Caroline Schenk: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC

Caroline Schenk served as an Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servant (Gedenkdiener) at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from 2018-2019.

After I had finished working on a research project at the University of Vienna focusing on post-war photography in Austria, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the period of the Second World War. This informed my decision to pursue the possibilities of working in museums and memorial sites abroad.

My university supervisor told me about the Gedenkdienst organization. After further online research I was impressed by the program and applied for a memorial service year abroad at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC.

Gedenkdienst is an organization that recruits and trains volunteers who are interested in serving abroad at Holocaust remembrance sites. So far, several hundred young Austrians have participated in this program, mostly young men, who decided to join the program instead of going to the military as part of their conscription. In 2016, the law was changed, and now provides the opportunity for women to participate in the Gedenkdienst program as well. The program aims to preserve the remembrance of the Holocaust, to create awareness of the Holocaust and aspires to strengthen Austria’s commitment in fighting anti-Semitism and xenophobia – an incredibly important work, considering that there are critical gaps in Holocaust knowledge in Austria, as reported in a study recently published by the Claims Conference.[1]

The Verein Gedenkdienst’s approach has appealed to me – especially the description of the position at USHMM fully aligned with my interests. Since I already knew that I enjoy working with documents from my work at the university, I was thrilled when I was notified in December 2017 that I would spend the following year working in the Senior Historian Department of USHMM, beginning in August 2018.

At the museum, I mostly translate official documents or written letters between family members who had been separated from each other from German into English, answer historical requests, or do research on historical topics.

I also participated in a training to become a tour guide for the museum’s permanent exhibition, which gives a chronological overview of the Holocaust. This training taught me how to communicate Holocaust history to different audiences, which deepened my understanding of the events that led to the Holocaust.

Besides my work in the Senior Historian Department, I also volunteer at the museum’s Info Desk – I have met other wonderful museum volunteers and survivor volunteers through this experience.

One of the most touching programs in the museum is the First Person Program, that takes place from March to August and allows visitors to hear Holocaust survivors tell their life stories and experiences during the Holocaust in their own words.

After eight months at USHMM, I really have to say that it was one of the best decisions I have made. Not only have I gained an immense amount of factual knowledge about the Holocaust, but I have also learned a lot about American culture. Additionally, I have met so many interesting, courageous, open-minded and incredibly friendly people in and outside the museum, some of whom I am lucky enough to call my good friends.

Up until now, I have only made positive experiences in the museum. Of course, the work can sometimes be overwhelming, but I feel very well supported by my colleagues and above all I can feel that my work is appreciated.

My time abroad at USHMM with Gedenkdienst has strongly influenced my future plans and shaped me in a very special way, which I am very grateful for.

Therefore, I hope that the Verein Gedenkdienst will receive further support to continue its important work in Austria and abroad.

[1]New study published by the Claims Conference: (last viewed: 05/02/2019).