Is a Face-off Between Trump and Anne Frank Exploiting the Young Girl's Name?

A year ago, few people had heard of the Anne Frank Center in New York. Now, with a new leader and new vision, it is a high-profile assailant of the U.S. administration, but critics say it is exploiting the Holocaust diarist for its own political ends

Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect Director Steven Goldstein
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK – Steven Goldstein recently took charge of the Anne Frank Center in New York and gave it a new agenda and new strategy, which includes calling out U.S. President Donald Trump on social media and in interviews for his anti-immigrant positions. It is drawing a lot of attention.

Goldstein is also facing high-level criticism for exploiting the name of the young woman who died in Bergen-Belsen at age 15 and left the world her diary to read. Anne Frank’s voice – sincere, revealing and relatable – has made “The Diary of a Young Girl” one of the world’s best-selling books and a widely used tool for teaching about the Holocaust.

When he became director of the center last year, Goldstein promptly changed its name (to the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect), and raised its profile.

He says he first read Anne’s diary when he was 6 and has reread it many times since, viewing it as a call to action.

“In 10 to 15 years there won’t be Holocaust survivors anymore. It is up to the rest of us,” he told Haaretz this week. “I’m transforming the center from a small museum to a large social justice organization.”

Some survivors say that in doing so, he is exploiting and tarnishing Anne Frank’s name. That was the upshot of a stinging article this week in The Atlantic (“Who Does the Anne Frank Center Represent?”).

Goldstein, 54, says he has new Holocaust education projects in the works. But it’s his criticism of Trump keeping him in the spotlight.

After the president marked Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day this week with a speech praised by many, Goldstein graded him with a C- overall and an F for not acknowledging President Roosevelt’s “tragic mistake in denying refugees entrance” to the United States. “The president missed a golden opportunity” by not connecting the lessons of the Holocaust to today’s refugee crisis,” Goldstein told Haaretz. “‘Never Again’ is not just a slogan about the past, but a call to action for the future. Who will be the next Anne Frank to die among the refugees his plan would deny entrance?”

Criticism of the president and his administration began almost as soon as Trump took office and anti-Semitism started spiking in the United States.

Goldstein said White House Press Spokesman Sean Spicer “should be ashamed” for minimizing anti-Semitism in America. And after Spicer infamously said that “even Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons” and called concentration camps “Holocaust centers,” Goldstein took to Twitter, calling for him to quit or be fired. “Spicer’s statement is the most evil slur upon a group of people we have ever heard from a White House press secretary,” Goldstein tweeted.

After Trump first made reference to anti-Semitism in late February, Goldstein posted on the Anne Frank Center’s Facebook page: “The president’s sudden acknowledgement is a Band-Aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected his own administration. The anti-Semitism coming out of this administration is the worst we have ever seen from any administration.”

Some say that such statements tarnish Anne Frank’s memory.

“He’s just abusing the name. Every time I read that he says something under her banner, I feel uncomfortable,” said Abe Foxman, who was, like Anne Frank, a hidden child. He survived and went on to lead the Anti-Defamation League for 28 years. Today, Foxman, retired from the ADL, runs a center for the study of anti-Semitism in New York.

“You want to engage in politics? Do so in your own name,” said Foxman, adding, “Don’t ride a Holocaust victim for your purposes.” Goldstein has “a different agenda. It wasn’t [Anne’s]. She innocently loved everybody.”

The Zionist Organization of America’s Mort Klein, who was born in a Displaced Persons camp and whose parents survived Auschwitz, says Goldstein’s criticism of the president is “despicable and negligently false.”

But Goldstein says his criticism of the president is nonpartisan. “If Donald Trump were a Democrat and infringing on civil rights, this organization would be criticizing him just the same. The president’s proposed Muslim ban is outrageous,” he said.

Center board members back him up.

“He was very upfront about being an agent for change, and that was exactly what we were looking for,” board chairman Peter Rapaport told Haaretz, describing himself as a conservative Republican. “Though it existed since 1959, no one had ever heard of the organization.” (It was an American fundraising arm for the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam until 1977, when it became independent.)

