|Los Angeles Times July 30, 2000|
|The Sins of the Fathers
By RENEE TAWA, Times Staff Writer
Well, yes, his grandfather served in the German army during World War II.
Dominik Zotti, 21, doesn’t find it hard to talk about this, as he leads tours through Holocaust exhibits at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance. Not that he tells every group. But if there is time, if Zotti senses that visitors need a nudge, he talks about his grandfather to underscore a point: Zotti’s generation is the first to emphasize, rather than downplay, its country’s share of responsibility for the Holocaust.
Since November, Zotti has been on a 14-month assignment at the Wiesenthal center for an independent organization called Gedenkdienst, or Commemorative Service Program. Worldwide, 22 Gedenkdienst interns are assigned to Holocaust-related institutions in lieu of Austria’s eight-month compulsory military service for young men. The interns are challenging their country’s traditional notion of its wartime victimization–that Austria simply fell prey to Nazi aggression. In fact, thousands of Austrians acted as Nazi collaborators and likely committed war crimes against Jews. More than 50,000 Jews were killed in Austria during the Holocaust, mostly in concentration camps.
Their message is one of hyper-vigilance and reconciliation–but the interns, who are paid by the government, are trying to do their jobs at a politically tense time. In February, Austria included the extreme-right Freedom Party in its new coalition government, provoking international condemnation. Much of the outrage has been aimed at the party’s firebrand, Joerg Haider, 50, who has minimized Nazi atrocities during World War II.
Under this storm cloud, Gedenkdienst interns are distancing themselves from Haider, who once described Hitler’s concentration camps as “punishment camps.” Haider has apologized repeatedly for that statement, and other incendiary remarks.
At the Wiesenthal center, the three interns field worried questions about Haider from everyone including Holocaust survivors and a German Air Force squad. They tell people, no, they don’t think that Jews have to worry about a surge of anti-Semitism in Austria, and no, neo-Nazis are not taking over their country.
In an interview, Zotti’s rapid speech stumbles when talk turns to Haider. He fidgets, purses his lips. His usual smile is gone. His voice goes flat. Ask him privately, he says, and he’s happy to say what he thinks about Haider. But in the newspaper? No. He, along with the center’s other interns, feels awkward about speaking for or against a government that pays their salaries.
Otherwise, none of the interns shows a bit of self-consciousness on the job. At work, they have no problem with even the most ignorant questions: “Were you part of the Holocaust?” Or, “When did it happen–in the 18th century?”
The 7-year-old West Los Angeles museum is internationally acclaimed for its high-tech exhibits, for pushing ideas instead of artifacts. You know right away that this is not the kind of museum where you parade past exhibits on the walls. The place is dark and windowless with a concrete bunker kind of feel, lit by flashes from a 16-screen video wall featuring images of civil rights struggles and a blinking list of words: Retard. Spic. Queen.
* * *On a recent morning, Zotti leads a group of a dozen teenage boys on a three-hour tour. The boys wear mostly baggy shorts, T-shirts and tennis shoes; he’s in a dark gray pinstripe suit and wingtips. Otherwise, he looks like a peer, and if it weren’t for his accent, he would sound like them, too. Tall and fit, blond and blue-eyed, Zotti is a snowboarder who recently gave up smoking because he couldn’t stand the disapproving looks in Los Angeles. Before he came to L.A., he thought he would go into business, like his parents, who are certified public accountants. These days, he is thinking about some kind of job teaching tolerance. “Guys!” he yells to his tour group. He introduces himself, says he’s from Austria and asks them not to clown around in the museum. The boys, talking and joking, fall silent. The tour starts through two doors. One says “Prejudiced;” the other, “Unprejudiced.” This is how Zotti gauges his groups, their self-awareness. Only two boys head for the “Unprejudiced” door. Good group, he thinks. Without trepidation, Zotti leads them past a faded American flag made from scraps by inmates anticipating their liberation at Austria’s Mauthausen concentration camp. He stands by as the group watches film footage that shows thousands of cheering Austrians in what looks like a street fair, welcoming Hitler’s troops to Vienna in 1938. At the end, Zotti throws out questions. Who was responsible for the Holocaust? Hitler? someone offers. The Nazis? asks another. So who were the Nazis? he asks. Silence. “A lot of Germans, a lot of Austrians, supported