I have just had the opportunity of visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois. The museum is wonderfully curated with a logical progression of very informative exhibits. And seeing six busloads of Chicago-area students touring the museum was very heartwarming.
Yet perhaps the most compelling experience I had at the museum was coming across two young men supervising the audio guide desk and speaking German to each other. What could this mean I wondered?
The two young men explained that they were interns from two separate organizations. The young man from Frankfurt was an intern through the auspices of the (German) Action Reconciliation Service for Peace while the young man from Vienna was an intern through the auspices of the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service and his internship was in place of his mandatory military service in Austria. To say I was shocked is quite an understatement.
Let’s pause for a moment to review history. As some of you know, I am working on a Holocaust film project THE RED LETTER, which partly takes place in Vienna and surrounding areas after World War II. Thus I have been reviewing Austria’s eager participation in the Nazis’ “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”
To sum up Austrian Nazi history in a very simplified list:
- Germany “annexed” Austria in March 1938 (called the Anschluss and defined by Wikipedia as “ the Nazi propaganda term for the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938”). The Austrians welcomed with open arms the Nazi troops that marched into the country and then the Austrians participated in the Nazis’ systematic robbing and killing of Austria’s Jewish citizens.
- Germany started World War II on September 1, 1939, by an unprovoked attack on Poland.
- After the Germans surrendered in May 1945, Austria was occupied by the Allies until 1955.
In my personal study of the Holocaust I have found that Germans were more willing than Austrians to admit their participation in the Final Solution. So for me to learn that the Austrian government allows service in Holocaust-related organizations instead of mandatory military service is truly incredible.
The Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service website states:
For more than fifteen years the Republic of Austria has had a unique program of international reconciliation called the Austrian Memorial Service (Gedenkdienst). Under this program young Austrians can serve — in lieu of military service — in organizations focused on Holocaust remembrance.
The Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service was launched in 1991 by Andreas Maislinger, who served as a volunteer at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland and adopted the idea from the German Initiative for Reconciliation (Aktion Suehnezeichen).
The Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (Aktion Suehnezeichen) website states:
For over 50 years ARSP has been committed to working toward reconciliation and peace, as well as fighting racism, discrimination and social exclusion.
Today, these aims are continued and realized through the long-term international peace service program. This is known as peace service because, in co-operation with our partners, volunteers develop their understanding of history and other cultures and societies, whilst experiencing and accepting different patterns of thought and behavior.
Nowadays, due to generational change, ARSP volunteers do not act from a feeling of personal guilt, but rather from the conviction that they want to make a positive contribution toward a more peaceful, just and tolerant world. Every year around 180 volunteers, mostly aged between nineteen and twenty five are active for ARSP in thirteen different countries on a variety of educational, historical, political and social projects.
In conclusion, my chance meeting of these two German-speaking young men was as encouraging for an optimistic future of humanity as was the six busloads of Chicago-area students visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
© 2016 Miller Mosaic LLC
Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller) has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School and is the author of fiction and nonfiction books/ebooks. Phyllis is available by skype for book group discussions and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Her Kindle fiction ebooks may be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszimblermiller — and her Kindle nonfiction ebooks may also be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszmiller