Hannes Richter

The Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service

Hannes Richter
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The 15th Street/Eisenhower Plaza entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum is currently the workplace of Mr. Andreas Flaig, a 2011-2012 Gedenkdiener.

In his speech during the general meeting of the Austrian Friends of Yad Vashem in the plenary hall of the Austrian National Council in 2012, Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger emphasized once more Austria’s responsibility in dealing with its past: “To ensure that the Holocaust and the lessons it teaches us, and above all the memory of Jewish victims, remain rooted in our conscience, we must share the historic knowledge of this, but we also need to create and preserve the right set of values based on it. In this context I consider it to be particularly important to establish a connection between the teachings of the Holocaust and our society today.”

Reflecting this commitment, there are curently three programs that promote Holocaust education and remembrance in Austria. In 1992, the Association for Holocaust Memorial Service program was recognized by the Austrian government as an alternative to both mandatory military service and domestic civilian service.

Participants of the program have the possibility to apply for one of the nineteen partner organizations in Europe, the U.S., Israel and South America including the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, The United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Anita Müller Cohen Elternheim in Tel Aviv. The program’s main goal is to counter the art of forgetting, or even actively ignoring, the history of the Holocaust era. Thereby, the program wishes to contribute to remembering and honoring the victims and families of the victims of the Holocaust.

In addition to sending young Austrians abroad, the program also organizes excursions to Holocaust memorials all over Europe and hosts conferences on different historical topics. As part of its mission, the Holocaust Memorial Service is also actively involved in Holocaust education at high school level in Austria, mainly by organizing workshops for student projects.

In addition, the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service also acts as an advocate for minorities and other groups victimized by discrimination. The program is funded by the Austrian Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for all civilian service programs as alternatives to military service. Over the years, two more institutions have committed themselves to enhance awareness of the Holocaust by sending students to memorial sites around the world.

In 1994, the association Never Forget was established providing students with the opportunity to serve at one of nineteen memorial sites in Germany and Poland. The association also takes an active part in youth work against forgetting and is involved in the organization of the Hermann Langbein Symposium – ideology and reality of National Socialism, an annual nationwide in-service teacher training seminar. Four years later, the politically independent Austrian Service Abroad program was founded.

It holds the possibility for the volunteers to establish their own partner organization, which resulted in an extensive network of partner organizations on four continents and, all in all, 37 countries. In this issue, Andreas Flaig, Holocaust Memorial servant at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., shares his experiences and thoughts on the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service.

Andreas Flaig: My Motivation

“Military or civilian service?” Just like almost every other 18 year old male Austrian I asked myself this question during my final year in high school.

After having decided against military service, I started to do some research on possible institutions where I could spend my nine months of civilian service. By coincidence I came across the website of the “Verein Gedenkdienst” (Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service), which sends more than 20 young Austrians to Holocaust-related museums, research institutions or retirement homes all around the world. Browsing through the organization’s website, I realized that this program is what I was looking for – a program, where I could learn about history, where I could fight racism and anti-Semitism, and, where I could help to remember the victims of the Holocaust.

These activities especially appealed to me, as I wanted to take action against racism and anti-Semitism. After a successful application for the program in January 2011, the second part of my experience began. I had to prepare to leave my small home town of Bludenz in the Vorarlberg Alps for Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. “Verein Gedenkdienst” organized three retreats in the spring and summer of 2011, during which we were intensively prepared for our service on different levels. We, meaning 20 Holocaust Memorial Volunteers, including me, from all parts of Austria attended workshops on different topics – from historical briefs on Nazi eugenics to advice concerning medical appointments in a foreign country.

The memories from the third and final retreat are still clear in my mind: We spent four days on the grounds of the memorials of the Mauthausen concentration camp and its subcamp Ebensee. The third and final part of my experience with the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service is the service itself. Like all my colleagues, I had to appear at work for the first time on August 15, 2011 – in my case in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

After a transition period of two weeks, during which my predecessor, Lukas Lang, introduced me to the museum and to the tasks which I would perform during the coming year, I started to work under the supervision of Peter Black, the museum’s senior historian, in the Division of the Senior Historian, where I would answer historical requests, do research on historical topics, meet Holocaust survivors and tour high school groups.

After eight months of living and working in Washington, D.C., I feel like I am in the position to say that the Gedenkdienst program is a great experience for me and that I am really thankful to everybody who is involved in making it work so well, from the USHMM to the Verein Gedenkdienst and the Austrian Embassy in Washington,

Andreas Flaig currently serves as an Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servant (Gedenkdiener) at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.