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In a country struggling with its past, a young Austrian bears witness

by Jared Sichel

June 18, 2014 | 10:08 am

<em>George Stoellinger, standing at the head of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust memory pool, is in L.A. for a one-year internship through the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service.  Photo by Jared Sichel</em>

George Stoellinger, standing at the head of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust memory pool, is in L.A. for a one-year internship through the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service. Photo by Jared Sichel

As she described how amazed she sometimes feels at no longer being afraid of Germans or Austrians, Holocaust survivor Dana Schwartz apologetically patted George Stoellinger — her 22-year-old Austrian driver — on the shoulder.

Schwartz acknowledged how far Germany has come in publicly taking responsibility for nearly destroying European Jewry, and yet, she said, the child in her sometimes asks: “What are they doing being kind to Jews?”

Stoellinger took it all in stride. A Catholic from the small Austrian town of Mattighofen, near the German border, he was driving Schwartz from her Beverly Hills home to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), where she routinely shares her Holocaust story with visiting students and he takes part in a selective program that connects his countrymen with Holocaust memorials worldwide,

Stoellinger has been in Los Angeles for the past year as part of the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service (AHMS). Known as Gedenkdienst in German, AHMS was founded in 1992 by historian Andreas Maislinger, and serves as an alternative to Austria’s compulsory national military service for men. About 50 male and female high school graduates out of 200 applicants per year qualify for the one-year AHMS program, which allows the participants to volunteer at a Holocaust memorial or educational institution abroad. 

According to Stoellinger, who graduated from high school in 2012 and wants to be an automotive engineer, Gedenkdienst is a response to a major gap in Holocaust education in Austria, a country whose government only recently admitted that it was not Hitler’s “first victim,” but rather an accomplice of neighboring Germany. (Much of the government and citizenry welcomed and assisted Nazi troops when they invaded in March 1938 and immediately annexed the country.)

George Stoellinger and LAMOTH employee Katherine Semel in front of the museum’s children’s memorial.  Photo by Jared Sichel

“They want to just push it away as fast as possible,” Stoellinger said of modern Austrians’ reaction to discussion about the Holocaust. “No one is comfortable with the topic. You can feel it everywhere.”

Although he said many of his countrymen visit the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in northern Austria, Stoellinger said that few Austrians ever meet any survivors or hear firsthand accounts. Instead, they learn about the Holocaust in the context of the rest of Austrian and European history.

“We never get to talk to a Holocaust survivor,” Stoellinger said. “We know all the historical facts, but it doesn’t make that much sense for me because you can’t keep them in mind. If you talk to a Holocaust survivor you can relate to their story.”

Speaking with the Journal via Skype from near Salzburg, Austria, Tobias Aigner — the North America coordinator for AHMS — echoed Stoellinger’s frustrations with his country’s Holocaust education. Aigner was in the same program as Stoellinger in 2012, working for a year at the American Jewish Committee in New York City.

“We focus a lot on the Middle Ages and the Stone Age, but we hardly have any time to talk about the Second World War,” Aigner said. “People are like, ‘Don’t talk to me about this. It’s uncomfortable.’ ”

Because of limited funding from the country’s Ministry of the Interior, AHMS can only afford to send about 50 participants per year to dozens of Holocaust education institutions throughout the world. This year, Aigner said, there are 10 partnering institutions in the United States.

And because the stipend these young Austrians get for a year abroad is only about $11,000, interns like Stoellinger often need to rely on family for additional support, which means this program is too costly for many to attend.

“It’s very important to give young Austrians the opportunity to deal with their own history and to learn the history of their grandpas and grandmas,” Aigner said. “It’s very important to learn from the past.”

Samara Hutman, LAMOTH’s executive director, feels that just “the existence of the program itself is a powerful piece of the work” that Austrians must do to come to terms with their country’s past.

LAMOTH has been an AHMS partner since 2007, with Stoellinger being the sixth Austrian intern to work at the museum. The other local AHMS partner is the USC Shoah Foundation, where Manuel Müller recently began a one-year position as an intern.

The selection and training for applicants is rigorous, Aigner said. Stoellinger, for example, first applied as a junior in high school but was only eligible to begin the program after extensive preparation, which included reading books by authors such as Primo Levi and Simon Wiesenthal, watching films such as “The Pianist” and attending a ceremony at Auschwitz in 2012 that commemorated that concentration camp’s 1945 liberation by Soviet forces.

His many duties at America’s oldest Holocaust museum include translating German documents, handling and cataloguing artifacts, leading tour groups and photographing events.

Stoellinger with Holocaust survivor Eva Brettler in Studio City.

While exploring the museum’s archive room, he rifled through some Nazi documents that he was helping to translate from German to English. He began reading aloud one headline from “Observer of the Citizen,” a Nazi propaganda newspaper:

“A real Jew on the throne of the United States. Behind Roosevelt there’s Rosenbaum,” Stoellinger translated.

Stoellinger reading from the Nazi propaganda newspaper, "Observer of the Citizen."

On the same day, Hutman asked Stoellinger to give a tour to a group of four people not so dissimilar from himself — visiting interns from the German consulate also living in Los Angeles for the first time. Outside, at the museum’s Children’s Memorial — where 1.2 million holes are drilled into the stone walls to memorialize the children murdered by the Nazis — Stoellinger and the German interns compared and contrasted the attitudes toward Holocaust education in Germany and Austria.

Inside, Stoellinger walked them through “The World That Was,” an exhibit that details what life was like for Jews in Europe before the rise of Nazism. Standing next to the room’s memory pool — a massive tabletop touch screen that allows visitors to view tens of thousands of photographs and read biographies of pre-war Jewish life in Europe — Stoellinger answered questions and exhibited the remarkable depth of knowledge he has acquired during his year interning at the museum.

At one exhibit, an intern from the German consulate laughed at a Nazi propaganda poster that he considered particularly absurd: comparisons of inferior “Jewish” facial features to superior “Aryan” facial features. How did the Nazis not understand, the German intern asked rhetorically, that religion and nationality are not mutually exclusive? That one can be both a German and a Jew?

Stoellinger’s internship ends next month, and he will return to Europe to attend engineering school in Munich. And while the museum already has his successor lined up, Stoellinger said he’s thinking about visiting Los Angeles over Christmas break and possibly volunteering at the museum for a couple of weeks. 

Beyond that, he’s planning the next few years of his life, which will almost certainly place him in either Germany or Austria, where Hutman hopes he shares what he learned in Los Angeles.

“How could he not be changed?” she said. “How could he not now bring that consciousness and those relationships to bear in all his relationships he’ll have in his life going forward as an Austrian citizen?”

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