Two Austrians living and working in Britain as part of a Holocaust memorial scheme have said they want to help change their country’s image among the Jewish community.
Since 1992 the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service (AHMS) has sent hundreds of young people to work in Jewish institutions around the world, as an alternative to the country’s compulsory military service.
Felix Bernfeld, one of the two young men posted to London as part of this year’s project, told the JC the establishment of the programme had coincided with a change in attitude towards Austria’s role in the Shoah.
Mr Bernfeld, 21, said: “Austria saw itself for a long time as being ‘the first victim of Nazi Germany’. This was part of the Austrian mentality. ‘We were the first victims, we did not do bad things, we were mainly a victim.’ But this has changed now, to an extent.
“Education in schools changed. It was made clear to us that a lot of bad things happened in Austria and we can’t portray ourselves as victims.”
Working full-time at Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors’ Centre in Hendon, North West London, Mr Bernfeld said the highlight of his employment had been helping the centre’s elderly visitors get to grips with social media, allowing them to stay in touch with old friends and family members.
The Vienna native said part of his motivation to enrol on the scheme was to educate himself by living and working with Jewish people, especially survivors.
He said: “You can read a lot about the Holocaust but it’s very different if you get in touch with survivors.
“I would suggest everyone tries it — to go to events where Holocaust survivors speak. To listen to them, to ask them questions — it’s very important.”
One of the centre’s regular visitors, 92-year-old Sigi Ziffer, who spent four months in the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, told the JC he was “very pleased” to see young Austrians “willing to put right what happened in the past”.
He said: “I should have been dead six times. By some miracle I survived and I am the type of person to look on the bright side. It is good Felix is here. He plays bridge with me.”
Splitting his working week between JW3 and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), both in London, 20-year-old Gregor Ilsinger said the aims of AHMS to “face the atrocities of National Socialism and to learn lessons” were what drew him to the project.
Mr Ilsinger, from Klagenfurt, near the Italian border, added that of equal importance to his experience has been learning about Jewish culture through his work at JW3, and his participation in High Holy Days celebrations.
He said: “Beside all the things I have learned — jokes, food, hospitality — there was always this solidarity and social cohesion which was just lovely and really moving to watch.”