At the end of childhood, every young man in Austria faces a mandatory choice, and when he was in high school, Martin Gruber was unsure what to do.
He could either join the vast majority of his peers and sign up for compulsory military service, or, in lieu of it, perform community service domestically or abroad, such as volunteering at an organization focused on Holocaust remembrance.
“I changed my mind I think about 100 times,” said Gruber.
Gruber, 20, ultimately decided to go the service-abroad route. Now, he is nearing his last day of a 10-month stint at USC Shoah Foundation, and he is beyond satisfied with his choice.
“I was very, very lucky,” said Gruber, whose internship ends on Aug. 31. “I got into such a great environment.”
Gruber of Vienna is the 14th young man from the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service to work at the Institute as a substitute for military service.
Choosing to participate in the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service – a national reconciliation program founded in 1992 – is by far the road less traveled. While some 22,000 young Austrian men opt to serve the six-month military term every year, about 50 serve abroad at Holocaust remembrance organizations.
The disparity owes in part to how the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, a government-funded program for which women became eligible in 2016, requires a bigger time commitment.
It is also more selective: Participants are culled from a pool of about 200 applicants. In addition to USC Shoah Foundation, they volunteer at Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Leo Baeck Institute in New York City and the Houston Holocaust Museum in Texas, among others.
(In addition to military conscription or service abroad, young Austrian men have a third option: performing civil-service duties domestically, such as driving an ambulance or volunteering at a nursing home.)
At the Institute, Gruber worked with the operations team, where his duties ranged from processing expense reports to translating German testimonies.
“Martin does so much for us, the list can go on and on,” said his supervisor, Letisha Young. “This was my first experience with an Austrian intern and Martin has really set the bar high for those that will follow him.”
Gruber said he believes the government-funded service-abroad option is an effective way to ensure the Holocaust doesn’t fade from Austria’s collective memory.
“Especially because for my generation, the actual happenings of the Holocaust are getting kind of far away,” he said.
Some credit the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service for helping to move the country away from the once-dominant narrative that Austria fell victim to the Nazi regime, which forcibly annexed the country in 1938. But Austria was also home to some of the most prominent Nazi leaders.
Gruber says that the country’s relationship with the war is personal for most families.
“In Austria and Germany, of course the big things are being taught in school,” he said. “But in addition to that you have all the small stories from all the families which have never been told anywhere outside of the family.”
Gruber’s family has such a story. During the war, a relative of his grandmother was mentally ill. Her doctor refused to report this to authorities, and as a result likely saved her life. At the time, as part of a eugenics program, the Nazi Regime was euthanizing the “incurably sick” in psychiatric hospitals.
At USC Shoah Foundation, the operations department was the perfect fit for Gruber, who graduated from a technical high school for civil engineering. A logical thinker and sound planner, he enjoys working on concrete problems.
“I was super lucky with the team,” he said. “They took me in as a full member.”
Gruber’s proudest achievement is one that will long outlast his tenure: reconfiguring the computerized Smartsheet system that employees use to report expenses.
“It’s easier and more customer friendly,” he said. “I tried to make everyone’s life easier – not only the ops team’s life; everybody’s life. It should be reduction of work for everyone.”
The most challenging aspect of the experience? Acclimating to some of the tics and quirks of American culture. Gruber was struck by how everyone in the United States – even the wait staff in restaurants or cashiers in stores – have a habit of asking: “How are you?”
“And here, we have a standard answer, even if you are feeling terrible: ‘I’m good.’”
Gruber believes that working at the Institute has left a permanent impression.
“The Institute definitely taught me how important it is to keep teaching about the Holocaust and other historical happenings, as it is not mandatory everywhere,” he said.
Young says he has been a joy to work with.
“We joke and laugh with him like he is our little brother,” she said. “Being on a team of all women, he gets picked on pretty badly, but he takes it all in and he picks on us back. … Martin is going to be greatly missed.”