Speech by Ronald Leopold, Executive Director, The Anne Frank House
October 2, 2015
President Clinton, honorable representatives of the Clinton Presidential Center, the Sisterhood of Congregation B’nai Israel and the Anne Frank Center USA, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
“As powerful as our memories are, our dreams must even be stronger. For when our memories outweigh our dreams, we become old.”
Fifteen years ago, on December 31, 1999, just before midnight, President Clinton spoke these words at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC during the Millennium Gala marking the transition to a new century.
Yes, dreams are part of being young. Dreaming about what it’s like to be rich, being able to afford anything your heart desires. Dreaming about love, about that boy or girl you'll later marry and live happily ever after with. Dreaming of a career as a movie star in Hollywood.
But young people often have bigger dreams as well. Dreams about the kind of world they want to live in. Dreams about a world where people are treated equally. Dreams about a world where the color of your skin doesn't matter, where it doesn't matter whether you're a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim, or what your sexual orientation is. Dreams about a world where hatred has made way for compassion and the profound awareness that we are all part of one big community, consisting of people with very different backgrounds and beliefs.
Anne Frank dreamed of such a world while cooped up in the darkness of the Secret Annex, her hiding place in Amsterdam, from July 1942 to August 1944. She was only fifteen years old when the Nazi ideology of anti-Semitism put an end to her young life in Bergen-Belsen, shortly before that concentration camp was liberated. Only fifteen...
She confided her dreams – both small and big – to her diary. “I hope that you will be a great support and comfort to me", she wrote as the first sentence of her diary, weeks before going into hiding, still unaware of how important this support would prove to be in the two years that followed. We can only speculate about her thoughts during the last months of her young life, cut short, in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Was she able to hold on to her dreams and ideals in a situation of increasing hopelessness? Did she still believe that "...people are really good at heart", as she had written in her diary a short time before the arrest? Did she gaze at the sky, as she had done earlier through the attic window of the hiding place, think of the chestnut tree that grew outside the annex, hoping that everything would ultimately change for the better?
68 years ago, on May 3, 1957, memories and dreams came together when Otto Frank, Anne’s father, stood in front of the house on the Prinsengracht 263, where he, with his family and four others, had been in hiding for more than 25 months. Of the eight people in hiding, he was the only one who had survived the war. The establishment that day of the Anne Frank House organization, entrusted with the opening to the public of the secret annex and to propagating the ideals from his daughter’s diary, marked the synthesis of sorrow-filled memories of his murdered wife and two daughters and his dream of a better future. In Otto’s vision, the world should learn from the past in which he had lost his family.
“We should not just teach history lessons, we should also teach the lessons of history”, he stated in a newspaper interview that same year
Millions of people throughout the world, mainly young people, have read Anne Frank’s diary and have visited the Anne Frank House. Through her words, young people hear the voice of someone their own age, a peer. Her dreams are their dreams. Her life story serves as a source of inspiration and teaches them about morality, a basic sense of right and wrong and the things that make us human. The sober emptiness of the Secret Annex reminds them of the fact that Anne Frank did not survive the Holocaust. It makes her absence (and that of so many others) painfully apparent, with her diary as the silent witness of her dreams and destiny.
But the Secret Annex is not just a window on the persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust, it’s also a mirror through which we look at ourselves, not to reflect on one’s beauty but to reflect on one’s values, to determine who we are and who we want to be. In the spirit of Otto Frank, we are more than a place of memory, we are a place of learning too. Every year, we carry our more than 1000 educational programs in the museum, and more than 350 globally in over 30 countries. Here, in the USA, this is done in an excellent manner by our trusted partner, the Anne Frank Center USA. The Anne Frank Sapling Project is an beautiful example of the educational work of the Center. Through the Anne Frank Sapling Project these trees are being planted at organizations throughout the United States with a demonstrated commitment to upholding Anne’s vision for a peaceful, more tolerant world. We’re very proud that this organization, which was also established by Otto Frank, represents us here.
68 years ago, on September 4, 1957, here in Little Rock, Ar., far from Amsterdam, memories of a painful past en dreams of a better future came together in Melba Pattillo Beals and another eight students who’ve become known as the Little Rock Nine. At this place, there’s no need for me to detail their history, you know it better than I do. Even now, after 68 years, we can only be deeply impressed by their courage, their resolve, their unbroken belief in human dignity. Similar to Anne Frank’s dreams, theirs were also rooted in a history of injustice and inequality. And like Anne, they did not give in to the hopelessness of the moment, but held on to their unalienable rights and ideals, firmly believing in what Dr. Martin Luther King in his dream called the "bank of justice". Nine brave students opened the doors for millions of others, even though behind those doors there’s still much work to be done. Looking back to this significant period in her life, Dr. Beals said in 1997:
“Mostly what I think about when I think back is how sad for somebody to go through that when they’re 15.”
Only fifteen… We are gathered here with people from all walks of life, adults with often huge responsibilities, and we are all inspired by 15-year old girls, by their sufferings, their dreams, their firm belief in mankind. Isn’t that incredible?
Of course, historical circumstances do not easily lend themselves to comparison. The life story of Anne Frank is very different from the history that Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals experienced or the complex and painful histories of Mr. George Takei and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, or that of chief Heckaton and the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Histories that are all depicted here in this beautiful and impressive new installation. Amsterdam in 1944 and America in 1830, in 1957 or even during the Second World War are different worlds, each with their own particular history.
But what connects all these histories is the fact that they were the work of human beings. They make patterns of human thought visible, they bring out our attitudes and our behavior, the difficult questions about our own identity and that of others, prejudice and discrimination. They form powerful collective memories of injustice, and as such inspire us to even stronger dreams that touch on human values, on equal rights for everyone in an open and free society. They encourage us to build the bridge to a better future.
This great nation is made of dreams, dreams set down in the Constitution of the United States of America and the Declaration of Independence. They’re embodied in what is commonly known all over the world as the American dream. It’s a dream entrusted to the President of the United States. It’s on his or her shoulders that the heavy task and responsibility rests to realize our dreams and ideals. But in an open, democratic society as ours that’s actually the task and responsibility of all of us.
In his vision for this Center, President Clinton quoted the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt:
“A nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.”
That is what, from today, connects the Clinton Presidential Center here in Little Rock with the Secret Annex in Amsterdam and the Anne Frank Center USA in New York. We share an important mission. These are places where memories and dreams come together, where the pain of the past and the firm belief in the future go hand in hand. Young people will come to this beautiful park and will sit in the shadow of Anne’s chestnut tree, reflecting on the stories depicted on these panels and on why those stories are still very important to their own lives.
"... I shall not remain insignificant...", Anne Frank wrote in her diary on April 11, 1944. It sounds like the big dream for a little child. But it also sounds as a message to all of us to keep the painful memories of the past alive, while, at the same time, ensuring that our dreams will remain stronger. We owe this to two fifteen-year old girls who wrote history, but we owe it perhaps even more to ourselves and to generations to come.