Sitting on a porch in the shaded garden of the Los Altos History Museum, 15 teen docents were asked if they had ever read Anne Frank’s diary. About a third of the students raised their hands and nodded.
“Never forget that one person can do something,” said the adult who was talking to them. “You can change your community.”
The adult was Gillian Walnes Perry, author of “The Legacy of Anne Frank” and an ambassador for the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, a nonprofit based in New York City. On July 16, she spoke to the teens about Anne and the Holocaust, hoping they would leave knowing what hate and discrimination can do to someone close to their own age. Anne died at 15 at Bergen-Belsen, the victim of a typhoid epidemic that spread through the Nazi concentration camp.
Interspersed throughout Walnes Perry’s talk were probing questions to the teens. “Do you ever feel like you’re battling against yourself?” Walnes Perry asked, referring to parts in Anne’s diary about growing pains as a teenager. At one point, Walnes Perry asked whether anyone kept a diary. One student raised her hand and nodded.
As for reading Anne’s famous diary, Isa Pudiyapura, a rising junior at Homestead High School in Cupertino, was one of the few who had. “You’re reading about Anne Frank growing up,” he said. “And you can reflect on how you, yourself, are growing up.”
Pudiyapura is one of the participants in this summer’s teen docent program at the museum, and Walnes Perry’s talk was part of a weeklong training.
After hearing Walnes Perry speak, Pudiyapura said he’s ready to share Anne’s story with others. “I want to convey the fact that she was just a normal girl,” he said. “A normal kid like me or anybody else in the docent program. And I feel like that is what allowed her story to reach so many people.”
Walnes Perry started sharing Anne’s tale in 1990 when she founded the Anne Frank Trust UK, an education charity that sets up exhibits about the young Holocaust victim and gives students the “knowledge, skills and confidence to challenge all forms of prejudice and discrimination,” according to the organization’s website.
By the time Walnes Perry retired in 2016, she had traveled around the world proving Anne’s story could be used as a tool to empower young people. In one instance, Walnes Perry recalled, she talked to a group of 11- and 12-year-olds, and shortly thereafter observed them confidently explaining European history to former Dutch Deputy Prime Minister Maxime Verhagen. “They were so enthusiastic,” Walnes Perry said.
She also has used the story to help vulnerable communities. Once, a young Muslim from Bradford, England, told Walnes Perry that Anne’s story was an “insurance policy” against his peers becoming potential Islamic State recruits.
In recent years, Walnes Perry has become an ambassador for the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, another organization devoted to educating “young people and communities … about the dangers of intolerance, anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination,” according to the agency’s website.
Walnes Perry was raised Jewish in the United Kingdom, and in 2012 she married Israeli journalist Elon Perry.
In conjunction with Walnes Perry’s talk, Los Altos Mayor Lynette Lee Eng signed the Anne Frank Declaration, a commitment to reducing hate and inspiring moral courage. A long list of other signatories includes former President Bill Clinton, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and actress Angelina Jolie (in her role as U.N. ambassador for refugees).
“I’m really honored to sign that declaration,” Lee Eng said.
The day came with one surprise, as Lee Eng presented Walnes Perry with a proclamation making July 16 “Gillian Walnes Day” in Los Altos in honor of her dedication to education. In turn, Walnes Perry said she wants to bring Anne Frank education programs to Los Altos schools, something Lee Eng said she supports.
Walnes Perry will be back in Los Altos in November, speaking at Covington Elementary School about her 2018 book “The Legacy of Anne Frank,” which chronicles Anne’s impact on the world since her death in 1945.