Behind the Headlines: Austrian Interns at Holocaust Sites Strive to Present a Different Picture

Dominik Zotti is a strapping, blond 20-year old from Vienna, the grandson of a German army veteran who guides visitors through the Holocaust exhibit at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Reinhard Hannesschlaeger, 24, from 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 Freedom Party and hope to show, less by argument than by example, that there is a different side to their native country.

Zotti and Hannesschlaeger are interns in the Gedenkdienst, or commemorative service, program, which sends young Austrian 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 and 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 1 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, who 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 to 2,500 were shipped to concentration camps and more than 500 were killed, including 260 executed for refusing military service.

In his work at the Shoah Foundation, Hannesschlaeger is expanding the computer data base by entering testimony by Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, political prisoners and other victims of Hitler.

Both young men say 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 didn’t do anything?”

His work at the Shoah Foundation has affected Hannesschlaeger so deeply that he plans to dedicate his career to Holocaust education when he returns home.

Both interns are reluctant to talk about the current political situation in their country, where the far-right Freedom Party, led by Jorg Haider, has entered the government and raised fears of a neo-Nazi revival.

“We really do not want to criticize our government while we are abroad,” says Zotti. “We hope that our Gedenkdienst service will speak for itself.”

Yet, the widespread denunciations of their country obviously bothers both of them.

“We try to explain to the survivors we meet that the Freedom Party is not a neo-Nazi party, that there won’t be a revival of National Socialism,” says Hannesschlaeger.

Austrian interns currently in the United States and Canada are also working at the Holocaust Museum in Houston, the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Peace Studies in Reno, the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center.

Observes Bill Surkis, executive director of the Montreal Center, “It’s extremely important that our interns go back to their own country to serve as ambassadors, carrying with them the opportunity to have lived in the heart of the survivor community.”

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