Some Austrian youth choosing Holocaust work over military

VILNIUS, Lithuania — A young Austrian volunteer at this country's Jewish museum has confronted his own family's past while educating Lithuanians about the Holocaust.

Markus Ebenhoch's grandfather on his father's side and his mother's uncle, both over 80, served in Lithuania as Nazi Germany's soldiers during World War II.

His uncle "recently told me that he saw executions of Jews when he was in Lithuania," he says. "Grandfather doesn't want to talk about his wartime experience."

Ebenhoch was not aware of this part of his family history when he came to Lithuania in 1996 as a volunteer for the Memory Service project.

Sponsored by the Austrian government, the project has allowed dozens of young Austrians to volunteer at Holocaust-related institutions around the world as an alternative to obligatory military service since the program began in 1992.

The government-funded program is the brainchild of Andreas Maislinger, a lecturer of political science at the University of Innsbruck.

About 10 percent of the 34,000 men drafted annually opt for alternative civil service even though, at 14 months, it is longer than the nine-month army service.

The Austrian government provides monthly stipends to cover basic living expenses.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Leo Baeck Institute in New York recently welcomed their third Austrian volunteer. The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center recently got its first.

Participating institutions also include Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and Poland's Auschwitz-Birkenau museum.

"I think it's more important to help institutions that are less rich with knowledge and funds," says Ebenhoch, who was the first program participant to work as an intern at the Jewish State Museum in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.

Ebenhoch, who recently completed his internship, plans to pursue a degree in comparative religion at Vienna University.

Before working at a Holocaust institution, Austrians take months of courses in Holocaust and Jewish history. Ebenhoch also had months of intensive Russian language training.

The project reflects a new spirit in Austria, a willingness among younger Austrians to confront their country's past and admit the nation's share of guilt in the crimes of the Third Reich.

This is not an easy task, Ebenhoch, 20, said, citing his own family's example. The older generation did not like "the fact that I'm working for Jews" instead of going to the army, he says.

Ebenhoch was not surprised that a part of his family holds anti-Semitic views. He says anti-Semitism has a longstanding tradition in his family's western Austrian province of Voralberg.

It was only in 1988, after decades of Austria's dubious claim to being the "first victim" of Nazi aggression — Hitler took over the country in 1938 — that many Austrians admitted their country's share of guilt for the Nazi crimes.