Austrian takes responsibility for sins of past generation
Thomas Ortner speaks about nation´s role in Holocaust
By Kevin Moran
NORTH ADAMS- Two full generations after World War II, Thomas Ortner acknowledges the role his native Austria played in the Holocaust.
He´s unlike many of his fellow countryman, especially those older than him, who either collaborated with Nazi Germany or were taught to mistakenly believe that Austria was Nazi Germany´s first victim, and not a collaborater at the onset of World War II.
“For a long time, the Austrian collective thought we were Nazi Germany´s first victim,” Ortner told a group of about 15 people gathered at North Adams State College Monday afternoon.
Since World War II, the country ´s government disavowed that many of it citizens worked with Nazi Germany and were responsible for at least half of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, the Catholic- born Ortner said.
“It was a very convenient thought we had,” Ortner said.
It wasn´t until 1991 before Projekt Gedenkdienst or “service to memory”, the brainchild of a German social scientist, was adopted and funded in Austria as a form of national public service. Until then Gedenkdienst was disallowed in Austria even though attempts were made as early 1980 to bring it to the country.
One of a small number of participants in Projekt Gedenkdienst, Ortner spent the past year conducting programs, educating his peers and others, and working with German and Austrian officals while at the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C., as a part of his Austrian public service. His service ends at the end of the month and he intends to continue to educate youth about Holocaust in Austria.
Though questions of the Holocaust had persisted early on his life, Ortner said he has to come to a consciousness About id during his public service at the museum through books, films and with survivors.
“My grandmother’s generation and my father’s generation were not talking about the Holocaust. They knew it, but they weren’t about it, “Ortner said. ” My generation is the first to talk about was involved in it how were involved.
“Our generation is now recognizing we have a responsibility to do something. We are not guilty. But we must try to do something so this Holocaust never happens again.
Ortner said Time is critical for at least this generation to recognize the Holocaust because many of the remaining survivors are nearing the end of their natural lives. It’s most important to document their experience to add to the historical record, he said. Doing this will also contradict deniers of the Holocaust he said.
“We must do something to avoid hate in future. Some people still think Jews and foreigners are evil and therefore they have to be forced out of the community. But Auschwitz didn’t start with Auschwitz. It stardet much smaller than that,” Ortner said. “Hitler lost World War II, but the thoughts Hitler have not ridden from this world. His thoughts still exist and still endanger.
“All survivors want to have is the Austrians and Germans care about what happened and that something is done to educate the youth,” he said.
Young Austrians must perform national public service in their nation of 8 million people, Ortner said. While 30,000 young Austrian choose to enter the military, 3.000 conscientiously object to military service and opt to perform alternative service in the form of elderly home volunteering or in other programs. About six people each year are able to participate in Projekt Gedenkdienst.
In Gedenkdienst, young Austrians work at one of six Holocaust memorials in the world. Ortner´s family approves of his service.
In the early ´80s, Ortner said the federal president didn’t see why Gedenkdienst was necessary in Austria. This was evidence that Austria still refused to acknowledge their participation and responsibility associated with the Holocaust.
“If the president was talking this way, you can imagine what the average man was doing thinking these stupid thoughts,” Ortner said.
It wasn’t until American Jews put pressure on Austria under then president Kurt Waldheim to start thinking about Austria’s responsibility in the Holocaust.
Since Projekt Gedenkdienst is growing in Germany and in Austria, but it is slow to start in France and Belgium and some other European communities, Ortner said.
Austrian native Max Kowler Lenox, a Jewish survivor of persecution, asked Ortner to speak area schools early this week about his participation in Projekt Gedenkdienst. Having known Ortner for little longer than a year, Kowler a small group of people at Ortner´s presentation tat remains very impressed with what these young AUSTRIANS are doing.
“They’re conscientious object and they’re willing to talk and to explain what really happened in these terrible years,” Kowler said. ” we are talking about responsibility. “In a few years, if we are still peace, then we can say we a good job”, Ortner said.