Two Young Men as Austria’s Business Card in China

Der Standard, January 11, 2018

German original:

Bernhard Gerstl and Markus Bencsits want to prevent Jewish refugees in China from being forgotten.

Names are displayed on the bronze wall in a virtually endless list. The memorial stretches for 23 meters along the inner wall of the Jewish Refugee Museum Shanghai. Sixty-five year-old Ben Yuan walks its length with the Austrians Bernhard Gerstl and Markus Bencsits. „We have stamped 13,732 names of German and Austrian Jews, as well as from Jews from all over Europe who fled to Shanghai. Due to its international concession area it was the only port in the world who accepted them on their escape from Nazi Germany without a visa. „Most of them arrived between 1938 and 1941. It took our museum’s director, Chen Jian, ten years to dedicate this memorial to them in 2015. It was difficult to find all their names.“

Young Austrians supported the research. Since 1992, instead of serving in the Austrian Army, they can apply to volunteer at Holocaust Memorial sites via the Austrian Foreign Service (a non-profit institution not to be confused with the Austrian Federal Ministry for Foreign and European Affairs); time that will count as their mandatory civil service. Since 2006, this program has been including Shanghai. Their mentor there is the world-renowned historian Pan Guang, who has been directing the Center for Jewish Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Since September 2018, 21 year-old Gerstl, who hails from Gießhübl near Vienna, is helping him. As a Memorial Servant he combs through German-language literature on the history of refugees. He is at the museum often. „Every time I stand in front of the bronze panels, I feel reverently. So many anonymous fates of refugees have been given a name.”

Up to 4,000 Austrians

The list is not complete. „Chinese researchers estimate the number of Jews who fled to the city between 1933 and 1941 and returned after 1945 at 23,000,“ says Ben. „Among them were some 3,000 to 4,000 from Austria.“

Their admission into Shanghai for them meant to be rescued from the death camps. In 2006, for this newspaper, I accompanied German Jew Inge Booker, who fled with her parents in 1939. We found her former accommodation. They lived in a cramped space in the overcrowded Hongkou neighborhood, tolerated by their Chinese neighbors, and just like them threatened by typhoid fever, dysentery and vermin. For decades, the People ’s Republic did not want anything to do with its heritage from pre-revolutionary times. But today, also thanks to research by Professor Pan, it is proud how Shanghai became the location of a great humanitarian feat.

Confidence Versus Barbarity

Until June, Gerstl, who studied Chinese during a student exchange, wants to help in Pan’s center and work on the history of exiled Jews. „Via the Memorial Service, I as an Austrian have the opportunity to give something back. This is a chance.” He is now the 14th Memorial Servant in Shanghai. Twenty year-old Martin Wallner from Baden/ Vienna was the first to arrive in 2006. „The more light from China can be shed onto the dark chapter of the Holocaust, the more optimistic we can be that such barbarity will not repeat itself,“ he told me back then.

Gerstl, too, subscribes to that. Before he made the long trip he talked to his predecessors. They all told him that the Memorial Service had changed their lives. Shanghai was a „cool experience“ for them.

Guided Tours and Translations

His friend Markus Bencsits, who hails from Salzburg, is visiting from neighboring Nanjing. The 18 year-old has been working as a Memorial Servant for the John-Rabe House since September. The memorial honors the German representative for Siemens, John Rabe, who protected thousands of Chinese from falling victim to the massacres following the Japanese attack on Nanjing in 1937. Some 30,000 visitors come and see the Rabe House each year.

Bencsits helps with guided tours, translates German historical documents. He learns a lot about conflict research. „My most important observation was how impressed Chinese visitors are with the courage displayed by Rabe as he opposed the Japanese out of humanitarian conviction.“ Despite the fact that an alliance existed between Germany and Japan at the time and Rabe was a committed, veneered Nazi. Bencsits is the eleventh Memorial Servant working at the Rabe House. „Only through a critical view of the past can we learn for the future.“

Refuge Café „Zum weißen Rössl“

We are discussing this very topic as the two friends and I sit in the reconstructed refugee café „Zum weissen Rössl.“ It is situated opposite the Jewish Refugee Museum, which has been enlarged several times and received 80,000 visitors last year. „Helping with the reappraisal of this history is a message that we, too, want to make a small contribution.“

The two Austrians and their parents pay for most of the costs for their stay themselves. Both do not understand why there has been a debate back home wether services like theirs are still necessary. „What we do here is not a luxury service afforded by our Republic. It is a business card that Austria leaves behind abroad.“ (Johnny Erling from Shanghai, January 11, 2019).