Meet Paul Niemand, the latest Austrian volunteer to work at the Institute in lieu of military service

Thu, 11/15/2018 - 1:37pm

Paul Niemand was just testing the waters. He wanted to see if he could even make it, but to make it, all the way to USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, or to another institution in the United States dedicated to the remembrance of the Holocaust, it would take two years of diligent work.

“Suddenly, you’ve done one and a half years of work and you’re the candidate for USC Shoah Foundation and you realize, ‘Oh wow, I’m going to Los Angeles in six months,’” Niemand said. “It wasn’t one point of active decision. It just grew on me.”

Now fully submerged, Niemand is a couple of months into his position as the Institute’s 2019 Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service Volunteer.

The Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service is an alternative to Austria’s compulsory national military service. Instead of serving in the military service for six months after completing high school, men may volunteer with Holocaust remembrance organizations abroad or with social service organizations at home. Like his predecessor, Martin Gruber, Niemand will work full-time at USC Shoah Foundation for the next nine months to fulfill his requirement. That follows time spent with non-profit organization Austrian Service Abroad, where he made himself an invaluable candidate for the program by assisting applicants and overseeing website translations.

“I am excited to see for myself how people who don’t know much about the Holocaust are affected by testimony in our Visual History Archive and all of the projects we do,” Niemand said. “I just want to see for myself how the work of USC Shoah Foundation affects people and how that can make a change.”

Niemand, who was raised in the small town of Linz in Austria, became interested in Holocaust history through the teachings of his mother, a professor of modern history at a local university. Through lessons at school, too, he came to understand the value of knowing thoroughly one’s own history, especially in a town so close to the roots of the Holocaust.

“It’s important that Austrians show that Austria has changed,” Niemand said. “I think it’s very cool that you can volunteer like this instead of doing military service. It’s a great symbol.”

Other volunteers opting out of their military service have been placed with similar institutions, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and Yad Vashem. Niemand lives with two other volunteers in Los Angeles, which he says has been an enormous comfort.

“It’s a big help to live with people who are experiencing the same thing,” Niemand said of living so far from his family and friends at just 19 years old. “I’m not sure how I’d deal with everything otherwise on my own.”

Niemand has made new connections -- with USC Shoah Foundation staff and with students from the University of Southern California’s Climbing Team.

“Martin Gruber told me good advice before I came here,” Niemand said. “He told me everyone is friendly and helpful, and that is definitely true.”

In addition to helping the operations team with daily administrative tasks, Niemand has watched testimony clips and written short biographies for the education team. He says that while the testimonies are often difficult to hear for their graphic content, they have allowed him to better relate to the material.

“Not everyone has the chance to speak with a survivor, and it’s more compelling if you listen to a story than if you just read it in a history book,” Niemand said. “One testimony I watched, from a man who was imprisoned because of his sexual identity, moved me because it was recorded in my hometown and I basically spoke his exact dialect.”

Niemand says he’s happy to be supporting USC Shoah Foundation in any way that he can. He’ll be working at the Institute through the end of the university’s school year and taking any time off that he has to visit nearby national parks. After he leaves the Institute, Niemand hopes to return to Central Europe and attend university.

For now, he isn’t sure what he wants to do. But working with USC Shoah Foundation, he’s come to understand that he thrives off of conversation and interaction.

“I like the aspect of being in contact with people every day and being able to help them,” Niemand said. “If I study medicine, I’m not as interested in the scientific aspect of it as I am interested in the everyday patient interaction."

Maybe, he says, he’ll study journalism, or go to law school. Whatever path he chooses, he wants to find a career that deepens his capacity for human connection.