Young Austrians Show different Side of Country
LOS ANGELES (JTA) – Dominik Zotti is a strapping, blond 20-year-old from Vienna, grandson of a Wehrmacht veteran, who guides visitors through the Holocaust exhibit at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Reinhard Hannesschlaeger, 24, from Linz in northern Austria, works in the computer section of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
Both are acutely aware of the international criticism leveled at the Austrian government’s extreme right coalition party and hope to show, less by argument than by example, that there is a far different side to their native country.
Zotti and Hannesschlaeger are interns in the Gedenkdienst (commemorative service) program, which sends young volunteers, mostly in their 20s, to Holocaust-related institutions in the United States, Canada and Europe for 14-month long assignments.
Gedenkdienst, founded eight years ago by Austrian political scientist Andreas Maislinger, emphasizes that Austria bears a share of the responsibility for Nazi crimes and the Holocaust.
The Austrian government underwrites the program and counts participation as an alternative to the mandatory eight-month military service for young men.
Pointing to the 18-month preparatory course ande the 14 months of service, Hannesschlaeger and Zotti reject the idea that the Gedenkdienst offers an easy way out of doing army training.
While abroad, interns get a monthly stipend of $600 for all living and personal expenses, which doesn’t go very far in Los Angeles. They supplement the stipend by parental support or their own savings, while the host institutions get their services for free.
Gedenkdienst gets some 300 to 500 applications a year, but the majority drop out during the preparatory phase, and only one in 10 get to go abroad.
“It takes a lot of personal and psychological preparation to stay the course,” says Zotti, who is Catholic.
“It’s not the easy way out.”
Appraising his motivation, he says, “Somehow, I always had a strong interest in the Holocaust.” He says he talked about it with his grandfather, wha was in the German army, and learned about it during high school from classes and several visits to the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Zotti, who as a tour guide meets the general public more than Hannesschlaeger, says he enjoys his job and, despite his Germanic appearance and accent, has had no hostile reactions. He has been invited to give talks at high schools and has savored the “unique experience” of a family Shabbat dinner.
Hannesschlaeger’s mother is a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as is Hannesschlaeger and his four siblings, and he grew up with stories of the Nazi persecutions of his faith.
Of 20,000 to 25,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, he says, 6,000 to 7,000 were imprisoned, 2,000-2,500 were shipped to concentration camps, and more than 500 were killed, including 260 executed for refusing military service.
Both young men say that their most profound experiences here have come through their encounters with Jewish survivors.
“In school we learned about the Holocaust through facts and numbers,” says Hannesschlaeger. “But there is a totally different feeling after you talk to the survivors and realize how much they have suffered.”
He has also discovered that “there are places near my home which I cherished as a child, and now I learn that the death marches at the end of the war passed along the same spots,” he says. “I don’t feel guilty, but it makes me sad. Why did the people just look on and not do anything?”