The synagogue staff is complemented every year by a young Austrian volunteer who joins Etz Hayyim and supports its work for twelve months. Since 2013, Etz Hayyim has been cooperating with the Vienna-based Austrian non-profit organisation GEDENKDIENST (Holocaust Memorial Service) which does critical educational work on Austria’s historical responsibility and sends young Austrian volunteers to 17 different locations worldwide: to historical and memorial sites, museums as well as research and educational institutions that deal with the remembrance and awareness of crimes committed by the “Third Reich.” These institutions include the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Anne Frank Stichting in Amsterdam and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The tasks of the volunteers range from supporting projects undertaking research on the Holocaust, commemorating the victims of Nazism and taking care of the survivors in retirement homes as a voluntary social service or an alternative to compulsory military service.
Etz Hayyim’s cooperation with GEDENKDIENST goes back to the visit of a group of students from Vienna University in June 2012 during their study trip on the topic “Occupation and Resistance in Greece” headed by Dr. Hans Safrian. Among the students were the then chair and vice-chairs of GEDENKDIENST who approached us with the idea of making Etz Hayyim Synagogue one of the locations to which GEDENKDIENST sends their volunteers.
The association was founded in 1992 due to an initiative by an Austrian political scientist, who since the late 1970s had campaigned for the establishment of an alternative to military service which would include and foster Holocaust awareness education. Initially, the initiative focused on establishing a programme of volunteer services at the museum and memorial site Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 1980, the then Austrian Federal President still discounted the initiative by saying that “an Austrian has nothing to atone for at Auschwitz.” In 1995, he however acknowledged the “positive achievements” of GEDENKDIENST, which had been formally established in 1991.
At Etz Hayyim, the GEDENKDIENST volunteer, aka Gedenkdiener, has become an integral part of our staff. As a not-for-profit organisation we rely on volunteer work and donations and feel therefore privileged to receive the dedicated support of a young volunteer each year. The partnership with the organisation GEDENKDIENST thus adds tremendously to a smooth daily operation of the synagogue and a series of additional projects would not be possible in the form as they are today.
While on the one hand, a year at Etz Hayyim provides a unique experience for each Gedenkdiener to learn about many aspects of Jewish and Cretan history and culture, participate in community events and holidays and meet people from all over the world, the young volunteers are also are key staff members who contribute decisively to the work done at Etz Hayyim: The Gedenkdiener supports the staff in giving guided tours to visitors, contributes to research and publications, helps to prepare community events and works on specific temporary projects. In 2015, for instance, the Gedenkdiener organized the presentation of the photography exhibition “Intercultural Encounters” at Etz Hayyim in cooperation with the Austrian Embassy in Athens. Furthermore, an exhibition about the reconstruction of the synagogue was prepared with the help of our volunteer in 2016.
Visitors have repeatedly expressed their admiration for the work done by the individual Gedenkdiener and have commended the GEDENKDIENST initiative as an important contribution to preserving the memory of the victims of World War II and an acknowledgement of Austria’s historical responsibility.
Each Gedenkdiener also describes his impressions and experiences during his stay in our newsletter in the section “Gedenkdienst at Etz Hayyim”.