“I don’t think it is politicized,” added Tony Polak, the center’s treasurer. “Our mission statement is to talk about tolerance and anti-Semitism, and provide education so that things won’t happen again. Those are the only things Steven has commented on, and it goes along with what our goals are.”

At present, the relationship between leaders of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam – where Anne and her parents and sister hid in a secret annex from 1942 to 1944 – and the Anne Frank Center in New York is uneasy, Polak admitted. The Amsterdam museum has contacted the New York center when Goldstein’s comments have drawn wide coverage, he said. “Obviously there have been some discussions about what Steven has talked about politically. We get back to them right away and tell them why he’s doing it.”

Cards sent to the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Anne Frank House Communications Director Annemarie Bekker told Haaretz: “We have taken note of various recent statements by Steven Goldstein. We too see social developments that cause us great concern, including an increase in anti-Semitic incidents.

“We stay out of the political playing field, and see it as our task to achieve our mission combating anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination through our educational activities.”

Goldstein was working as an associate professor of law at Rutgers University in Newark when he was invited to interview for the center’s executive director position. When he told the hiring committee he would turn the center into a social justice organization, he thought he’d “never hear from them again.” But he did.

He immediately visited the Anne Frank Center’s gallery in lower Manhattan, which was a storefront with an exhibit about its namesake. It “got six walk-in visitors a day, that’s it,” said Goldstein, speaking in his modest Midtown office. The then-low profile organization would send an educational exhibit around the country to schools, and send actors to portray Anne Frank.

Goldstein’s appointment was controversial from the start. Some board members found his plans for the center too radical, and about half left.

For several years, the center made it through each fiscal year only because one board member covered the annual budget shortfall by writing a check, said Rapaport. Now the finances are turning around. “Fundraising is far better,” said Polak. “Obviously with our name out there, we are getting a lot more donations from people who agree with what Steven and the center are telling people.”

New high-net worth people are being brought on board, Polak noted. He expects the center’s annual gala in June to bring in twice what it has in the past. Rep. John Lewis and Robert De Niro are among the celebrities being honored, and Starbucks is this year joining the handful of longtime corporate backers.

The center is continuing with work it has long done, like circulating exhibits about Anne Frank’s life, and is embarking on new projects intended to extend its reach. It recently added staff in New York, hired someone in Los Angeles and plans to expand next to Miami.

In June, it will broadcast short videos marking the 70th anniversary of the publication of Anne Frank’s diary, with celebrities talking about what the book has meant to them. First up is Meryl Streep.

One new initiative is creating workshops to teach students social justice skills. “We want to teach them how do you talk to a public official? How do you write an Op-Ed, organize other people?” explained Goldstein. “I want this organization to stand for more than ‘kumbaya’ moments.”

Another is to have students read “The Diary of A Young Girl” and then keep diaries about civil and human rights challenges in their own communities for a month, and propose solutions. There will be a contest for the best ones.

The center’s popularity has soared online, with the number of Facebook followers up 720 percent in six months, to over 46,000. Fans post and mail heartfelt compliments. Young students from the Islamic Society of Delaware recently sent the center handmade construction paper cards, like one saying: “To: Jewish From: Aaira. Don’t be woread. Be strong!”

Though by many metrics successful, Goldstein resents the idea – in the Atlantic article and elsewhere – that he has misrepresented Anne Frank’s legacy. Goldstein asks why anyone would want to discredit the center, then provides his own answer: “Because we have risen to prominence quickly as an effective national voice for social justice.”

It was what Anne’s father, Otto Frank, wanted, Goldstein says. He provides backing for his claim with scans of documents he says he dug up in the center’s files after the Atlantic article suggested his version of the center’s history was false.

While he plans to go the distance in growing the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, he says his ultimate dream “is to someday be the founder of a synagogue for social justice. I’ve wanted to be a rabbi since I was 7.” And at this synagogue, “every prayer will be interpreted with a social justice eye – Jewish activism is the core of who I am.”