In the service of history
By Rebekah Klein
When it came time for Andra Stigger to put in his obligatory service to his country, he had three choices. He could serve nine months in the Austrian military. He could spend 12 months performing civil service in the Austrian nonprofit sector. Or, he could devote 14 months to Gedenkdienst (“commemoration service”). He chose the last option.
Gedenkdienst was initiated in Austria in late 1991, following the issuance of a declaration by Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky admitting the role the country played as a perpetrator in the Holocaust. Today the program send representatives to Holocaust memorials in 14 countries in Europe, North America and Israel. For his location, the 23-year-old Stiggter chose the north Bohemian town of Terezin.
Terezin, or Theresienstadt, ist most widely known for being the site of a Jewish ghetto and transit camp during World War II. Located 60 kilometers (37 miles) outside of Prague, it is a town of approximately 3,000 residents who are dealing not only with a problematic past, but – with the departure of the Czech army from its Terezin base, and the subsequent loss of employment that move entails – an uncertain future.
Stigger began his servcie in July 1997. His time overlapped that of Paul Lerch, an Austrian now living in Brno, who trained Stigger in his Gedenkdienst responsibilities.
“You have to be an idealist to do this work”, says Stigger.
Participants in Gedenkdienst consider themselves “small ambassadors of Austria”, he adds – representatives of a new generation facing up to the unpleasant history of their country’s actions during the war.
“I was coming into political consciousness at the time of the (Kurt) Waldheim controversy”, says Lerch, referring to revelations of the Austria president’s questionable activities during World War II. “It was the first time there was a general discussion of Austira’s history. It made an impression on me.”
Information about Gedenkdienst is widespread in Austria, with a great deal of interest in particiption. Each year approximately 100 people apply to the program, out of which about 15 are chosen to serve as representatives. This year, 18 volunteers are serving, three of whom are in the Czech Republic.
To qualify for Gedenkdienst, applicants must be deeply committed to the ideals of the program. A degree in a related academic area is preferred, and knowledge of the language of the country in which service will be carried out is essential. In addition, volunteers must possess certain personal attributes such as fortitude, maturity and the ability to handle the sensitive, often stressful situations that arise in their work. Because they are usually university graduates, those who are chosen for service are often older than the usual military draft age of 18 or 19.
One of the attractions of Gedenkdienst ist the opportunity of participants of live and work abroad; but those who have no other interests in the program are soon filtered out by the long and arduous preperation process representatives must complete before being accepted.
“The organization can tell who is good for the job”, says Stigger, who has a double degree in international economy and political science from the University of Innsbruck, where he also took Czech-language courses.
Lerch, Stigger’s trainer, graduated with a degree in history from the University of Vienna, and was studying at the Faculty of Arts in Brno when he applied to be a candidate for Gedenkdienst.
“I wanted to stay here in Czech Republic”, he says. “I feel a link with this country, and I am intersted in the Holocaust history here.”
The application process is spread out over a year, during which candidates pepare for their Gedenkdienst before they are sent to their chosen sites. As part of their training they attend a seminar, where they become familiar with the environment, the facilities and the responsibilites involved in their work.
There are also brief trips to the camps. Stigger visited Mauthausen, Dachau and Auschwitz before choosing Terezin.
“Gedenkdienst work offers more opportunities here at Terezin. It is not so standardized”, says Stigger. “At Auschwitz, the work is conenctrated on correcting German translations, which is necessary because they (the Auschwitz memorial) publish a lot of material. I wanted to be involved in the educational programs here.
“Terezin has a positve aspect”, he continues. “It can be a place to hope, a place to think about our future. There is a chance here to bring people together, to make real educational programs.”
During his service, Lerch chose to live in Terezin itself. “There is no commute in the morning from Litomerice (about 10 minutes away)”, he says. “You become integrated into the city, its history, its situation today… The longer I (was) in Terezin, the more interested I (was) in how the city lives with its history. This city has been used for a lot of porpaganda. There are bad memories.”
A fortress town built by Emperor Joseph II in the 1780s and named for his mother, Maria Theresa, Terezin was, from its inception, designed for military purposes. It is surrounded by thick, impenetrable stone walls, and its straight streets are organized on a right-angel grid pattern, making the town relatively easy to be controlled when it was tranformed into a ghetto during the war.
The function of Terezin withing the ghetto/camp system of the Holocaust was unique. It exposed various levels of the Nazi program and was used as a showcase for propaganda purposes. In 1944, for example, to prepare for an inspection of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the town went through a process of beautification. Flowers were planted, streets renamed, “coffehouses” and “Shops” opened to demonstrate the normality of life in the town.
From the main square of Terezin, it is only a short walk to the site of the former Magdeburg Barracks, whose interior was gutted and reconstructed in 1996-97 to create the International Youth Meeting Center, which serves some Czech, but mostly German and Austrian school groups, usually of high-school age. The center is funded by the Czech Ministry of Culture, with contributions of books and computer equipment from various private Austrian and German organizations. One of the major purposes of the center is to provide a base that will enable young people to stay in Terezin for more than a day so that they may become better acquainted with the town.
The attic of the “Magdeburg”, as it is still referred to, houses a reconstructed version of the theater that existed there during the ghetto period. Group seminars for Gedenkdienst volunteers begin here. The plankboard benches are arranged in a circle for lectures, for question-and-answer sessions, meeting with camp survivors, and the screening of documentary films.
On the first floor, an exhibit dealing with art, theater, music and literature created at Terezin is in the works, organized by Dr. Arno Parik, the main historian of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
“I think they are doing something useful here”, Parik says of the Gedenkdienst representatives.
Even before the opening of the International Youth Meeting Center, much of the work of Gedenkdienst representatives was related to education. Volunteers correct translations from Czech to German for pamphlets on the history of Terezin. They organize group seminars and discussion programs, and are involved in arranging exhibits in the Muzeum ghetta (Ghetto Museum). Last November the museum hosted an exhibition about Anne Frank entitled “A History for Today.” Much of the initiative for this exhibiiton was taken by Lerch, who has connections with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
The educational work carried out at Terezin by the Austrian Gedenkdienst representatives is shared with a similar German organization called Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (The Action Reconciliation and Services for Peace).
Friedemann Bringt, a 25-year-old from Taubenheim, a German town on the border with Czech Republic, is nearly finished with this civil service and will soon be returning to Germany. Kristine Vogelbein, from Heiligenstadt, is working at Terezin as her regular job.
“The most common question people ask me”, says the 22-year-old Vogelbein, “is “Why do you do this if you don’t have to?” I tell them that Andra and Friedemann don’t have to do this either. They could be doing much easier service at home.
“I had already worked for the Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste for a while, before I learned about the service at Terezin”, says Vogelbein. “I wanted to work in a museum connected with the Holocaust. I was not satisfied with my previous theoretical work. I wanted to do practical work.”
Recently a seminar group of 40 high-school students came to Terezin from Austria’s Tyrol region. Signing up for the seminar had been voluntary, but every one in the class chose to do it.
“They are a very good group”, Stigger says. “They are really interested.” The class had spent the previous day in Prague visting the Jewish Quarter and the Jewish Museum, learning about the history of Jewry in Bohemia and Moravia from the legendary first settlements up through the Holocaust. The students were now split, part of the group with Stigger in the attic of the Magdebrug, and a part with Bringt in the Ghetto Museum.
In the attic, the students sat in a circle on the benches, as Stigger delivered an introductory lecture on the Holocaust. Several handouts were passed around – an outline of the Nuremberg Laws, a map of the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia nad Moravia, copies of caricatures from Nazi propaganda – followed by the screening of a documentary film depicting the ghetto period.
The group then went downstairs to an exhibit that was completed last December – the reconstruction of a ghetto barracks room, completed down to the last detail: A chipped enamel bowl for washing items of clothing; a piece of string made into clothesline, shoes placed neatly at right angels to bunk posts; a saucepan; a notebook marked in the middle with a pen; suitcases chalk marked with tranpsort designations. Most of the items are authentic. One felt as if the inhabitants would be back any moment.
“Why are there numbers on the suitcases?” one young man asks.
“Did these shoe really belong to someone who was here?” asks another.
As they walk outside to begin the tour of the town, eyes are wider, imagining Terezin as it was during the ghetto period.
“This is very interesting for us”, says a young woman, “We didn’t know about these things before.”
“Aren’t you tought about the Holocaust in school?” the group is asked.
“Yes, but not like this”, one student replies. “We learn only a small part.”
After the tour, the group reconvenes in the attic theater to take part in a session with two Terezin survivors. Bringt introduces Eva Stichova and Lisa Mikova to the students and then facilitates the subsequent question-and-answer period. The two women, who were in their teens during the war, become more animated as their memories feed off of one another. Sometimes there is a slight pause to remember a German word. Many students are taking copious notes.
“Did you get anything to eat or drinking on the transport?” one young man asks.
“What did you hear about the transports before you were on one?” asks another.
A shy young woman raises her hand. “Are you angry at the Germans and Austrians? Can you forgive?”
At the close of the session, a tired but enthusiastic group thank the two women for their participation. As the students file out, Stiggler is asked what is next on the agenda.
“Now”, he says, “We go for coffee. Then I have to prepare for tomorrow.”