Austria revisits Holocaust past

September 12, 1997

TWO AUSTRIAN graduates are working with Holocaust survivors in Britain as part of their compulsory national service.

In place of serving eight months in the armed forces at 18, Martin Pletersek and Rado Lipus, have been sent to spend 14 months working at the Holocaust studies centre at London's Spiro Institute.

The project, called Gedenkdienst, which literally means "commemorative service", is subsidised by the Austrian government, welcomed by the country's president Thomas Klestil and has the support of Simon Wiesenthal, the war crimes investigator.

Working alongside survivors, the graduates will spend the year educating young people in further education colleges and schools about the Holocaust and Austria's role during the second world war, as well as talking about how present-day Austria is telling its own younger generation about their forefathers' wartime activities.

They will also be researching, conserving and restoring the Spiro Institute's archival records and translating its footage from German; organising reciprocal events with the Austrian Cultural Institute; and planning a "Camp for Anti-racist Attitudes" to be attended by young European adults from different ethnic and religious communities next spring.

Designed to promote understanding, Gedenkdienst is also an explicit condemnation of the country's National Socialist past. Mr Pletersek says this has drawn opposition from some Austrians.

"They ask us why we are going abroad and saying that the country of our grandparents is guilty of participating in and causing the Holocaust. They say 'it's easy for you, you weren't alive at the time'."

Many of those who were, however, went on to inculcate the ethos of Austria as the first victim of Nazi Germany - a myth which the Gedenkdienst programme aims to deconstruct by openly discussing the significant number of Austrians who held high-ranking Nazi positions and were actively involved in implementing the Final Solution.

"I would like to think that the attitude of people our age is changing," says Mr Pletersek. "Gedenkdienst is an expression of a shift away from self-victimisation towards more open discussion - which is reflected in politics and the media too."

The 50th anniversary of the Anschluss, or annexation by Germany, in 1988 first stimulated the graduates' interest in the Holocaust. For Mr Lipus, a class project interviewing veterans and members of the resistance was the catalyst. For Mr Pletersek, it was the personal testimony of a Jewish survivor introduced to the class by their history teacher. "It makes all the difference when it's not just a teacher, but someone talking to you from their own experience, which is why what the Spiro is doing is marvellous," says Mr Pletersek.

Last year its Holocaust studies programme visited 67 schools, reaching over 5,000 students.

The graduates will be in regular contact with the Austrian Jewish community in Great Britain, a significant proportion of whom are clustered around the Spiro's headquarters in northwest London.

"Most of the Austrian emigrants fled here in the 1930s and 1940s," says Emil Brix, director of the Austrian Cultural Institute. "So it's obvious that resentment against what Austria did should be strongest in this country."

Strong as those feelings may be, neither intern has yet experienced hostility, nor any outwardly cynical dismissal of Gedenkdienst as a token political gesture.

"We really want to show how things have developed in my country," says Dr Brix, who regards the project as an important step in the evolution of Austria's national identity.

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