in our gallery. Of the 1.1 million visitors to the Anne Frank House 30% come from the Unites States. We reach thousands of local children every year. Unfortunately, many of them know all too well about the discrimination and isolation Anne felt because they feel it in their own lives. They really relate to her story in a very personal way, which helps them appreciate difference and have the courage to work toward a better, more peaceful world.
Thought Gallery: The events that brought about The Anne Frank Center took place long ago, yet the issues seem more timely than ever. Do you feel the Center has a strong role to play in the contemporary conversation?
Yvonne Simons: We absolutely do. Anne’s story teaches us that we all have a choice to do the right thing. We have an exhibit on now through December 2015 on those who helped Anne and the others in the Secret Annex hide. These were remarkable people, who risked their lives to save others. Racism and other forms of discrimination are sadly very interwoven into contemporary life—and we remind visitors that we can either ignore these atrocities or stand up for tolerance and mutual respect. It’s always our decision.
Thought Gallery: How do you set the subjects of your readings? Do you try to strike a balance between commemoration, and aspects of your programming that are more inspirational?
Yvonne Simons: This year was a very special year because it marked the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, the liberation of the concentration camps and also Anne Frank’s death, so we did a number of commemorative programs on these issues. We will continue to do this type of program, as we care very much about preserving this history, but we also hold a number of other programs that speak to our larger mission of promoting tolerance, literacy and girls’ education, as well as contemporary human rights.
Thought Gallery: How do you feel about the strength of Anne Frank’s legacy 70 years on?
Yvonne Simons: Anne Frank had so many gifts, but what makes her writing stand out is that it is once very accessible and yet never short on insights and inspiration. She was able to juggle so many personal and political matters with such courage and generosity of spirit that she has inspired world leaders from John F. Kennedy to Nelson Mandela. Her voice and message are not easily imitated or forgotten so I think she will continue to speak to our hearts for many decades to come.
Thought Gallery: The Center says “Come as you are. Leave changed.” What do you find most gratifying about the effect you have on visitors?
Yvonne Simons: It can be easy to dismiss traits like optimism and hope as somehow “obvious” or “easy,” but in fact these things take courage. It takes a lot of strength to look a bad situation in the face and decide it could be better and that you’re going to help make it better. Anne Frank did that and she encouraged us to do the same. “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” It’s hard not to love this quote of hers—every day a child walks through our gallery and gets that message is a great day for me.
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