Some Austrian youth choosing Holocaust work over military
Vilnius, Luthuania — A young Austrian volunteer at this country’s Jewish museum has confronted his own family’s past while educating Luthuanians about the Holocaust.
Markus Ebenhoch’s grandfather on his father’s side and his mother’s uncle, both over 80, served in Lithuania as Nazi Germany’s soldiers during World War II.
His uncle “recently told me that he saw executions of Jews when he was in Lithuania”, he says.
“Grandfather doesn’t want to talk about his wartime experience.”
Ebenchoch was not aware of this part of his family history when he came to Lithuania in 1996 as a volunteer for the Memory Service project.
The government-funded program is the brainchild of Andreas Maislinger, a lecturer of political science at the University of Innsbruck.
About 10 percent of the 34,000 men drafted annually opt for alternative civil service even though, at 14 months, it is longer than the nine-month army service.
The Austrian government provides monthly stipends to cover basic living expenses.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Leo Baeck Institute in New York recently welcomed their third Austiran volunteer. The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center recently got its first.
Participating institutions also include Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau museum.
“I think it’s more important to help insitutions that are less rich with knowledge and funds”, says Ebenhoch, who was the first porgram participant to work as an intern at the Jewish State Museum in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
Ebenhoch, who recently completed his internship, plans to pursue a degree in comparative religion at Vienna University.
Before working at a Holocaust institution, Austrians take months of courses in Holocaust and Jewish history. Ebenhoch also had months of intensive Russian language training.
The project reflects a new spirit in Austria, a willingness among younger Austrians to confront their country’s past and admit the nation’s share of guilt in the crimes of the Third Reich.
This is no an easy task, Ebenhoch, 20, said, citing his own family’s example. The older generation did not like “the fact that I’m working for Jews” instead of going to the army, he says.
Ebenhoch was not surprised that a party of his family holds anti-Semitic views. He says anti-Semitism has a longstanding tradtition in his family’s western Austrian province of Vorarlberg.
It was only in 1988, after decades of Austira’s dubious claim to being the “First victim” of Nazi aggression. – Hitler took over the country in 1938 – that many Austrians admitted their country’s share of guilt for the Nazi crimes.