Austrian intern helps educate Montrealers about genocide
April 8th, 2015
In Austria, it is compulsory for citizens to give back to their country. For most, that means national military service. But others can choose alternative ways of contributing to society, such as driving ambulances or helping senior citizens.
For 20-year-old Benedikt Baratsits-Gruber, his choice was to become a part of the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, which works with Holocaust memorial institutions around the world. The organization deals with the causes of Nazism, more recent genocides in Darfur and Rwanda, and current situations that have the potential for genocide, such as the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Baratsits-Gruber is currently working as an intern with the Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention Foundation, and he will be a speaker at the organization’s 23rd annual Holocaust symposium, being held April 13-17 at Vanier College.
In a telephone interview, Baratsits-Gruber said his contributions to society began before his time for compulsory service arrived. At 17, he began a project in Africa to build a school, and helped to found a non-profit organization to educate those living in slums about reproductive health, prevention of HIV and family planning.
Baratsits-Gruber says his interest in educating about the Holocaust and genocide stems partly from what he heard from his grandmother, who lived in Austria during the Second World War.
“She told me a lot of stories and I did research on my own, and we learned in school about it. I was always very interested in history and understanding — if you understand history, it’s easier to understand the present. I also had a lot of interest in what happened in my country [during that time]. Being young, it was very hard for me to understand how society could not say anything about what was happening, even while tragic things were going on all around them. I tried to find out what factors contributed to the building up of hatred against a specific group.”
The presentation and workshop Moral Responsibility: Witnesses for the Future, developed with Baratsits-Gruber and Florian Windberger, deals with the Holocaust in the context of Austria, the mass killings in Rwanda and Darfur, and how communication of information and propaganda differed between the time of the Holocaust and today’s Internet age.
“We’re addressing CEGEPs, universities and high schools,” Baratsits-Gruber explained. “This has been presented by many Austrian Holocaust memorial interns over the years and has been updated with different perspectives.”
The Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention Foundation and Baratsits-Gruber’s Make A Change International Development are also producing a documentary on the issue of What is moral responsibility and how can civil courage be inspired?, to discuss and challenge the bigotry that influences today’s conflicts and tragedies.
“We maintain that in the 21st century, with the prevalence of racism, terrorism, anti-Semitism, and religious fundamentalism, the most crucial issue facing people today is the need for individuals to assume a sense of global moral responsibility and civil courage,” says a background document regarding the planned film. “Sadly, today, for many individuals affiliated with or influenced by groups espousing terror, the Nazis’ notion of life unworthy of life has come to include persons, religions, or ethnic groups who are perceived as alien to their own perverse organizations and thus not fit to live.”
The documentary will be filmed in Canada, Austria, Kenya, Rwanda and the Congo, and will feature interviews with survivors of genocides and homeless people in Nairobi.
“It will be all about how we can motivate society to think about moral responsibility,” Baratsits-Gruber says.
Also part of the documentary will be the House of Responsibility, a meeting place in Adolf Hitler’s Austrian birth house where young people develop educational projects, and transform the house into a monument and reminder of past atrocities and a countermeasure to those who wish to commit new ones.
“This was an idea of the founder of the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, and I’m part of this project as well,” Baratsits-Gruber says. “It’s a very contemporary approach to inspiring civil courage for young people, especially young Austrians. But we’re also trying to get interns from all over the world to be think tanks for more young people in the future.”
Baratsits-Gruber’s presentation Moral Responsibility: Witnesses for the Future will be part of a Vanier commemoration event, as part of the symposium, from 12 to 1:30 p.m. April 15 in the CEGEP’s boardroom. The event will also include a candle lighting and commemoration prayers. The Canadian debut of the Chelsea Clinton-produced film Of Many, following the friendship of a rabbi and imam, will take place at the Vanier auditorium from 1 to 2:30 p.m. April 14.n