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Gedenkdienst am Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum (Vilnius, Litauen) und am United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, DC)

Der Verein GEDENKDIENST sendet Freiwillige an einige Stellen (fast) seit Anbeginn seiner Endesendetätigkeit. GEDENKDIENST bat Peter Black und Rachel Kostanian über ihre langjährige Zusammenarbeit mit den Gedenkdienstleistenden zu berichten.



Gedenkdienst at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The year 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Austrian Verein GEDENKDIENST (Memorial Service Association), and the 19t anniversary of the agreement between GEDENKDIENST and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), which opened its doors to the public in April 1993. Each year, a young Austrian, who as an alternative to military service volunteers at a site honoring victims of the Holocaust, arrives in Washington, D.C. to serve as a volunteer at the Museum. The Gedenkdienst volunteer serves in the USHMM’s Division of the Senior Historian (DSH). He contacts refugees and survivors of Nazi persecution who live in the Washington, D.C. area. He listens to these now elderly individuals tell their stories, helps them complete forms to apply for restitution or compensation, informs them of events at the USHMM, and advises on conditions in Austria today. The Gedenkdienst volunteer is also the point person for Austrian officials visiting Washington, ensuring opportunities for an informative tour of the Museum’s exhibi ts. Finally, he responds to requests for information about the Holocaust from the public.


Since the arrival of Anton Legerer in 1993, just months after the Museum opened, eighteen Gedenkdienst volunteers have served here: eight from Vienna, three each from Tyrol and Upper Austria, and one each from Carinthia, Styria, Vorarlberg,and Salzburg. Until 1998, the Gedenkdienst volunteer served for eighteen months. From 1998 until 2006, the tour of dutywas fourteen months, from mid-July until mid-September of the following year. In 2006, the Austrian government reduced the tour of duty to twelve months. Today he reports for duty on August 15 and departs on August 31 of the following year. During the early years of Gedenkdienst service at the USHMM, the volunteers were in their mid-twenties, having deferred their military service to begin – and even complete – university training. The Austrian government ceased to grant these deferments in 2005; now the average volunteer arrives in Washington a teenager. Since only males perform compulsory military service in Austria and since the Austrian Ministry of the Interior provides a subsidy only for volunteers who offer their service as an alternative to required military service, all volunteers at the Museum to date have been males.

Initially, the main funct ion of the volunteers was to minister to the needs of survivors and émigrés, whom the triumph of National Socialism in Austria in March 1938 had forced to leave their homes. Perhaps the most profound legacy of the experience is the enduring relationship established between the young men and the survivors. Since 2002, the DSH has tightly integrated the Gedenkdienst volunteer into its service function as a historical reference office, both internally for the USHMM and externally for the general public. Whereas in 2002 he might handle as few as ten DSH activities (out of 800) during his tour of duty, today’s Gedenkdienstleistender is now responsible for 60 to 80 act ivit ies during that same year, just under ten percent of the work of the DSH. The volunteer has become indispensable to the section. Several Gedenkdienst volunteers have left lasting contributions to the Museum: Since 2006, they have trained and funct ioned as tour guides in the Museum’s exhibitions for participants in the USHMM’s outreach programs: law enforcement officers, U.S. federal civil servants, and military personnel. In addi-tion, they routinely address classes from the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute on the history of the Gedenkdienst and the state of Holocaust education and awareness in Austria. To list all individual contributions of the Gedenkdienst volunteers to the USHMM would be impossible in the space provided. Some highlights should suffice: Thomas Huber (1998/1999) contributed to the publication by the USHMM’s academic center ofa bibliography of Jewish Resistance. Christoph Koettl produced historical briefs on U.S. Army units that liberatedthe concentration camps for the Museum’s Encyclopedia online in 2004. In 2008/2009, Johannes Breit conducted intensive research on German policy towards the Arab Middle East to provide documentation for the text of the Museum’s Encyclopedia online article on the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni. In 2010, Philipp Selim researched and provided translations from the Russian of interrogations of former Trawniki-trained guards who served at the killing centers of Operation Reinhard (Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka). Finally Lukas Lang (2010/2011) began and Andreas Flaig – the current volunteer – completed a biographical brief on Office of Strategic Services (OSS) station chief and later CIA director Allen Dulles. Such examples reflect how the volunteers have become integral to the DSH’s activities.


Gedenkdienst service sometimes becomes personal in its impact, both on the volunteer himself and on the people whom he touches. Christian Url (2005/2006) facilitated the reunion of two Austrian Jewish survivors: they had attended school together in Vienna prior to 1939; but neither knew that the other had survived. Harald Edinger (2006/2007) made it possible for the still grieving daughter of a man murdered at the Croat concentration camp complex Jasenovac to contact the Croat authorities. As a result, the victim’s name, previously unknown to the Croats, is now visible and can be properly honored at the Jasenovac State Memorial Museum. Gedenkdienst volunteers have also experienced momentous events in the history of the Museum and the United States. Harald Schindler was in his last week of service when terrorists, f lying a hijacked plane, crashed into the Pentagon, barely a mile across the Potomac River from the site of the Museum, on September 11, 2001. Johannes Breit walked outside the Museum less than 100 meters away from the spot at the moment in which beloved USHMM security guard Stephen Johns was mortally wounded by a Holocaust denier attempting – and failing – to enter the Museum building with a firearm and an intent to kill.The Gedenkdienst volunteers whom I have supervised since 1997 have described their experience at the Museum as profoundly and dramatically shaping their careers and their outlook on life.
The experience in Washington has reflected their commitment, as Austrian citizens, to help Austria confront and master its Nazi past in the hope that discrimination, persecution and, ultimately, murder of people because of their ethnic origin, religion, or political views, will never occur again. Such commitment makes them – despite their youth –outstanding ambassadors of Austria. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Verein GEDENKDIENST, we also anticipate celebrating the 20th anniversary of Gedenkdienst service at the Museum in 2013!