Hitler,” Zotti says. “And everybody was responsible who didn’t do anything, who had a chance but didn’t use it, who didn’t speak out or didn’t help in Germany and other countries.” Heads nod. This group doesn’t need prodding. With other groups, Zotti sometimes talks about his grandfather, who was drafted into Germany’s Wehrmacht, or armed services. Although the role of the regular German army in the Holocaust has been a subject of recent debate, Zotti explains that his grandfather was stationed near Stalingrad during the war and spent most of his time trying to survive the cold of Eastern Europe. He was not a member of the Nazi Party. He did not serve in the Gestapo, SS or as a concentration camp guard. And after the war, his grandfather, now deceased, worked as a local judge, helping Jewish residents reclaim their homes. “I can say, ‘Not everyone was like this,’ ” Zotti says. “I think it puts a good perspective on how to stereotype people or how to be prejudiced. . . . Then I say, ‘You have to make a distinction between the individual in this case and the whole country, and what each stands for.’ ” After the tour, kids in Zotti’s group says they admired him for coming from Austria to talk about his country’s horrors. (The boys are part of a juvenile offenders program; their supervisors asked that they not be identified by name or institution). “I think that’s very mature–taking responsibility,” says a 15-year-old. “You have to be kind of brave, you know what I mean? To show people that he’s sorry for what his country has done.”
* * *Zotti says he does not speak out of guilt; only responsibility. “I want to tell [people] that I acknowledge it,” Zotti says. “It’s important for me. It’s my country. It’s my roots. I want to put it in the light of what it is.” The tour also includes a display of past and current “demagogues,” featuring, among others, photographs of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Louisiana’s David Duke and Austria’s Haider. (Twice in 1997, Haider visited the museum, spotted his picture and asked that it be removed. Museum officials declined). Under the new government, the Gedenkdienst program remains unchanged, says 45-year-old founder Andreas Maislinger, a political scientist. Government officials have assured him that they support the program. Although the turn of events has made things uncomfortable for some interns, who are tired of answering the same political questions over and over, no Gedenkdienst volunteers or partner institutions have dropped out in protest. Austria still is largely in denial about the extent of its collaboration with Nazi Germany, Maislinger says in a telephone interview from Innsbruck, Austria. He began developing the idea for Gedenkdienst in the late ’70s, partly to counter the belief that “Austria in March ’38 was a victim. . . . Another truth is that many, many Austrians participated in killing Jews, that a high number of perpetrators in concentration camps came from Austria.” Only in the past decade have Austria’s political leaders publicly acknowledged the country’s culpability in Nazi war crimes. Still, its leaders remain under attack by survivors’ groups and others for not going far enough. “Timing wise,” says intern Alexander Zlamal, 27, “what we’re doing is a statement because of what’s happening in Austria right now. The good thing that is happening is that the whole European Union is looking at Austria. They’re watching us. That brings peace to my mind.” Like Zotti’s grandfather, Zlamal’s grandfather was a Wehrmacht veteran. The younger generation, Gedenkdienst interns say, is able to look at the Holocaust with more distance. Since the program began in 1992, more than 100 interns, mostly in their 20s, have worked at major Holocaust institutions in countries including Germany, Poland and France. Maislinger, the unpaid chairman of Gedenkdienst, runs the program out of his home. He is also developing plans to create a “House of Responsibility” in the home where Hitler was born. The house, in Braunau, Austria, would include space for Gedenkdienst volunteers and others to live and work on international human rights projects. Meanwhile, interns say, some acquaintances have accused them of trying to shirk rigorous military training and take an overseas vacation. “This is so much better than to learn how to kill somebody,” counters intern Zlamal. The interns also point out that their full-time Gedenkdienst assignments–not including a part-time, 18-month training program–last six months longer than mandatory military service. Also, interns in Los Angeles emphasize, the government pays them about $600 a month, while host institutions get their services for free. Most Gedenkdienst interns in the U.S. rely on savings or help from families to pay rent and other living expenses. Zotti and Peter Mangel share a two-bedroom apartment in Culver City; Zlamal lives