Austrians volunteer at Holocaust center
By Dan West
Growing up in Austria, 19-year-old Daniel Leithinger has been able to socialize freely in bars in recent years.
That changed this winter when he came to metro Detroit for 14 months of civil service at West Bloomfield’s Holocaust Memorial Center.
“The drinking age in Austria is 16,” Leithinger said. I come here and it’s 21. So I’m out in the cold right now.”
His partner on this trip, 28-year-old Martin Doblhammer, said he made some adjustments for his fellow country man.
“When I want to look for the bar, we have to look for a milk bar for him,” Doblhammer said, laughing.
All joking aside, the Austrian duo said they realize their first trip to this country entails much more than visits to social venues.
They are here to fulfill a government requirement for their homeland, while playing a diplomatic role toward rebuilding the relationship between Jews and Austria, where many World War II atrocities against Jews took place.
Young men in Austria are required to serve in the military for eight months or perform 12 months of civil service. If the civil service is abroad, 14 months are required.
One of their options for civil service, Doblhammer said, is “Gedenkdienst,” German for “remembrance service.” Gedenkdienst, established in 1992, directs Austrians to Holocaust-related facilities throughout the world.
Doblhammer and Leithinger who grew up 30 miles apart but did not meet each other until they arrived in metro Detroit Jan. 21, will work at the Holocaust Memorial Center until next spring on research, information organisation and tour guide projects.
The two were raised Christian, but they were eager to learn about West Bloomfield Jewish community. Although they were apprehensive at first, especially when meeting Holocaust survivors and their families, they said everyone they met have been “very friendly.”
“We didn’t meet any Jews back home because they are hardly any in Austria. They all left,” Doblhammer said. “We wanted to get in touch with the culture and create a new relationship again. We want them to say, ‘The new Austrians aren’t all that bad.’
“I selected this type of service because I feel our generation has a responsibility to avoid such a crime from ever happening again.”
Local Holocaust survivors enjoy meeting the Austrian duo, said Selma Silverman, the Holocaust Memorial Center’s administrator.
“It’s important for our survivors to meet them and see they are nice people,” Silverman said. “Once they get that understanding, they break groups, names and labels.”
The men work 40 hours a week for free. They live in Bloomfield Hills apartment with a stipend they receive from the Austrian government and money they saved before the trip.
After obtaining driver’s licenses, they leased a car to drive around town, where they have plans to visit metro Detroit’s parks, lakes and nature areas. Next week, they plan a week-long trip to norhtern Michigan, Chicago and Niagara Falls.
Michigan’s weather, they said, is colder compared to this season’s conditions at their hometowns of Wels and Linz, but they feel warmth from the people they met in metro Detroit.
“People here are more open-minded,” Doblhammer said. “When we went looking for an apartment, the people were so hepful.”
“And the work climate here is just amazing.”
Holocaust center staff invited Doblhammer and Leithinger to social gatherings, introduced them to local German families and helped them with adjustments to American life.
“They are getting along well,” Silverman said. “They are friendly, personable, sophisticated, educated, and at the same time naive.
“They needed help the other day learning how to ask for something at the store. They drew what they wanted for us and we helped them out.”
This is the second time an international civil service program brought help to the Holocaust Memorial Center. Four years ago, German Falk Daviter served 18 months.
“We developed a close connection with Falk and we hope to do the same with these two,” Silverman said. “They are working on time-consuming projects that are important.
“They are plugging right into them and they do whatever else is needed.”