Peter Black

Senior Historian, Division of the Senior Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)




Gedenkdienst at the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum

First of all, I want to thank the parents and families of our volunteers, of Markus Ebenhof, Johannes Thaler,Wolf Freinbichler, Florian Förster, Sepp Brudermann, Alex Gruber, Philipp Herzog, Felix Prechtl, Johannes Langer, Stefan Pierer, Michael Kieber, Andreas Nöbauer, Adalbert Wagner, Lukas Dünser, Sebastian Pammer and our current volunteer Nadine Tauchner. I want to thank your school teachers and everyone else who contributed to bringing up such modest, educated, cultured, absolutely dedicated and tolerant young people. You substituted not only one, but often two employees in our common work on such a painful and difficult subject as the Holocaust.


It was not only your painstaking every day work but also your wish to contribute new ideas. It was from among you that not only Johannes Thaler and Markus, but also the former Gedenkdiener from the Anne Frank House (Amsterdam) Norbert Hinterleitner, raised the idea of bringing the Anne Frank exhibition from Amsterdam to Lithuania. We did not know how to portray the enormity of the Holocaust to the Lithuanian society of the mid-1990s since there was no willingness to confront this issue: local schools visited us quite rarely and gentiles even less so. The Anne Frank exhibition was important common step in overcoming this bar r ier. The exhibition travelled to ten of Lithuania’s main cities and had an audience of over 10,000 visitors. It bore the message: “Never again!”

Many events were created and organized along with the Anne Frank exhibition: the most central of them was the play Anne Frank – starring Henrietta Seebohm, a wonderful young actress from London as wells as Lithuanian and Jewish students. This maybe was the first such cooperation in Lithuania since 1941. I remember how happy Norbert and Flo were, when Anne Frank was performed in the former Vilna Ghetto theatre; the audience was moved to tears. If not for the work of Johannes Thaler, Wolf and Flo this project would not have been implemented so successfully. It seems that everyone was captivated by a feeling of commonness, tenderness and good will. Flo and Ruta Puisyte brought the exhibition to schools all over Lithuania. Seminars and
heated discussions followed. That contributed to research and broader interest in this history. Our Museum became one of the places where people from all over the world would come to find their roots, their family stories, to listen to the echoes of the lost world, to stand at the edges of the pits…


I would like to mention some other projects – besides the everyday work – proposed and implemented by our Gedenkdienst volunteers: Our first volunteer Markus proposed and delivered a lecture on the Kristallnacht in the public library on Traku street in 1996, made a trip to Yad Vashem and researched helpful material. Markus, you assisted us in the Vilnius Ghetto posters exhibition, creating pamphlets and newsletters. Wolf, you made the first flyers which, with a few alterations, are up to now available to every visitor. Sepp, you and Ruta did a project about the perception of historical events in Lithuania among elderly survivors. “This year changed my life absolutely!”, you said at the 2006 reunion and the same sentiment was expressed by the majority of all of you.

The idea of establishing an exhibition about Jewish life in Lithuania was brought up by Norbert. Ruta was not only the main curator, but also the heart and driving force behind it and you guys were always there to help. You helped in assembling the exhibition, did technical work and travelled with Ruta to every place of presentation. A wonderful catalogue and two films accompanying the exhibition were made by Sepp and Niko Mayer.

Felix translated the book Spiritual Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto into German and Philipp worked on Jewish history. Besides that, he brought up and implemented the idea of making T-shirts and postcards based on objects from our archives. We will never forget your music and the tasty dishes you shared with us, Philipp.

And our educational project – implemented by Johannes Langer who, being just nineteen, prepared a lecture on Tolerance, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. He visited thirteen schools where those words were probably until then unknown and sparked questions and discussions. Stefan, also nineteen, followed this practice and held lectures at 31 schools.

Adalbert and Lukas both invested a lot of time, energy and dedication in helping with a long time project: the renovation of the Holocaust exhibition. Their input was invaluable. You, Adalbert and Lukas, have brought up new ideas, found new resources, wrote and acquired what missing material and continued the lectures in Lithuanian schools. Not enough, you have started the idea of working on the Lithuanian Holocaust Atlas ( Sebastian helped with work concerning the catalogue of the new exhibition and was deeply involved in this project. Together with Milda Jakulytė-Vasil, he travelled all over Lithuania visiting mass killing sites, conducting interviews and taking pictures for the website and the publication of the Holocaust Atlas.

All your contributions – and I mentioned only a small part of your great work – are essential to the Museum’s staff and affected the process of restoring the historical truth. A new European mentality was established at the Museum – an idea of tolerance, and of sharing common values of humanity. Austrian, Lithuanian, Jewish and Russian cultures and mentalities blended here. You shared new knowledge and values with the Lithuanian youth – an invaluable contribution since it undoubtedly promoted the process of democratization in Lithuanian society.



Rachel Kostanian

Head of Holocaust Department and former Deputy Director of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum (Lithuania)