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Austria bestows key award on Borehamwood resident for contribution to dialogue

Former London Jewish Cultural Centre administrator Janette Hechel supported young Austrians who came to the UK to help promote Shoah remembrance

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The Austrian Ambassador, Michael Zimmerman, visited the Borehamwood home of former London Jewish Cultural Centre administrator Janette Hechel to present her with the Decoration of Merit in Gold, recognising her contribution to Austrian-Jewish dialogue and remembrance.

The award of the honour — rarely bestowed on UK citizens — would normally have been held at the embassy. But Ms Hechel’s terminal cancer precluded that. Instead, the ceremony was held in her garden in front of a few socially distanced family and friends.

LJCC was involved in the Gedenkdienst, the Austrian Memorial Service. Through the programme, young Austrians have been sent with government financial support to more than 20 countries to contribute to the efforts of organisations focusing on Holocaust remembrance.

Ms Hechel’s work with Gedenkdieners dates back to the Spiro Institute, which became the LJCC.

Appreciating the commitment of the young Austrians in choosing to work in Holocaust education alongside survivors — some of them from Austria — she endeavoured to make them feel welcome and helped them to integrate.

Her unwavering support had a profound impact on many of the Gedenkdieners, prompting them to initiate the nomination for the award, alongside the Austrian Embassy.

Mr Zimmerman said: “For more than 20 years, Janette Hechel contributed outstanding work to various Jewish dialogue and remembrance programmes in London.

“Her professional and compassionate support and the sharing of institutional knowledge made her an essential component of the Austrian Memorial Service programme. This work has now been recognised by the Austrian government and I extend my heartfelt congratulations to Janette.”

London-based Philipp Engel — a Gedenkdiener at LJCC in 2008/9 — was among those at the ceremony.

He said that having completed the programme as an 18-year-old, “Janette has been and always will be an important role model in my life. I couldn’t be happier that she is being honoured by the Republic of Austria in this way.”

A beaming Ms Hechel said on the day: “Things like this just don’t happen to me.”

She later told the JC that as the daughter of a survivor, she was initially suspicious of the young Austrian visitors.

“When I would look at them, I would wonder where their families had been during the war. I took my questions to the boys. I needed to know the answers and I needed to understand how they lived with whatever the answers were.

“The boys had the honesty, courage and maturity to face my questions — and those of the survivors they worked with.

“After a few years, I stopped needing to ask the questions and was able to fully respect and embrace the journey that each was on.”

They had chosen to face up to Austria’s past and contribute towards “reconciliation and healing. I felt I had to support them as best I could.

“The relationships we built lasted far beyond their year of service. I have since travelled to many places to spend time with them. I’ve visited Austria several times — something I never thought I’d do — and celebrated one of their weddings at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna.”

The Austrian government’s recognition of her work had been “overwhelming and fills me with such pride and gratitude”.

Ms Hechel now found it difficult to get about, “particularly in these coronavirus times. So I particularly appreciate that the Austrian ambassador took the time to come to my house to confer the award.”

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