Soldiers ’serve‘ memory Austria re-evaluates war role, Washington Jewish Week, 16.12.1993

16.12.1993

Projekt Beschreibung

Soldiers ’serve‘ memory

Austria re-evaluates war role


by Na’ama Batya Lewin Staff Writer
Mention Austria even today, and what comes to the minds of many Jews are Hitler and Eichman (who were born there) and Waldheim (who was elected Austria’s president). Many Jews still refuse to visit Vienna, the city that was once thought to be the cultural capital of western Europe, because of its association with the birth of Nazism. Others are unwilling to buy products made in Austria such as porcelain and crystal. But Austria has been trying to erase that image. The country’s Federal Chancellor recently visited Israel and spoke at Hebrew University about Austrian-Israeli relations. As of January 1992, the Austrian government offered a new and unusual opportunity for young men to fulfill their eight-month conscription requirement. Austrians can now work in a Holocaust memorial or museum outside the country. The program, which lasts 12 months, is sponsored by the Austrian government. Each participant receives $8,500 for the year for transportation, housing and food expenses. If you visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this year you may meet Austrian-born Anton Legerer. Legerer is not Jewish. He is not a survivor or a child of survivors. Legerer is an Austrian soldier. Every morning he dresses in a suit and tie to serve his native country. He gives tours to Austrian visitors and officials. He translates and reviews German documents and video tapes for the museum’s research institute. And he helps the museum staff prepare Holocaust education material for Austrian schools. There are three young Austrians volunteering at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel, one at Auschwitz/Birkenau in Poland, one at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, and one at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Projekt Gedenkdienst (literally „remembrance service“) was conceived more than 15 years ago by Dr. Andreas Maislinger, a professor of political science at Innsbruck University. But Martin Eichtinger, director of the press and information service at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, explains that the Austrian government waited until now to sponsor the project because of the recent „re-evaluation of the historic role of Austria.“ Eichtinger points out that for years, Austria denied its role as a perpetrator in World War II. Until 1988, the Austrian government claimed it was only a victim of Nazi Germany. It wasn’t until the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Austrian state, Eichtinger adds, that the government acknowledged that although „Austria was the first victim of Nazi Germany, at the same time many Austrians held very high rank positions during the war. The government agreed then that there were also some Austrian perpetrators.“ Since the formation of the Austrian state, 18 year-old males have been drafted into the army. Service can be postponed for reasons including university studies, but eventually ever male must serve before he turns 35. A non-combat „conscientious objection“ army service program was created in 1975. Those eligible were exempted after presenting an explanation to a government commission — which was very discriminating, says Eichlinger. Alternative duties could be served with the Red Cross, with pension home: for the elderly or even with the Postal Service. In 1977 Maislinger was drafted. He remembers meeting with the government commission and he recalls being granted permission to participate in alternative service. But once the then 18-year-old researched the available programs, Maislinger recalls, he found all of them inadequate. Instead he postponed his service, claiming that his studies were all-consuming. A few years later, Maislinger says, he met up with a German organization called the Action for Reconciliation. The organization sent young Germans to work at Holocaust memorials. Maislinger who grew up in a small town between Braunau and Salzburg and had never met a Jew in his life, decided to join the group. He spent a few months volunteering in the Auschwitz museum. The young man found the experience so compelling that he decided to write a letter to the then president of Austria, Rudolf Kirchschlaeger. „I suggested that this project should be my alternative army service,“ Maislinger smiles, remembering his gutsy act. „The answer was very clear. No!“ Maislinger slams his hand against the table in the Holocaust Memorial museum cafeteria when he retells his story. „Not only because there was no law,“ he adds, „but, because everybody claimed at the time that Austria was only a victim of the war. I wasn’t allowed to go to Poland and talk about being a descendant of perpetrators.“ „But I am a noodnick,“ Maislinger adds in Yiddish. „I acted like a noodnick.“ His short curly hair makes him look like a caricature of an anti-establishment academic. Maislinger says he never gave up. „I wrote letters and letters, a few hundred of them, to the Austrian Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior and the Foreign Minister. I tried again and again. I wrote magazine articles and spoke on talk shows. My friends thought I was crazy,“ he chuckles. In 1991 he finally received the response he was waiting for. The Minister of Interior’s office called with the message, „We can do it now.“ The law was changed. A new paragraph — section 12P — was added to the draft law permitting Austrians to fufill military service by volunteering in a Holocaust memorial outside Austria. In September of that year, the first Austrian soldier started working at the Auschwitz/Birkenau museum. Maislinger realizes that the program has only a limited impact on Austrian public opinion towards World War II. „In the town where I grew up,“ says Legerer, who studied philosophy, journalism and communications in university, „nobody even spoke about the Holocaust. It was taboo.“ Many young people in Austria today, Legerer adds, deny that the Holocaust occurred. And two out of every 10 people in Austria subscribe to the proposition that „many different nationalities“ were victims of the war. „They say, ‚Oh. there were so many other victims.'“ says Legerer, „And I say to them, but you know it was mainly Jews.“ The government commission that passed on requests to be excused from combat service was abolished last year, and it has become easier to sign up for alternative army service, says Eichtinger. Fewer than the expected 34,000 draftees were actually inducted by the Austrian government this year. At least 20% of conscription-age men are signing up for the alternative army program, says Eichtinger. Most of them work in hospitals or old-age homes. Maislinger says that when the possibility of alternative service under Projekt Gedenksdienst was first publicized in March 1992, he received more than 100 inquiries in the first four days. Some were not truly serious. He recalls that „some people said, How much money do you give me? And is there enough room for my girlfriend? Can I bring my parents with me?‘ “ Maislinger warned potential participants that the program was „difficult.“ Participants often have to learn a new language. They have to live outside the country without parents or girlfriends. And the Holocaust memorials are often looking for men who specialize in particular professions. Czechoslovakia only wants men who have studied architecture. Israel asks for historians because they work mainly with documents. The biggest problem, says Maislinger, is that although the government pays the participants, there is no money left to run the infrastructure of the program. Jewish communities, says Maislinger, have responded positively to the program. He claims that the Simon Wiesenthal center encouraged him to pursue the project over the years. No Austrian Jews have yet chosen to participate in Maislinger’s program. When he first broached his idea, Maislinger spoke to the editor of the Vienna Jewish newspaper, called The Community. „I told him about the project and that Austrian Jews are also welcome. His answer was that this kind of service is the duty of the non-Jewish Austrians, not of Austrian Jews. Austrian Jews, he felt, are the grandchildren of victims, not of perpetrators.“ Maislinger adds that Israel has been very supportive of his program, even though the administration of Yad Vashem was concerned that an Austrian Jew might choose to do this kind of army service. „It may be hard work, but it is also fascinating work,“ the professor adds. „And why should a young Austrian Jew not be allowed to participate in such fascinating work in Washington or in Israel?“

Projekt Details

  • Datum 23. August 2016
  • Tags Pressearchiv 1993

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