Gedenkdiener Andreas Flaig: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C.

Andreas Flaig served as an Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servant (Gedenkdiener) at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“Military or civilian service?” Just like almost every other 18 year old male Austrian I asked myself this question during my final year in high school.

After having decided against military service, I started to do some research on possible institutions where I could spend my nine months of civilian service. By coincidence I came across the website of the Verein Gedenkdienst (Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service), which sends more than 20 young Austrians to Holocaust-related museums, research institutions or retirement homes all around the world. Browsing through the organization’s website, I realized that this program is what I was looking for – a program, where I could learn about history, where I could fight racism and anti-Semitism, and, where I could help to remember the victims of the Holocaust.

These activities especially appealed to me, as I wanted to take action against racism and anti-Semitism. After a successful application for the program in January 2011, the second part of my experience began. I had to prepare to leave my small home town of Bludenz in the Vorarlberg Alps for Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. “Verein Gedenkdienst” organized three retreats in the spring and summer of 2011, during which we were intensively prepared for our service on different levels. We, meaning 20 Holocaust Memorial Volunteers, including me, from all parts of Austria attended workshops on different topics – from historical briefs on Nazi eugenics to advice concerning medical appointments in a foreign country.

The memories from the third and final retreat are still clear in my mind: We spent four days on the grounds of the memorials of the Mauthausen concentration camp and its subcamp Ebensee. The third and final part of my experience with the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service is the service itself. Like all my colleagues, I had to appear at work for the first time on August 15, 2011 – in my case in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

After a transition period of two weeks, during which my predecessor, Lukas Lang, introduced me to the museum and to the tasks which I would perform during the coming year, I started to work under the supervision of Peter Black, the museum’s senior historian, in the Division of the Senior Historian, where I would answer historical requests, do research on historical topics, meet Holocaust survivors and tour high school groups.

After eight months of living and working in Washington, DC, I feel like I am in the position to say that the Gedenkdienst program is a great experience for me and that I am really thankful to everybody who is involved in making it work so well, from the USHMM to the Verein Gedenkdienst and the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC.