Projekt Gedenkdienst: Austrians serve their country, help the world remember the Holocaust
By DANIEL PINKERTONNearly fifty years after the concentration camps closed for good, some Austrians would still prefer to forget the Holocaust. But thanks to the efforts of Dr. Andreas Maislinger, a political scientist from Innsbruck, a small group of Austrians is working at Holocaust museums and memorials around the world, helping to ensure that both the historical record and personal memories of the Holocaust are preserved for future generations. Over fifteen years ago. Dr. Maislinger had a simple but powerful idea. Young Austrians could already choose a civilian alternative to compulsory national military service (e.g., working in a hospital). Why not amend the statutes to allow them to serve at major Holocaust museums outside of Austria? They could offer both technical and human relations services and work toward a reconciliation with Holocaust survivors and their descendants. This concept seemed particularly appropriate to Maislinger, considering the Austrian origin of some Nazi leaders, and the turn-of-the-century Austrian milieu that supplied the young Hitler with some of his most heinous anti-Semitic propaganda. “Dr. Maislinger had been working at Auschwitz in the 1970s when he first brought this idea to the government,” explained Anton Legerer, Jr., who is serving at the new United Slates Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. through October 1994. “Beginning in 1977, he campaigned for nearly fifteen years in favor of this amendment.” Maislinger wrote repeated letters to the Chancellor, the Minister of the Interior, and the Foreign Minister, published magazine articles, and appeared on talk shows. But neither the President nor Parliament wanted to acknowledge Austrian responsibility for the Holocaust. It was too important to maintain Austria’s status as the “first victim” of Nazi aggression. This changed, ironically, with the Waldheim presidency. The strong opposition first to Waldheim’s candidacy in 1986, and later to the Waldheim presidency, marked the beginning of a public confrontation with the past and a re-evaluation of National Socialism in Austria and the country’s role in the war and the Holocaust. In 1991. Maislinger’s amendment was passed, and he began to form Projekt Gedenkdienst (in English, “remembrance service”) as an independent though largely government-funded foundation. Today he is its director. Americans might find the foundation’s status to be similar to that of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The level of funding is not guaranteed, and Projekt Gedenkdienst must negotiate with the government every year. Those who serve in it receive modest stipends for transportation, food, and lodging expenses. For example, Legerer will receive approximately $8.500 to cover a year’s expenses in Washington, D.C. “We are not just a public relations project.” says Legerer. “We send young Austrian men and women to Holocaust memorials to provide crucial assistance. In Poland and Czechoslovakia, for example, there is a great shortage of money. Neither country could afford to hire a native German speaker to work with documents. This project is concrete action that demonstrates that we are facing up to our past – not just the past of emperors and composers, but of the Holocaust. Many of the victims and the perpetrators were Austrian.” Indeed, the Austrian government is publicly acknowledging the need to remember, and remember accurately. In June of 1993, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky became the first Austrian chancellor to visit Israel. After visiting the Yad Vashem memorial, he spoke at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, saying “many [Austrians] joined the Nazi machinery, and some rose through its ranks to be among the most brutal, hideous perpetrators. We acknowledge … the responsibility of each and every one of us to remember and to seek justice.”
|Anton Legerer. Jr. at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. (photo courtesy Anton Legerer)|
Projekt Gedenkdienst currently has “soldiers” stationed at five Holocaust memorials: Daniel Werner is serving at Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland; Siegfried Hybner is serving at Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic; Tim Cupal is serving at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam; David Röthler and Brigitte Huemer are serving at the Yad Vashem in Tel Aviv; and Anton Legerer, Jr., is serving in Washington. Their duties can vary according to their education and interests. as well as the needs of the memorial they serve. Tasks might include work within the institution. such as conservation and restoration, scientific work in archives, or translation of German-language documents; or work with the public, working to improve international understanding and dialogue by helping survivors and their descendants commemorate the Holocaust.
“I am willing, able, and very interested in listening to [survivors’] stories,” says Anton Legerer, “if they wish to share them.”
One of Legerer’s most important duties in Washington, D.C. is making contact with survivors (especially Austrian survivors). “I am willing, able, and very interested in listening to their stories.” he says, “if they wish to share them.” He also communicates with other Gedenkdienst colleagues to serve survivors and their descendants. “Daniel Werner at the Museum Oswecim [Auschwitz] found a document on one of the survivors with whom I am in contact. I sent him the survivor’s resume for the Auschwitz archives, and he sent me a copy of the document for the survivor.” Legerer also assists in the Research Institute at the museum, especially in Austrian (German language) matters, such as translations and transcriptions. He is organizing a “Theresienstadt” art exhibition. “Though Theresienstadt was in Czechoslovakia, it has a very close connection to Austria,” he explains. “Both of the Theresienstadt fortresses were built by the Habsburgs in the 18th century, and all three ghetto commanders came from Lower Austria.” Cities planned for the exhibition include Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and New Orleans. Legerer also prepares educational materials on the Holocaust for Austrian schools in cooperation with the Austrian Ministry for Education and Dr. Sybil Milton. In addition, he greets official and non-official visitors on request; the former have included Nikolas Michalek, Minister of Justice. Johanna Dohnal, Minister for Women’s Affairs, and Dr. Rudolf Scholten. Minister for Education and Culture. Chancellor Vranitzky may also visit the Holocaust Museum during a scheduled visit to Washington in April. “And yes, there are some public relations duties,” he adds. “I keep in contact with Austrian and Swiss papers. including Wiener Zeitung, Die Presse, Die Gemeinde, and Jüdische Rundschau Basel.” Projekt Gedenkdienst is a unique international network for Holocaust memorials that provides assistance to important archives and museums, and it is expanding. New plans call for volunteers to go to Riga in Latvia, as well as Lithuania and the Ukraine, to help Jewish communities archive and preserve documents. Projekt Gedenkdienst will be most active in preserving the record of German occupation and the Holocaust, but will also be helping Jewish communities in these countries preserve a record of their entire history. “Of course, plans for expansion really depend on negotiations with the government, which can still be delicate,” adds Legerer “But there is a new spirit in Austria, a new willingness on the part of many of us to face up to the past. As an example, I have managed to get my own parents, who were just kids during the war, interested in the Holocaust. They will visit the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum in May. They’ve even seen Schindler’s List and discussed the issues it raised. They would never have talked about this five or ten years ago.”
- Date 25. August 2016
- Tags Pressearchiv 1994