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Ambassadors of Understanding

Austrian youth join program to intern with Holocaust-related institutions

by Tom Tugend

February 24, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Dominik Zotti is a strapping, blond 20-year-old from Vienna, grandson of a Wehrmacht veteran, who guides visitors through the Holocaust exhibit at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Reinhard Hannesschlaeger, 24, from Linz in northern Austria, works in the computer section of Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Both are acutely aware of the international criticism leveled at the Austrian government's extreme right coalition party and hope to show, less by argument than by example, that there is a far different side to their native country.

Dominik and Reinhard are interns in the Gedenkdienst (commemorative service) program, which sends young volunteers, mostly in their 20s, to Holocaust-related institutions in the United States, Canada and Europe for 14-month long assignments.

Gedenkdienst, founded eight years ago by Austrian political scientist Andreas Maislinger, emphasizes as a central theme that Austria bears a share of the responsibility for Nazi crimes and the Holocaust.

The Austrian government underwrites the program and counts participation as an alternative to the mandatory eight-month military service for young men.

Reinhard and Dominik reject the idea that the Gedenkdienst offers an easy way out of doing army training.

"First, we have to go through an 18-month, part-time preparatory course, for which we have to pay," explains Reinhard. "Then, if we qualify, we have to commit ourselves to 14-months of service."

While abroad, interns get a monthly stipend of $600 for all living and personal expenses, which doesn't go very far in Los Angeles. They supplement the stipend by parental support or their own savings, while the host institutions get their services for free.

Gedenkdienst gets some 300-500 applications a year, but the majority drop out during the preparatory phase, and only one in 10 get to go abroad.

"It takes a lot of personal and psychological preparation to stay the course," says Dominik, who is Catholic. "It's not the easy way out."

Appraising his motivation, he says that "Somehow, I always had a strong interest in the Holocaust. I talked about it with my grandfather, who was in the German army. In high school, I learned about what happened to the Jews from a wonderful teacher, and we visited the Mauthausen concentration camp several times."

Dominik, who as a tour guide meets the general public more than Reinhard, says he enjoys his job and, considering his Germanic appearance and accent, has had no hostile reactions. He has been invited to give talks at high schools and has savored the "unique experience" of a family Shabbat dinner.

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