Leopoldstadt is Vienna’s 2nd District. During the early part of the 20th century this area was home to many Viennese of Jewish heritage. The unthinkable occurred as the Nazis took control of Austria in 1938 ushering in a period of incredible horror.
We were in this district to visit one of the volunteer service opportunities for students enrolled in our study abroad program in Vienna. As we walked down the street to meet Dr. Elisabeth Ben David-Hindler, I had no idea what to expect. She is a woman small in stature, with a warm smile, yet powerful in determination. We were given a brief explanation regarding the project called The Path of Remembrance, but I was not prepared for the importance of this work and the model for service it represents.
We met Dr. Ben David-Hindler, along with her daughter Zahava, near the site of the former Leopoldstadt Temple, at one time Vienna’s largest synagogue. Nothing remains of this structure following its destruction during the Nazi period, though four enormous white pillars mark the scale of the original structure. They were almost ghost-like figures of the past emerging in the present. Renderings I have seen of the original temple display it as a magnificent building with great architectural detail. People now rush by the pillars seemingly without awareness of how this community was robbed of a sacred space.
The brochure she gave us regarding the project offers the following context:
The Path of Remembrance, the first section of which was completed in November of 2006, leads to many sites that were once of importance to Jewish life in Leopoldstadt, thereby revealing the history of expulsion and murder of the Jewish population. It relates to daily Jewish life and commemorates – by way of examples – the many people who once lived here.
Dr. Ben David-Hindler noted for us the tragic loss of life on such an enormous scale (over 30,000 from this district alone) could never be adequately memorialized. Yet the stories of these individuals could be remembered through markers in the public spaces in the district. The original plan was to place plaques on the buildings, but the complexity of gaining approvals for this approach resulted in the idea to create these as Stones of Remembrance, echoing the Hebrew Scriptures. The “stones” are placed into the sidewalk (pictured in the image accompanying this essay) noting the names and dates of those who were deported and killed. Together, these stones form the Path of Remembrance.
The history itself was powerful enough as a learning experience, but the devotion to service I was about to witness reminded me of the impact learning has when it’s combined with service. We arrived at one of the Stones of Remembrance and Dr. Ben David-Hindler pulled from her bag a small spray bottle and a towel. She knelt down on the sidewalk, spayed the surface of the stone with a cleaning solution, and scrubbed the marker clean. I now understood the role for our students in this volunteer service opportunity. They would join others from this community to continually clean the stones and together learn about the history of a people – an amazing gift of service learning.
It’s easy to be cynical these days. But I continue to find a refreshing hope in students. According to the 2010 annual Freshman Survey administered by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) in the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, 88.6 percent of entering first-year college students performed voluntary work “frequently” or “occasionally” during the past year, while 61.2 percent performed community service as part of a class during the same period. All the data clearly demonstrate that college students are devoted to service in great numbers. This is encouraging to educators who understand the power of service in the learning context.
The challenge ahead is to encourage and enable students to move beyond the programs and structures of schools and colleges as they graduate, and make service a lifetime commitment.
I was privileged last year to participate in a roundtable discussion for a special project sponsored by the United States Department of Education and developed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, along with the support of the Global Perspective Institute. A National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement was formed and its report, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” is a national call to action. It’s worth reading. The report outlines the many opportunities we have to educate students for citizenship. The concluding section offers the following thoughts:
“…we dare not be passive about increasing our nation’s civic capacity any more than we are passive about revitalizing its economy. Colleges and universities need to expand education for democracy so it reaches all students in ever more challenging ways. Campuses can be critical sites for honing students’ civic knowledge, skills, values, and actions, and for preparing them for lives of public purpose as well as employment. Advancing reciprocal partnerships with communities both locally and globally promises to invigorate the research, teaching, and learning agendas for higher education while strengthening communities. Creative alliances with public-minded nonprofit agencies, governmental agencies, and businesses can replenish civic capital.”
Our task now is to take up this challenge in practical ways.
If you’re in Iowa, check out Volunteer Iowa for ways you can be involved.
Those in other parts of the country and around the world can be creative in reaching out for the opportunities that surround you.
Let’s get busy! Go experience the amazing gift of service learning.