The Night I Spent in Jail in Hitler’s Hometown

Braunau cell

Here’s my latest in Tablet Magazine:

Reports that Adolf Hitler’s childhood home in the Austrian town of Braunau am Inn, where the future Nazi leader lived for several years, may be turned into a Holocaust museum triggered memories of my own two visits to the town: once as a student when I spent the night in the local jail; and once nearly 25 years later when I searched out the police log booking me in to the cell.

My first visit to Braunau was when I was 20 and hitchhiking around Europe with my college roommate. It had nothing to do with Hitler—other than the fact that our visit was so long ago that we, two Jewish girls, were reluctant to spend the night in Germany. We caught a ride in France with a driver who took us all the way across to Braunau, a border town near Linz. (Apparently the fact that this was Hitler’s birthplace didn’t faze us… Or maybe we simply didn’t know.)

It was dark when we arrived. European borders were not open then; crossing frontiers meant immigration and customs controls. The young border police had a field day with us. Perhaps as some form of weird flirtation, they picked apart our backpacks, holding aloft underwear, Tampax, and other intimacies as we stood there and cringed.

By the time they let us go, it was after 10:30 p.m. The youth hostel, where we had hoped to stay, was closed for the night. Our hitchhiking driver, who had remained with us, took us to a local hotel, but it was too expensive for our tiny student budgets.

I thought for a moment and then asked him to take us to the police station—where, rather amazingly, I talked the officer on duty into allowing us to sleep in the jail.

“I’ll have to book you in,” he told us. And he did. Then he locked us into a cell with a couple of cots, a toilet in the corner, and graffiti on the wall.

At 6 a.m., an officer unlocked the door and set us free. We ambled around the open market (I bought a nightgown and clogs), then we picked up another ride and continued on our way—I think we were headed for the Dalmatian Coast.

I didn’t return to Braunau for nearly a quarter of a century. By that time, I was a journalist and published author. In the middle of a research and reporting trip to Poland and the Czech Republic, I detoured to Braunau to coincide with Hitler’s birthday, April 20—a date that frequently draws nostalgic neo-Nazis and other “pilgrims.”

I photographed Hitler’s house and the “never again” monument in front of it—and also the local cinema where, in a bizarre coincidence, Schindler’s List was playing. And I was pleased to be able to afford the hotel that had once seemed so expensive. But what I really wanted to do was find out what the police had booked me into jail for back when I was 20…..

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2 recent articles: on the pope in Israel and a Jewish poet sleeps in Hitler’s bedroom

Here are links to a couple of my most recent articles

The Jewish Poet Who Slept in Hitler’s Bedroom. Tablet Magazine, April 28, 2014

At a dinner following a very fine public reading in Syracuse last week, the distinguished poet Jerome Rothenberg told the story of how he once slept in Hitler’s bed—or, at least, in his bedroom.

It happened in 1988, when Rothenberg visited Poland, the country from which his parents emigrated to the United States in 1920. He was accompanied by his wife Diane and their son, who was then 19, and en route from Krakow to Wroclaw the family stopped at Auschwitz. “Our son wouldn’t get out of the car,” Rothenberg told the table.

It was raining when they arrived in Wroclaw, in southwest Poland, and checked in to the Monopol Hotel. Instead of the suite they had reserved, however, the hotel at first could only come up with two separate rooms. Then, finally, the desk clerks said they had found a suite that was free. “An elderly bellhop took our bags and led the way,” Rothenberg recounted. “At the suite he threw open the doors, then he turned to us and said: ‘You know who slept here? Hitler!’”

That wasn’t all: “He added, Hitler had made a speech from the suite’s very balcony,” Rothenberg went on. Indeed, the balcony was specially built to accommodate the speech, made by Hitler in 1938. At the hotel, Rothenberg and his family had paused to confer. “We decided,” he said, “he’s dead, and we’re alive. So that night, so to speak, we slept in Hitler’s bed.”

The story was a perfect coda to Rothenberg’s reading, sponsored by the Syracuse Downtown Writer’s Center and held in a cozy room at the YMCA. Now 82, Rothenberg read from works collected in his latest book, Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, a compilation that was published last year and includes poems ranging from the 1950s to the present.

Throughout much of his career, Rothenberg has delved deep into explorations of Jewish identity, Jewish traditions, Jewish roots, Jewish mysticism. Years before setting foot in Poland, he brilliantly conjured an imaginary vision of the country of his immigrant parents in an important collection of poems called Poland/1931, published in 1974.

And in his powerful Holocaust cycle, Khurbn, Rothenberg—born in Brooklyn—visits the town near Treblinka that his parents had left and records conversations he had with local people interspersed with his own reflections on the destruction of local Jews.

