A photocopy of a small, handwritten note in German, composed about 60 years ago, was another translation job for Philipp Bulgarini the other day.
The final words of a death camp-bound Jew in Nazi Germany, scribbled in a crowded cattle car, the message was apparently thrown off a train with the hope that it would reach his or her relatives still in safety.
Bulgarini says the words spoke to him.
A 20-year-old native of Austria, he has worked for the last 14 months as an intern at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, translating German documents into English, entering information into the museum’s computerized data base, training young American volunteers and doing other historical research.
But the anonymous note was probably the most poignant experience of Bulgarini’s time at the museum, which ends this week, he says. He doesn’t know the identity of the person who wrote the message, or the person’s fate, whether the note reached its intended recipient or how it came into the hands of the museum. He just knows that when the copy came into his hands, at his desk in a museum hallway, he connected with that person on the train. “It was a very touching experience to have the last words of someone.”
It was another part of Bulgarini’s Holocaust education.
“I was hoping to find answers” to the enduring questions about the period of Nazi genocide — How could it happen? — says Bulgarini, a conscientious objector to military service who worked at the museum under the auspices of the Austrian-supported Gedenkdienst (Holocaust Memorial Service) program. One year and two months wasn’t enough time to find the answers that have eluded experts for six generations. “I didn’t find the answers to the questions,” he says.
But, Bulgarini adds in the flawless English he learned in school, “I got a better understanding. I’m totally satisfied.”
In his hometown of St. Veit, a village of 1,000 people near Linz, there are no Jews. “None that I know of.”
The first Jews he met were Holocaust survivors, who spoke to his classes in Linz about their wartime experiences. Supplementing the units about the Holocaust that were part of his education for some eight years, the survivors put a human face on his history lessons. “I had a person I could relate the Holocaust to.
“That was the major experience that made me do this service” at the museum, he says.
First, he decided to apply for conscientious objector status. He says many young Austrians choose to be COs. “It’s totally accepted by society — society depends on these COs” as volunteers. “To me it was always clear. Armed force is not the solution to problems. I refuse to use any weapons. It’s because of my belief. I” — a church-going Catholic — “would consider myself religious.”
Then he determined he would work with Holocaust survivors — the Gedenkdienst program offers several such opportunities in Europe, Israel and the United States.
Then he discovered, on the Internet, the museum in Manhattan’s Battery Park City. “What intrigued me about the museum was both its message and its name.” The name includes the words “Holocaust” and “Living.” “There are two opposites in the name. That is a very good message — that after the Holocaust life went on.”
So he applied, becoming the first volunteer from Austria’s Organization for Alternative Service Abroad to work at the museum, reading books about Jewish history and culture, working a half-year at three jobs in Linz to support himself here.
“I was hoping to get in touch with survivors on a personal basis,” Bulgarini says. To understand. To make amends for his country’s past. “I think people of my generation have the responsibility to educate other people that something like this never happens again. This is a responsibility all of us have, not only Austrians.”
Does he, having grown up in Austria, feel guilt for what happened there, for Austrians’ support of the Third Reich?
No, he says. “We personally are not responsible for the Holocaust.” His grandparents grew up after World War II, his parents were born long after the war. “You can not make up for things that happened 50 years ago.”
His parents support — morally and financially — his work here. His friends are sympathetic. The survivors he has met on the job have been welcoming, he says.
Bulgarini has translated for the museum both documents written during the Holocaust by Jews, and those by the Nazis. He’s done research at the Leo Baeck Institute, and participated in a project with the Leadership Class of the Stuart S. Elenko Holocaust Museum and Studies Center of the Bronx High School of Science.
His co-workers said goodbye one recent morning, presenting him with museum mementos and a filled-in address book at a staff party. People were crying.
“I wish he was my son,” says Louis Levine, the museum’s director of collections and acquisitions. “He was moved by everything he was doing. There is nothing we gave him to do that he didn’t do well and with sensitivity. If they’ll send another Philipp, we’ll [accept another Austrian intern] in a heartbeat.”
Back in Austria, Bulgarini, who hopes for an eventual career at the United Nations, will discuss his internship in several public speeches, encouraging like-minded youngsters to come here. “Ill probably pick some personal stories.”
He was to spend his last days at the museum on his personal quest. “Of course there’s always more to learn,” he says. “There are still questions. But there are probably no answers.”
And, he says, “there are probably more German documents for me to translate.”