Meet Gillian Wess

March 1, 2022 by Henry Benjamin
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Gillian Wess has recently been appointed as the CEO of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand. She talks with J-Wire.

Gillian Wess

JW: Do you come from a Holocaust background?

GW: I have been deeply influenced by my knowledge of the Holocaust. I was a young girl when my mother first told me about the six million lost. My great-grandmother Leah made aliyah in 1936 to establish Kibbutz Kfar Hamaccabi but she couldn’t adapt to the conditions there, and so returned to Bratislava, to be taken and murdered in the Shoah. I attended school in London with survivor teachers who bore their tattoos, and friends whose parents were survivors. My late husband’s parents survived the Shoah in Romania.

JW: Is this the first time you have worked in this sphere?

GW: I have a professional background of leadership across the not-for-profit, corporate, public, education and creative sectors, including governance and executive management, strategy, policy and programming.

JW: Will you travel overseas to garner ideas for Holocaust education?

GW: The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand works with many international Holocaust institutions, including Yad Vashem, Sydney Jewish Museum, Houston Holocaust Museum, US Holocaust Memorial and Museum, Anne Frank House, Berlin Jewish Museum, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Holocaust Center for Humanity – Seattle, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Houston Holocaust Museum. The Centre will continue to develop partnerships with Holocaust international education and research centres to further our knowledge and ideas for education, and this may entail overseas travel.

JW: Do you think the centre is too Wellington-centric?  If so, will you plan to ensure the Centre’s work reaches across NZ?

GW: The Centre was founded by volunteers in Wellington, has grown and flourished, and will continue to be based in the nation’s capital city. As Aotearoa New Zealand’s national Holocaust institution we serve all communities. Our education programmes reach schools across New Zealand, and the UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place annually in Wellington, Auckland, Hamilton, Nelson, Christchurch with additional regions being planned for forthcoming years. The annual Kristallnacht commemorative concert will be held in both Wellington and Auckland in 2022. HCNZ aims to establish a second base in Auckland alongside other organisations in the new Jewish Community Centre.

JW: Do you have any immediate plans to enhance the Centre’s work?

GW: There are many opportunities to build on the Centre’s strong foundations. My immediate priorities are to grow our membership, support our volunteers, and strengthen the Centre’s influence. The Centre must be active in combating antisemitism and Holocaust misinformation. With my arts background, I would like to develop a programme that recognises the influence of Jewish refugees on New Zealand arts and culture.

JW: Will you be moving to Wellington…?

GW: I will be working remotely from Auckland and spending regular time in Wellington.

JW: When did you leave London?

GW: I arrived in New Zealand from London in the mid-1980s. I lived in Christchurch before relocating to Auckland six years ago.

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