Gedenkdiener Elia Steidl: Virginia Holocaust Museum

Elia Steidl served as an Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servant (Gedenkdiener) at the Virginia Holocaust Museum from 2012-2013.

My name is Elia Steidl and I spent one year at the Virginia Holocaust Museum as the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servant. Originally founded in 1998 by Andreas Maislinger, there are now three types of services offering the opportunity to work as a “Memorial Servant:” Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, Austrian Social Service and Austrian Peace Service. The regular nine month alternative national service is substituted by a 12-month service at partner organizations abroad. The young Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servants work for Holocaust museums, memorials and research facilities all over the world such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond.

As someone who never had to live through terror and life threatening situations, the Holocaust is unfathomable. It doesn’t matter how thoroughly you study the Holocaust, it will always be beyond comprehension. As a student you learn about the statistics: 6 million murdered people, 11 million murdered people and so forth. You accept them as historical facts that occurred a long time ago, but you don’t get the faintest idea of the pain that was endured.

It really struck me the first time when I went to Auschwitz with a group of my organization. Being at a place I have read so many depressing books about was extremely emotional. We walked through the gates and the barracks, we looked at the belongings of the victims such as clothes, glasses, bags and we even went into a room where you could see the victims’ hair that had been shaven. I realized all at once: this really happened. Going to places or memorial sites where the Shoa actually took place constitutes one way to get a slight sense of the dimension of atrocities and cruelty.

The other way is to listen to survivors and to learn about their experience during the Holocaust. I had the honor and incredible privilege to meet and even befriend some survivors in Richmond. Meeting actual people who went through those horrific times and listening to their experiences is exceptionally powerful and makes all the difference in one’s perception of that time period. Therefore, it was a heart’s desire of mine to make their experiences accessible to students. Via video conference the former Director of Education, Rena Berlin, and I connected students in the US and in Austria to Halina and Alan Zimm as well as to Sonja and Bud Brodeckie. The survivors shared their moving experiences in Poland, either in hiding close to the Warsaw Ghetto or in Auschwitz concentration camp, with the mesmerized students.

Integral components of my work included the technical support of the annual Teacher Education Institute, translating German and French documents, conducting research, working on educational projects and giving tours to Middle and High School students.

A great deal of my work was dedicated to the “A Million is One Research Project” that portrays local Holocaust survivors and refugees by means of documents, letters and pictures. Also illustrating how major events prior and during the Shoa, like the Nuremberg Race Laws or Night of Broken Glass, affected those individuals. In addition I initiated a Google Earth presentation on one of the presented survivors, Margot Dreyfuss Blank, that displays her story of survival and adds background information to the respective places she traveled.

Teaching countless students about the Holocaust and “Never Again” I have been able to influence their way of thinking. Educating young people and promoting tolerance is of vital importance for a peaceful future, students should feel compelled to make the world a better place.

Particularly for me as an Austrian the commemoration of the victims of the Shoa and the honoring of the great people, who stood against it, is absolutely essential. We have to be witnesses. After a year of memorial work at the Virginia Holocaust Museum I can look back with great joy and appreciation. The incredible experiences with wonderful and inspiring people affiliated with the Museum shaped me in a very special way and will be of great value for the rest of my life. I want to express my deepest gratitude for their support, encouragement and friendship.