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For Austrian Man, Service Program is a Chance to Rectify Pain of Shoah

With anti-Semitism at its highest level in years, support for the Jewish community sometimes comes from the most unlikely of places.

An Austrian program that provides an alternative to the country’s obligatory military service is placing young volunteers at Holocaust institutions around the world, including at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center.

Opened in 1979, the center recently made news by building Canada’s first world-class Holocaust Museum, a $4.5 million entity that highlights the stories and artifacts of local Holocaust survivors.

Montreal’s community of Holocaust survivors is the world’s largest after those in Israel and New York.

The volunteer program, which has benefited Holocaust institutions around the world, is the brainchild of Andreas Maislinger. A former volunteer at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, Maislinger designed his “Holocaust Memory Service” — or “Gedenkdienst,” as it’s known in German — along the lines of a similar program in Germany.

Through Maislinger’s program, young Austrian men and women have the option of serving at Holocaust institutions for 14 months instead of doing nine months of service in the army.

The Gedenkdieners are sent all over the world. The first to come to Montreal was Judith Pfeiffer in 1995, and several have come to Montreal each year since.

Currently, Rainer Steindler, 28, and Christian Ruepp, 26, are at the Montreal center, with Steindler’s stint due to end next month.

Steindler grew up in Salzburg, which is not far from the Mauthausen concentration camp.

“History was always part of my education and I met many Holocaust survivors over the years,” he told JTA. “Due to my interest, I decided to apply to the service.”

Growing up, Steindler visited several major concentration camps — including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau — attended seminars, read literature and watched movies dealing with the Holocaust.

Though Steindler’s background is not solely in history — he has a master’s degree in Roman linguistics and worked for a multimedia outfit in Salzburg — it became clear that the Gedenkdienst program would be a logical alternative to military service for him.

“It seemed to be the most useful way I could serve my country,” he said. “For me, it is essential to remember the Holocaust, and how can you learn that if not from survivors and other Jews?

Jack Dym, president of the Montreal center and museum, appreciates the value of the program to institutions like his — as well as to the Gedenkdieners themselves.

“It’s inspiring to see how these young Austrians evolve in the process of their volunteerism,” Dym said. “They come knowing the cold hard facts of Holocaust history and return home with a profound personal connection to Holocaust survivors and the Jewish community.”

Steindler chose Montreal because he wanted to work at the city’s Holocaust center. He arrived in March 2003.

His tasks have included digitizing the center’s 6,000 artifacts for storage in their database, adjusting picture files and filling in for the museum coordinator when necessary. He also handles translation of archival material.

“Can you imagine what it means to translate the last letter written by German Jewish parents to their son, telling him to keep their memory alive?” he asked.

His experience in Montreal has been quite positive.

“The reception by the Jewish community was good, but nothing compared to the family feeling that grew among the staff members. Our team spirit has been incredible,” he said. “All of the survivors I have encountered have been open-hearted, friendly, interested and relate their very personal experiences to me.”

Some have taken him out for dinner, and he often helps them translate documents from insurance companies and various authorities.

“Survivors thank me for my work and say that I am a sign that things have changed and will continue to go in the right direction,” he said. “I am very respectful toward Holocaust survivors. I can only imagine what they went through.”

But, he says, he doesn’t do it because he feels guilty.

“If I accept the positive heritage of my grandparents’s generation, I also have to accept and deal with the negative side,” he said.

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