Hands-on lesson in history, The Gazette


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The Gazette (Montreal) 27th May, 2000

Hands-on lesson in history

Young Austrians replace military service with work at Holocaust centre

By Ingrid Phaneuf

“Are you German or a Jew?” is a question visitors to Montreal’s Holocaust Memorial Centre frequently ask volunteer Michael. Pollan.

“When I tell them I’m Austrian and a Jew, they get confused. They have a hard time categorising me,” said the 22-year-old, born in Vienna, of a Jewish-American mother and an Austrian father.

Pollan is one of two young Austrians chosen to work at the centre. They opted for 14 months of gedenkdienst (commemorative service) abroad, instead of the obligatory eight months of military service for males, an alternative approved and funded by the Austrian government since 1991.

The program, which aims to recognise and take responsibility for the crimes committed by Austria during the Nazi regime, gives young Austrians the opportunity to work in Holocaust-related institutions and museums across Europe and North America.

About 60 gedenkdieners are currenttly in service world-wide. The program is popular, says Lothar Bodingbauer, 29, the other Austrian selected to serve at the memorial centre. Bodingbauer¹s paternal grandfather was a member of the Nazi Party.

“I never met my grandfather, because he shot himself in 1969,” Bodingbauer said. “But I read his diaries and I saw how easy it was turn people against each other. “

“I read how the party started with goals, and then turned its members against people who didn’t have the same goals. I saw how easy it was to dehumanise people.”

Bodingbauer said he was educated about the Holocaust as a child.

“We learned about the Holocaust in school, but I wanted to come here to learn how people were affected by it. Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard many personal stories.”

“Survivors are wary at first, but they eventually open up. And some of them love the opportunity to speak German.”

“We talk about small things, like how to make good coffee. And many of them are eager to know what life is like in Austria today.”

One of Bodingbauer’s many tasks is to enter data in the centre’s Web site.

“I’ve learned about what’s called the ‘language of destruction’ and how I have to be careful not to use certain words and symbols,” he said.

“For example, yellow can’t be used on the Web site, because it’s the colour that was used for the Star of David sewn to people’s clothing to identify them as Jews during the Holocaust.

“And I’ve also learned not to use the word ‘jawohl’ because it brings back bad memories for survivors. Jews were forced to people’s clothing to identify them as Jews during the Holocaust.

“I was up at the cafeteria one day, where a lot of seniors go for lunch, and the cook asked me if I wanted apple sauce on my blintzes. I said ‘jawohl’ without thinking and realised too late that I shouldn’t have.

“Some people say the Holocaust happened a long time ago and it’s time for the survivors to forgive and forget. But I don’t think those people are in a position to comment.”

Michael Pollan says coming to Montreal has given him the opportunity to learn more about being Jewish.

“My mother’s family immigrated to Los Angeles before the First World War, so she wasn’t affected by the Holocaust,” Pollan said. “When she moved to Vienna with my father, she had a hard time connecting with the Jewish community because it was so small and everything in it related to the Holocaust. The result was I wasn¹t really brought up in the community.

“Coming here was a way for me to find out about my Jewish identity. And it’s only since I’ve come here that I’ve learned how to articulate how I feel about it.

“People sometimes criticise me for not going to synagogue, but I’ve learned to explain there are all kinds of Jews with all kinds of religious and cultural practices.”

Pollan’s work for the memorial centre mainly consists of interviewing survivors and putting together education programs on the Holocaust for school children.

“I’ve learned how important it is to dispel stereotypes ­ how Jews aren’t a race, and how they weren’t persecuted because they had money,” he said. Pollan plans to return to Austria when he finishes his service term in December. Bodingbauer will return in January.

Their work is much appreciated at the centre, which has been talking gedenkdieners for four years.

“It’s an opportunity for us to have two capable young people to assist with many tasks, and it gives us the opportunity to introduce them to the customs, traditions and values of the Jewish community,” said executive director Bill Surkis.

Surkis would not comment on the centre’s decision to reject Joerg Haider’s request to visit the centre when he was in Montreal in February. At that time, Haider was the leader of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, part of the country’s coalition government. He was since stepped down.

“People were understandably anxious about the Haider visit,” Bodingbauer said. “They still bear the scars of the Holocaust. Even the children of survivors have told me they dream about being chased by dogs. “

Project Details

  • Date 2. July 2016
  • Tags Pressearchiv 2000

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