Commemoration work in the crisis

Every year, the Austrian Service Abroad sends memorial, social and peace servants all over the world. The Corona crisis affects them all. Home office and creative ideas allow them to continue their service and continue to contribute to the commemoration of the Holocaust.

        A report by Jonathan Dorner and Monika Messner (Translated by Hilde Mayer)

Home offices save many people the daily commute to work. For commemorative servants, it’s a matter of special distances: From Tel Aviv to Shanghai, from New York to Oświęcim, the young Austrians‘ deployment sites are scattered around the globe. During the Corona crisis, many had to return to Austria early. Not only the places of work are changing, but also the memorial work itself. Much media attention has been given to the virtual commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the former Mauthausen concentration camp. But the field of remembrance and commemoration encompasses much more, even in the Corona crisis.

Memorial Service Abroad 

Year after year, the Republic of Austria sends young memorial servants to a wide variety of countries. The Austrian Service Abroad association, founded in 1998, is the largest sponsoring organization. In 2019, for the first time, it sent more than 60 servants abroad to all continents. In addition to the memorial service, which is the largest area in the association in terms of content, the association also offers social and peace services. The memorial service can be done by young men who have to do their civilian service as well as by women in the form of a voluntary service. Many Gedenkdiener work in Holocaust memorials, museums and research institutions, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the Jewish Museum Berlin, the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The work at the numerous outreach sites consists primarily of designing and organizing guided tours and events, archival work, giving lectures, and talking to contemporary witnesses and documenting their experiences so that they are not forgotten. The foreign service is preceded by several years of preparation at the Austrian Foreign Service.

The Corona pandemic affected all areas, regardless of service type or location. For most of the foreign service members, it was not possible to continue their service. In countries severely affected by the pandemic, such as Italy, some expatriates had to leave on the last train. In the rush, some even had to leave their possessions behind. Social service workers in more distant posts, such as Uganda and Brazil, were also called upon to leave the country as soon as possible. But not all had to leave. The memorial servants in Prague and Budapest remained in their cities of assignment. Despite the uncertainty of the greater distance, one memorial servant and two social servants also decided to stay in Tel Aviv. After two months of home office work, the three are now back on duty directly at the outreach site. „It was definitely the right decision to stay in Israel. I always felt very safe here and was convinced that Israel would cope well with the crisis,“ said Sara Hummel from Tyrol, who has since returned to her work as a social servant in a Na’amat daycare center in Tel Aviv.

Memorial Service in the Home Office 

Service members abroad who abruptly returned to Austria continued their work in the home office in various ways. Some were able to take on activities for their assignment site. David Mader (19) from Linz has been working in New York at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) as a memorial servant since September 2019. The AJC was founded in 1906 by a group of American Jews, primarily of German descent, who were horrified by the pogroms in Czarist Russia. They saw the best way to protect Jews was to work toward a world in which all people enjoy equal respect and dignity. To this day, AJC advocates for democracy, the rule of law, pluralism, and respect across ethnic, religious, and national lines. 

David Mader, who has since returned to Linz, continues to work for the AJC from home. In his home office, he attends conferences held by his assignment office, including one attended by the Austrian ambassador to the U.S., Martin Weiß. He completes weekly work assignments and maintains close telephone communication with his supervisors: „I consider myself very lucky to have worked at the AJC and to continue to be part of the team. Despite the time difference, there is a lively exchange and a lot to do.“ His current duties focus on dealing with the Corona pandemic. Most recently, he has been researching the impact of the virus in African countries, including Sudan. He is also working on analyses and evaluations of the voting behavior of states in the UN on decisions affecting Israel and other countries.

Video interviews with contemporary witnesses 

Not all of them are able to continue working for their assignment after their return. The 19-year-old Jonathan Dorner from Burgenland had to leave Los Angeles due to Corona. He worked at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust until he left, working in the archives, helping out at the front desk, giving tours and assisting Holocaust survivors who gave lectures at the museum. From home, he is unable to continue any of these activities. Instead, he is more intensively involved in the Austrian Foreign Service Association itself. His main focus is public relations work.

