Personal Retribution, Detroit Jewish News


Project Description

Detroit Jewish News 28th April, 2000

Personal Retribution

Austrians learn about the Shoah working at the Holocaust Memorial Center

Shelli Liebman Dorfman Staff Writer

Growing up in upper Austria, German-speaking Martin Doblhammer, a Mennonite, and Daniel Leithinger, a Catholic, never imagined their experience with Holocaust history would take them further than a tour of the barracks of the Mauthausen concentration camp, located 30 kilometers from their homes.

Now deeply involved in a volunteer program that brings them to the Holocaust Memorial Center in West Bloomfield, they spend 40 hours a week delving through tapes and records in its library. “I have never seen such a library. It is very moving,” said Doblhammer.

Wanting to travel to the United States, the two chose the program of 14 months’ work as civil servants over an alternative option to spending eight months in the Austrian military as required by law.

The Austrians could have fulfilled their duty in other civil and social programs, but Leithinger, 19, and Doblhammer, 28, opted to work as volunteers here.

Their internships began Feb. 1.

“We have a responsibility to cooperate,” Leithinger said. “Maybe it will improve relations between Jews and Austrians who have never been in contact with Jews before.”

The men traveled to the U.S. through the Austrian Gedenkdienst (Commemorative service) program, founded in support of Holocaust-related issues; interns work worldwide.

Interns receive partial financial support from the Austrian government. Renting a Bloomfield Hills apartment was one obstacle the two Austrians faced. Without U.S. Social Security numbers or driver’s licenses, even getting a telephone took them weeks.

Doblhammer has an international master’s of tourism degree. Leithinger studied engineering in high school.

Bill Surkis, executive director of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center, stresses the importance of interns going “back to their own country to serve as ambassadors, carrying with them the opportunity to have lived in the heart of a survivor community.”

Now settled, the two spend their days documenting videotapes recorded by Holocaust survivors, soldiers who liberated concentration camps and other witnesses. Checking facts in history books, they also translate German articles into English.

Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig, executive director and founder of the Holocaust Memorial Center, said the Austrian will become docents, leading visitors past signs marking the 70,000 Austrian Jews killed in their country during the Holocaust. “Their participation at that level as non-Jews is a very unusual first,” he said. A German volunteer who was part of a similar program worked in the center library several years ago. “Many nights, he couldn’t sleep,” said Rabi Rosenzveig. “Imagine the young man thinking, ‘My people did this.”

Doblhammer and Leithinger are the first from Austria to work at the HMC. “Until four or five years ago, Austrian volunteers went to Israel,” the rabbi said. “Most Austrians were part of the Nazi era and, therefore, it is a positive sign that young Austrians are here.”

Rabbi Rosenzveig said that those who have met the two men say they “showed great sensitivity and understanding that they are grasping for understanding of this unprecedented tragedy.” Doblhammer said his grandparents were not Austrian, but Russian. Leithinger’s grandfather was part of what he calls the “normal army,” not the SS. Both said their families are supportive of their work at the HMC.

“My father read a lot of books about the Holocaust,” Leithinger said.

Gedenkdienst, which arranged for the two to come here, asked them not to comment on their country’s politics, with regard to Austrian Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider.

Haider, though denying being a neo-Nazi, has publicly praised the Nazi labor policy and stated that Hitler’s Waffen SS deserves honor and respect. Haider’s father was a member of Hitler’s Youth and the Nazi SA Storm Troops; his mother was a member of the Nazi Party League of German Girls.

In Rabbi Rosenzveig’s opinion, the Austrian volunteers have “a sense of a guilty feeling, with a leader who made statements not sympathetic of the Holocaust. They are very embarrassed by Haider and very concerned about whether their country has turned its back on its Nazi past.”

Rabbi Rosenzveig’s hope is that Doblhammer and Leithinger will take their knowledge they gain here back to their country, to influence young people. “Older generations of Austrians and Germans are hopeless,” the rabbi said.

The two volunteers say they wish Americans would view Austria as they do, with thoughts of university research, music, the Alps and skiing. Doblhammer called it “nice country with a terrible history.”

But he added, ” It is very important to inform future generations as well as people who didn’t experience the Holocaust themselves, so it will never happen again. In the early 1930s, you couldn’t believe it would ever happen. Information and education are the most important part – more important than the guilt.”

Project Details

  • Date 2. July 2016
  • Tags Pressearchiv 2000

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