“…were there once Jews
here? Yes, they told us, yes they were sure there were, though
there was no one here who could remember…”

In Syracuse, Rothenberg read “The Wedding,” a poem from Poland/1931 that encapsulates the way Poland looms large in Jewish myth and memory—and which I first heard him read when we first met, at a poetry conference in London in the mid-1970s. “my mind/ is dreaming of poland stuffed with poland,” it reads in part. It goes on:

“… o poland o sweet resourceful restless poland
o poland of the saints unbuttoned poland repeating endlessly the triple names of mary
poland poland poland poland poland ….

On pope’s trip to Israel, rabbi and sheik will be traveling companions. JTA, May 19, 2014

ROME (JTA) – With a rabbi and a Muslim sheik as his travel companions, Pope Francis is heading to the Middle East with what he hopes will be a powerful message of interfaith respect.

It will be the first time that leaders of other faiths are part of an official papal delegation. The aim is to send “an extremely strong and explicit signal” about interfaith dialogue and the “normality” of having friends of other religions, chief Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters.

Starting Saturday, the three-day pilgrimage will take the 77-year-old pontiff to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. The packed agenda includes courtesy calls on government leaders; open-air Masses; meetings with Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious authorities; and visits to holy sites of the three religions.

The two men joining Francis are friends with whom the pope frequently collaborated when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires: Rabbi Abraham Skorka, former rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, and Sheik Omar Abboud, a former secretary-general of the Islamic Center of Argentina.

“I don’t expect Francis to wave a magic wand and bring together Jews and Palestinians,” Skorka told the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire. “But his charisma and his great humility can give a powerful message of peace for the whole Middle East.”

Since being elected to the papacy in February 2013, Francis, the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years, has become known — and widely hailed — for breaking protocol, shunning the grand trappings of papal power and reaching out to the faithful on a personal level.

On his upcoming trip, Francis has insisted that he will not travel in a bulletproof vehicle or special Popemobile. Rather, he’ll get around in “a normal car or open-topped jeep” in order to be closer to the people who come out to greet him, according to the Vatican spokesman.

Eric Greenberg, the director of communications, outreach and interfaith for the Multi-Faith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, said Francis’ ability to captivate world media means every step of his visit will be watched closely.

“There will be opportunities to deepen the important bilateral relationship between Catholics and Jews, and to boost the larger dialogue among Catholics, Jews and Muslims,” Greenberg said.

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Remembering Jiri Fiedler

 

This past week the terrible news came that Jiri Fiedler, a pioneer in Jewish heritage research in the Czech Republic,  had been found murdered, along with his wife, in their Prague apartment. Apparently they were killed around the end of January, but not found until a couple of weeks later. Police are investigating, but as of today, few details have emerged.

Jiri was one of my first guides when I began exploring Jewish heritage issues nearly 25 years ago, and he served as a guide and mentor to many others. His 1991 book “Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia,” was a milestone in the post-communist rediscovery of Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic, and he continued his work as a director of research at the Prague Jewish Museum, contributing to a growing online database of Jewish heritage.

The news left the Jewish heritage world in shock. I wrote a tribute to him in Tablet Magazine:

[…] I first met Fiedler in 1990, when I was just embarking on the research that led to my first book, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Central and Eastern Europe. I had been given his name (and the name of another Czech researcher, Arno Pařik) to look up in Prague as I sent out on my own exploration.

Fiedler and Pařik sat me down and told me exactly where to go. Somewhere in my files I still have the handwritten notes, diagrams, and lists from our first meetings—just as I have saved the emails he wrote to me over the years in his charmingly fractured “Czenglish.”

Fiedler was finally able to publish his own work in a book, Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia, in 1991, after the Velvet Revolution. He went on to compile and analyze material at the Jewish Museum, and his work has since been digitized as part of a regularly updated electronic encyclopedia of Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic.

“At a time of destruction, Jiří Fiedler did what specialist institutions should have devoted their time to,” the Jewish Museum statement said. “At a time when the Jewish cultural heritage in Bohemia and Moravia was treated with utter contempt, he produced a trove of work that can be drawn on by future generations of researchers in the area of Jewish topography.”

Fiedler’s death was reported by the writer Helen Epstein, who also met him in 1990, when she was researching her memoir, Where She Came From. Epstein remembered Fiedler in a lovely piece titled “Eulogy for a Source,” published Sunday in the New York Times.

Epstein’s eulogy is a sensitive and very moving tribute, but its headline, I believe, sells Fiedler short. Jiři Fiedler was much more than a source. He was a guide, a mentor, and an inspiration. A modest man with an impish sense of humor, he was also a mensch. May their souls be bound up in the bond of life; may their memory be for a blessing.

Read full article here