|The Prague Post October 25 – 31, 2000|
Klaus, Markus and Erik – Young Austrians serving Czech Jews
By Alan Levy
Austrians still like to boast that „we invented public relations – by making Hitler into German and Beethoven into an Austrian.“ The Nazi dictator, who died in Berlin in 1945, was actually born in Braunau, Austria, in 1889; the composer was born in Bonn in 1770 and died in Vienna in 1827. Coupled with recent scandals involving past President Kurt Waldheim and provincial Governor Jörg Haider, the jest reverberates with echoes of Holocaust forgetting that is no longer the case. Three young Austrians living in Prague are giving the lie to the myth of an uncaring motherland: Klaus Huhold, 22; Markus Klampfer, 23; and Erik Gerstel, 27.
They are three of nearly 100 potential conscripts who, instead of serving eight months soldiering in the Austrian army, volunteered and competed to do 14 months of civil service abroad – mostly among victims and landmarks of World War II. They work at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and other Holocaust memorials, including Yad Vashem in Israel; the one-time concentration camps in Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland and Terezín (Theresienstadt), northern Bohemia; the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (she was arrested by an Austrian Gestapo agent), and among the aging and ailing Jews of Prague.
As part of an alternative program for conscientious objectors to military service inaugurated in 1991 under the name of Gedenkdienst (Remembrance Service), each is paid by the Austrian Ministry of Interior 10,000 Austrian schillings a month, minus 3,000 ATS for social insurances and taxes, for a net of 18,000 Kc ($450): a Western pittance that enables them to live comfortably here. The first three Gedenkdienst volunteers at Terezín were young architects who rendered the town’s Ghetto Museum and Magdeburg Barracks both visitor-friendly and immensely moving.
For Erik, Klaus, Markus and six other conscientious objectors (four Czechs and two Germans serving 18-month stints), the workday starts toward 8:30 a.m. in Prague 6. Their base is the Charles H. Jordan Domov seniorù, a Jewish old-age home named after an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee official who, according to a plaque on the wall „was murdered in Prague on 16 August 1967″ (allegedly by Arab students smarting from Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War two months earlier).
Excursions to Letná
Each volunteer is assigned a client for the morning. Erik’s mission might be to visit a homebound pensioner and clean her apartment, or go shopping with her, or accompany a resident of the Jordan home for a hearing-aid replacement. Markus, who is the newest of the recruits (he started in June), might be taking his twice-weekly Czech classes at Charles University.
On a crisp Thursday morning, Klaus is readying a wheelchair on the third floor of the Jordan home. He will take Eliška Øíhová, 77 on an hour-long outing to Letná park.
Mrs. Øíhová – who spent World War II in England and enjoyed a distinguished career with Radio Prague, the English-language service of Czech Broadcasting – has had Parkinson’s disease since 1990, and moved into the Jordan a little more than a year ago. „I will spend the rest of my life here“, she acknowledges philosophically.
If it is possible for a woman in a wheelchair to be sprightly, that person is Mrs. Øíhová. Since the Jordan is a home, not a hospital, its inhabitants don’t stay in pyjamas, but get dressed every morning. While her three roommates („I’m the youngest“) then stretch out atop their beds, Øíhová is up and ready to go. „Bed is the most dangerous place,“ she jokes in earnest. „More people die there than anywhere else.“
The caretakers have already learned that loneliness is the severest, but most treatable, ailment of old age. Øíhová’s excursions with Klaus are the high point of her week: „My grandson is a doctor and he says he’ll take me out, but he gets too busy. So Klaus is the best.“ This is partly because he is the most gentle and careful navigator of the nine caretakers.
Klaus says he stopped appreciating the romantic cobblestones of Prague when he started wheeling patients over them. Among his complaints: „Uneven pavements. High curbs. Sometimes holes in the streets. Short green lights that even [Olympic sprinter] Carl Lewis couldn’t beat. A shortage of metro entrances for handicapped. These are all the things a young person doesn’t even think about.“
Meals on wheels
Though the Jordan’s kitchen is kosher, its clients are rarely orthodox Jews. „I’m not, but I have to eat the food,“ says Mrs. Øíhová, looking forward with no great relish to today’s lunch of carrot soup, chicken goulash and pasta. But others are salivating for the same 25 Kè ($0.63) menu.
Home delivery of food is the centrepiece of the caretakers’ work. In sturdy white-red-and-blue shopping bags and six-level aluminium pots, they take hot lunches to the homebound. Today, Klaus will deliver six meals to Prague 2, 3 and 10; Erik, Four to Prague 6 and 9; Markus, five to Prague 6, 1 and 7. On Fridays they fill all six layers of the pot by delivering double for the weekend.
Markus’ first two calls are in Prague 6. With a duplicated house key, he lets himself into a building in Dejvice and rides a lift up two floors to an apartment where Bedøich Kubec, 91, is doing slightly better than his wife Vìra, 87. While her husband sets the table, Mrs. Kubcová switches off her hearing aid so he won’t hear the whisper to a visitor that Markus is „the best of all those young men. If I had it to do over, I’d marry Markus.“
Markus blushes, but he is also looking around and asking: Do the Kubecs need any furniture moved? Does their home need cleaning? If it’s a simple chore, he’ll do it, but a housecleaning would have to be arranged by him with the Jewish community worker who schedules the caretakers.
After all, atop a four-story walk-up in Vokovice, a former Czech ambassador to Switzerland, Pavel Winkler, 90, is awaiting lunch. And if Markus doesn’t make it by 1:45 p.m. to the Jewish community’s dining room on Maiselova street downtown, he’ll miss out on lunch himself. After lunch, other care taking duties await him and the others – maybe even a return visit to the Kubecs.
Klaus and Markus are nominally Catholic. Erik Gerstel’s family has declared its faith as „atheist,“ but he once had a Jewish grandfather in Prague – where Erik happens to have been born. When he was 8, his family took a ski holiday in Slovenia (then part of communist Yugoslavia), crossed the Karawanken mountains into Austria and settled in Feldkirch, near the Swiss border.
Picked for alternative service in Prague because he’s a native speaker of Czech, Erik arrived to discover that he’d be delivering meals to the Jordan home’s oldest client – a 99-year-old Jewish widow in Prague 6-Podbaba: his grandmother.
- Datum 1. Juli 2016
- Tags Pressearchiv 2000