Last September, Johannes B. and Daniel K. joined the Museum staff for 10-month stints as Gedenkdiener (Holocaust memorial service volunteers from Austria). Johannes, from the town of Spittal an der Drau, works in the Collections & Exhibitions department, focused on projects related to the Museum’s oral history collection and upcoming exhibitions. Daniel, a native of Salzburg, is in the Marketing department working on digital and print design projects. These two young interns – both are 20 years old – have been wonderful additions to the Museum, both for the work they do and for the cultural and personal perspectives they contribute.
Austria is one of the last countries in Europe with mandatory military service for men. Most choose to either join the military or serve as volunteers at a local retirement home or other agency. There is, however, a third option called Auslandsdienst (service abroad). Auslandsdienst fellows can choose between international partners to work in different fields, such as the Holocaust Memorial Service, the Social Service, or Peace Service. The Auslandsdienst programs are highly selective; those accepted represent Austria around the world.
The Holocaust Memorial Service (Gendenkdienst) places applicants in jobs at Holocaust institutions around the world. Recently, the Gendenkdienst program has expanded to include applicants who aren’t choosing it in lieu of military service, a change that allows women and older people the possibility of participating as well.
Attaining a placement in New York City is among the most sought-after posts, and those aspiring to work in New York apply three years in advance. It’s a rigorous process that includes education on the history of the Holocaust and the role Austria played in it, hearing from Holocaust survivors and their descendants, meeting politicians and artists supportive of the service programs, and volunteering as much time as possible with the local Auslandsdienst service program office. This long process helps to ensure that only the most accomplished Gendenkdiener applicants are accepted, and that they are matched with the appropriate locations and institutions for their personalities and interests.
In 2018, Johannes and Daniel submitted their applications to become Holocaust memorial volunteers in New York City. They dedicated hours of their time to attend and organize Gendenkdienst events, all while going to school full-time. And it was worth it: they were informed that they were being placed in New York City, working at two different institutions, for the 2021 – 2022 program year.
When 2020 arrived and the world started locking down due to COVID-19, Gedenkdiener working in New York City were sent back home to Austria. But this was almost 18 months before Daniel and Johannes were scheduled to arrive in New York City, so they weren’t overly concerned.
Months passed. 2020 became 2021. Vaccines arrived. But still, the United States travel ban was in place, and working in New York City began to seem unlikely.
Daniel and Johannes were devastated. Not only was their dream placement probably not going to happen, but they now had to attempt to find another placement elsewhere. They followed the news daily, hoping to hear that the United States travel ban was being lifted.
At the same time, The American Jewish Committee, where Johannes was scheduled to work, was no longer an option as their New York staff now work remotely.
Of this uncertain period, Daniel says, “I really basically gave up: I didn’t think I would be able to travel to the United States. But before accepting that I wouldn’t work in New York City, I wrote a letter to the Austrian ambassador in Washington DC. I wrote, saying, ‘We applied three years ago for this placement. We have invested so much of our time and our dreams into this. Isn’t there something you can do to allow us to come to the US?’ And I was surprised to receive a letter back from him! He said he would call his colleague in Vienna – the United States ambassador to Austria – to see if they could work something out.”
Last summer, Daniel received the email he had hoped for from the Austrian ambassador in Washington D.C. stating that the Gedenkdiener would be granted a national interest exception to enter and work in the United States due to their importance in relationship- building between the United States and Austria. This meant that Daniel’s last-ditch effort to come to the United States in the end allowed all Gedenkdiener with US placements to start their programs onsite in September 2021.
The American Jewish Committee’s loss was the Museum’s gain: Johannes found a placement here in the Collections and Exhibitions department.
Johannes, when asked if New York City has lived up to his expectations, declares, “It is extraordinary to be here – some people say this is the capital of the world.” Daniel concurs, adding, “This is one of the only cities in the world where so many cultures live together in one small place. The multicultural aspect is a large part of why I wanted to be placed in New York City.”
The United States travel ban was not lifted until late November. Had Daniel not written his letter – had he not used his voice – the 2021 – 2022 Gedenkdiener with placements in the United States would have, at best, started months later than they were supposed to.
We are fortunate to have these two fantastic volunteers at the Museum through the end of June, and appreciate the long journey it took for them to arrive here.