Ambassadors of Understanding
Austrian youth join program to intern with Holocaust-related institutions
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Dominik Zotti is a strapping, blond 20-year-old from Vienna, grandson of a Wehrmacht veteran, who guides visitors through the Holocaust exhibit at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Reinhard Hannesschlaeger, 24, from Linz in northern Austria, works in the computer section of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
Both are acutely aware of the international criticism leveled at the Austrian government’s extreme right coalition party and hope to show, less by argument than by example, that there is a far different side to their native country.
Dominik and Reinhard are interns in the Gedenkdienst (commemorative service) program, which sends young volunteers, mostly in their 20s, to Holocaust-related institutions in the United States, Canada and Europe for 14-month long assignments.
Gedenkdienst, founded eight years ago by Austrian political scientist Andreas Maislinger, emphasizes as a central theme that Austria bears a share of the responsibility for Nazi crimes and the Holocaust.
The Austrian government underwrites the program and counts participation as an alternative to the mandatory eight-month military service for young men.
Reinhard and Dominik reject the idea that the Gedenkdienst offers an easy way out of doing army training.
„First, we have to go through an 18-month, part-time preparatory course, for which we have to pay,“ explains Reinhard. „Then, if we qualify, we have to commit ourselves to 14-months of service.“
While abroad, interns get a monthly stipend of $600 for all living and personal expenses, which doesn’t go very far in Los Angeles. They supplement the stipend by parental support or their own savings, while the host institutions get their services for free.
Gedenkdienst gets some 300-500 applications a year, but the majority drop out during the preparatory phase, and only one in 10 get to go abroad.
„It takes a lot of personal and psychological preparation to stay the course,“ says Dominik, who is Catholic. „It’s not the easy way out.“
Appraising his motivation, he says that „Somehow, I always had a strong interest in the Holocaust. I talked about it with my grandfather, who was in the German army. In high school, I learned about what happened to the Jews from a wonderful teacher, and we visited the Mauthausen concentration camp several times.“
Dominik, who as a tour guide meets the general public more than Reinhard, says he enjoys his job and, considering his Germanic appearance and accent, has had no hostile reactions. He has been invited to give talks at high schools and has savored the „unique experience“ of a family Shabbat dinner.
Reinhard came to the Gedenkdienst from a different family background. His mother is a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as is Reinhard and his four siblings, and he grew up with stories of the Nazi persecutions of his faith.
Out of 20,000 to 25,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, he says, 6,000 to 7,000 were imprisoned, 2,000-2,500 were shipped to concentration camps, and more than 500 were killed, including 260 executed for refusing military service.
In his work at the Shoah Foundation, Reinhard is expanding the computer data base by entering testimony by Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, political prisoners and other Hitler victims.
Both young men say that their most profound experiences here have come through their encounters with Jewish Holocaust survivors.
„In school we learned about the Holocaust through facts and numbers,“ says Reinhard. „But there is a totally different feeling after you talk to the survivors and realize how much they have suffered.“
Reinhard is struck by another thought. „There are places near my home which I cherished as a child, and now I learn that the death marches at the end of the war passed along the same spots,“ he says. „I don’t feel guilty, but it makes me sad. Why did the people just look on and not do anything?“
His work at the Shoah Foundation has affected Reinhard so deeply that he plans to dedicate his career to Holocaust education when he returns home.
Both interns are reluctant to talk about the current political situation in their country, where the far-right Freedom Party, led by Joerg Haider, has entered the government and raised fears of a neo-Nazi revival.
„We really do not want to criticize our government while we are abroad,“ says Dominik. „We hope that our Gedenkdienst service will speak for itself.“
Yet, the widespread denunciations of their country obviously bothers both of them.
„We try to explain to the survivors we meet that the Freedom Party is not a neo-Nazi party, that there won’t be a revival of National Socialism,“ says Reinhard.
The young men’s American supervisors think highly of their work and attitude.
Adaire Klein, director of library and archival services at the Wiesenthal Center, is in charge of Dominik and two other Austrian volunteers, Peter Mangel and Alexander Zlamal.
„I’m very impressed by all three,“ says Klein. „They come very well prepared. Last year we had two interns, and this year we asked for three.“
Karen Jungblut, co-director of catalogues at the Shoah Foundation, says that Reinhard is „doing an excellent job and has been a great help in expanding our data base.“
Austrian interns currently in the United States and Canada are also working at the Holocaust Museum in Houston, the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Peace Studies in Reno, the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center.
Observes Bill Surkis, executive director of the Montreal Center, „It’s extremely important that our interns go back to their own country to serve as ambassadors, carrying with them the opportunity to have lived in the heart of the survivor community.“
working on computer at the
Shoah Visual History Foundation.
Photo by Janet Keller