Together with Monika Messner, a Tyrolean who is doing her social service through the Understanding Israel project at a children’s center run by the women’s organization Na’amat in Tel Aviv, he is working on a documentation project. Via the Internet, they interview Holocaust survivors and record the conversations. In this way, Holocaust survivors who regularly gave lectures at schools and museums before Corona should continue to have the opportunity to tell their stories. The project has met with a positive response from those interviewed so far. „Not only are we giving them the opportunity to tell, but we’re giving future generations the chance to hear survivors‘ stories,“ Monika said. The videos are posted on the association’s YouTube page.

In addition, there are 15 returnees who are now doing voluntary service at a mission site in Austria. Most of them work for Caritas and Diakonie or were placed with partner institutions through them.

Crediting as civilian service secured 

Many young Austrians perform the memorial service as a minimum ten-month substitute for civilian service. Initially, it was unclear whether the Corona-related work for the deployment site from Austria would be credited accordingly, especially if the activities shifted to association work or volunteer work in Austria. An amendment to the law brought relief. The creditability for the civilian service and the financing with the support of the Ministry of Social Affairs are thus secured. 

Nevertheless, the unplanned return home means a financial burden for many young people. Many still have to pay rent in the countries of deployment. Contracts for cell phones and Internet continue to run. Full refrigerators and some luggage had to be left behind. Although the government subsidy for service abroad remains the same, it often barely covers the expensive rent. In addition, many airlines do not reimburse airfare during the Corona period, despite cancelled flights and unexpectedly long trips. Most overseas servicemembers who began their service in 2019 had return flights booked for the summer. They must pay the cost of the additional flight themselves.

Future with question marks

There is still a great deal of uncertainty among foreign servicemen and women who are scheduled to begin their service this year. Many of them are scheduled to start their service in September. There will probably be fewer problems within Europe, with Israel and India. It remains unclear whether foreign servants can also be sent to other continents, especially to countries like the USA, says Andreas Maislinger, chairman of the association, who remains optimistic despite everything. Georg Aichhorn from Upper Austria is one of the memorial servants whose services are marked with a big question mark. According to plan, he would begin his service at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust on September 1. 

The uncertainties are many. They concern, for example, entry requirements, the lack of flight connections and the security classification of the country by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on which the visa and additional foreign insurance depend. The association’s leadership is committed to making foreign service possible for all candidates in the class of 2020. „Exactly how we will accomplish this is not yet clear,“ says office manager Daniel James Schuster: „But we have several ideas and are evaluating each case individually so that all candidates, despite the unfamiliarity of the situation, get an enriching experience that they have put a lot of time and energy into preparing.“ Conceivable options include redeployments to assignment sites in Europe as well as duty splits so that they start their service in Europe and continue it at the originally planned assignment site as soon as they get the green light. 

Despite the difficult times, the Austrian Service Abroad has managed to maintain its commemorative work and initiate new projects. Even though society is confronted with new challenges, the commemoration and remembrance work continues despite Corona – whether in Tel Aviv or back in Austria.

Information on the authors: Monika Messner, social servant in Israel and spokesperson for the Understanding Israel project. She stayed in Tel Aviv despite the Corona crisis. After a few weeks of home office, she is now working again in the Na’amat day care centers. 

Jonathan Dorner was a memorial servant for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in the US. He had to leave Los Angeles due to Corona and is working in the home office for the Austrian Foreign Service Association

Information on the association: Memorial service abroad can be done through the Verein Österreichischer Auslandsdienst (about 60 foreign service members annually) as well as the Verein Gedenkdienst (about 20 people annually). In addition to those performing civilian service, volunteers can also perform memorial service. Understanding Israel is a project launched by the association in 2018 that allows volunteers to do twelve months of community service in Israel. Information at and Contact: