Young Austrian´s military service is nod to Holocaust
by ROBERT LEITER
Anton Legerer Jr. does not believe in “communicating with weapons”. That is why the 28-year-old Austrian Christian, a conscientious objector in his homeland, is fulfilling his military service here at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He is participating in a program called Gedenkdienst , or Austrian Commemorative Service established soon after a law was passed in Austria late in 1991 permitting a 12-month alternative military service. The law followed on the heels of an official declaration admitting Austrian responsibility for the Holocaust. This marked a significant departure from the past, when Austrians contended that they were one of Hitler´s earliest victims.
Projekt Gedenkdienst , funded by the Austrian government, was the brainchild of Dr. Andreas Maislinger, a lecturer in political science at the University of Innsbruck, who worked for 15 years to make his idea a reality. Aside from Legerer, four other Austrian candidates are now working at Holocaust memorials throughout the world, including the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the museum at Auschwitz. Depending on where they are serving, candidates are expected to work on conservation and restoration; public relations; scholarly work in archives; improving international understanding; commemorating the Holocaust; and trying to work for reconciliation with survivors and their descendants. According to Legerer, who completes his service this October, his major duties at the Holocaust museum have so far included most of above. In addition, he is translating materials that will eventually be used in Austrian school curricula about Holocaust, and, as a professional journalist, he is writing pieces for the Viennese press about his experiences in Washington. “I do a hundred different things at the museum,” the native of Vienna said in a recent phone interview. “I am here for native Austrian Holocaust survivors to talk to or if they need help or want to tell their stories. I am here to help Austrians – nonJews or Jews – who need assistance. I also work with Sybil Milton (senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute), and I also help other researchers.” Legerer considers his work on educational matters to be of the utmost importance because little has been taught about the Holocaust in Austria. “It´s just part of the second World War curriculum”, he said, “and very few students get any idea of what it´s about.” He said his translations will mark “the first step in turning this around”. Legerer will also be speaking in the schools about his experiences in America, under the auspieces of the Austrian Ministry of Education. According to Legerer, Projekt Gedenkdienst , and other attempts by the Austrian government to reach out the Jewry, are part of a conscious effort to follow a new direction in the post- Kurt Waldheim period. In the mid-1980s, it was reported that Waldheim, former U.N. secretary-general and then leading candidate for the Austrian presidency, had been a staff officer in a German army unit stationed in the balkans during the World War II. He was charged with committing atrocities against civilians. Waldheim went on to be elected president by a near landslide, and by means of a political campaign that many characterized as forthrightly anti-Semitic in tone and content. Waldheim then ignored calls from government around the world for his resignation. The United States subsequently put the Austrian president on a “watch list”, denying him entry into the country. When Waldheim was elected president, Legerer, then in his early 20s, was vacationing in England. “I couldn´t believe the news”, he said. “I thought, ´Is my country crazy?´ but I believe he was elected because of the sense of foreign influence. It was not so much anti-Semitism, which was there, no doubt. But Austrians didn´t want other people telling them what to do, didn´t want them meddling in Austrian affairs. I grew up in that atmosphare. And the nation was proud of Waldheim for having been secretary-general of U.N. What bothered me most about Waldheim´s response to his wartime experience was that all he said was ´I did my duty´, not ´I did my duty and it was wrong´.” Legerer gives current Austrian President Thomas Klestil much of the credit for the new emphasis in international affairs. As to his awareness of Austrian anti-Semitism as he was growing up, Legerer said he attended Catholic schools for eight years and in all that time he never heard the word “Jew”. “I was never taken to Mauthausen”, the one concentration camp on Austrian soil, Legerer said. “It was not expected that you would go as a high school student. It depends on the teacher.” In Poland and Germany, students are routinely taken to cencentration camps as part of their Holocaust education. Legerer admitted that when he told family and friends that he would be satisfying his military service in this unorthodox manner, some of them had difficulty dealing with the information. “There were heavy discussions”, the young Austrian said. “Some people didn´t understand. A few told me that I should stay home and do my civil service in a hospital instead. One friend got very angry, and said it was because he hat to defend his father who had served in the Wehrmacht. But I hadn´t said anything about his father or challenged him in any way. I didn´t say it to upset him. Some of the people I know in Vienna made jokes at first. But all of them accept it and support me now”, Legerer said. He said he was proudest of the progress his parents have made in terms of their understanding of his work. “I first wrote about a colleague of mine who worked in Auschwitz”, he said. “He was the first (to be part of the Gedenkdienst project). My article was printed in a Catholic paper. My father, who is a very devout Catholic, was proud of me for this story and then got interested in the Holocaust.” “Two weeks before I left, my parents went to Mauthausen. I was very proud of them.” In Legerer´s opinion, Vienna needs a museum on the Holocaust similar to the one where he now works. “I talked to a group of Austrians about the U.S. museum”, he said. “They said, at a cost of 170 million, Austria could never afford it. But there is a nuclear power plant in my country that cost four times that much. They can afford it, and I will bring it up with my chancellor when I get home.” Legerer has been most hearted by the open-mindedness he has experienced among American Jews. “And this is good becaus my message is that we should communicate with one another”, he said, “that we must get to know each other better.”
- Date 25. August 2016
- Tags Pressearchiv 1994