near the museum. Zotti drives an ’84 Cadillac because, he says, it was cheap and reliable. Mostly, they hang out with other Austrians and hit the usual spots–the beach, the Hollywood Bowl, the Sunset Strip. Zlamal, a musician, loves the jazz clubs. Mangel, a University of Vienna history major, spends some of his free time in libraries, researching the Black Panthers Party in Los Angeles, which is the subject of his thesis; he also has an Austrian girlfriend here. Besides leading tour groups, the interns translate German documents and respond to research queries in the library and archives. Their commitment, said Holocaust survivor Elane Norych Geller, is her best hope for the future. “This moves me to tears,” says Geller, 64, a volunteer at the Wiesenthal center, who has met the three interns. “It isn’t about their saying, ‘I don’t understand why the Nazis hated the Jews.’ It’s about understanding history, and saying, ‘This is an awful thing that happened and if such erudite and cultured people can buy into this, no one is safe unless we do something about it.’ It’s an act of nobility.” The interns had heard Holocaust survivors speak at schools in Austria. But none was prepared for the impact of working alongside survivors in California. One day, Mangel, 28, strikes up a conversation with a survivor from Vienna at the center. Which neighborhood in Vienna are you from? the survivor asks. Turns out the survivor used to live around the corner from him in Austria. “And then he says, ‘And then I had to leave the country in 1938 because the Nazis came,’ ” says Mangel, imitating the survivor’s matter-of-fact tone. “And in the same sentence, he says, ‘And I lost my whole family in the Holocaust.’ And then suddenly it strikes you. They don’t say that because they want any sympathy. It’s just part of their lives. . . . Then I know why I’m here, and that was the right decision.” In Austria, none of the interns had much contact with Jews. (Zotti is Catholic, Mangel is Protestant and Zlamal is not affiliated with a particular religion.) But most older Austrians probably know someone tied to the Holocaust, Zlamal figures. After all, the country has only 8 million residents, fewer than Los Angeles County. (The Jewish population in Austria, which was about 182,000 before 1938, has dwindled to fewer than 9,000.) Until now, Mangel has never thought much about how the German language still reflects anti-Semitic thought or insensitivity. People throw around the word “Jude,” or Jew, for instance, as a synonym for greedy. As a boy, Mangel admits with horror, he used a terrible phrase that is used to convey the idea that someone will do something until he dies–“bis Zur Vergasung”–“until you are gassed.” “Too many Austrians don’t know Jewish people,” Mangel says. Now, every Friday, before they leave the center, the interns bid staff members, “Shabbat Shalom,” or “peaceful Sabbath” in Hebrew. In turn, Wiesenthal staff members invite them home to Shabbat dinners and other activities, says intern coordinator Adaire J. Klein, director of the center’s library and archival services.”At the risk of sounding a little trite,” Klein said, “if we’re looking to create a different kind of world than the world that fostered the Holocaust, then the place to begin obviously is with young people.”
* * *As a kid in Austria, Zotti had a close part-Jewish friend. He didn’t know what happened to his friend’s relatives in the war. He didn’t know what happened to any of his friends’ grandparents. No one spoke of it. His thinking started to change at 17, when his history teacher took the class to Mauthausen concentration camp in Upper Austria. On the bus, kids laughed and joked. Then the bus pulled up to the grounds. Even the loudest boy fell silent. “It was like this place couldn’t make another impression, even if it was sunny and the brightest Sunday,” Zotti says. “There was no sun. There was no light. There was no joy.” They saw the barracks. A trench where weak prisoners were shot to death. The gas chamber. Even though he was haunted by what he’d seen, he didn’t want to look at older people and wonder what they’d done during the war, if they’d been complicit. That would make him crazy. Instead, he takes his cues from the survivors he has met who go beyond condemnation, beyond blame. Which makes him an object of curiosity to people he meets in L.A., some of whom have a hard time grasping why he has come here from Vienna. What do you do? they ask. I’m a tour guide at the Museum of Tolerance, he’ll reply. They misunderstand. They think he is biding his time here, maybe working a day job, trying to break into Hollywood. No, what do you really do? they ask. Listen, he tells them, this is what I do.
* * *For information on Gedenkdienst, visit http://www.gedenkdienst.org/english/index.php3. Renee Tawa can be reached at .
- Date 2. July 2016
- Tags Pressearchiv 2000