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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The Czech 10 Stars project — my article and links

Interior of restored synagogue in Brandys nad Labem, CZ.

I have an article in The Forward on the  Czech 10 Stars project of revitalizing Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic, an ambitious project that I have been following for the past few years. I’ve posted a lot about this project on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site, including Photo Galleries of seven of the 10 Stars sites.

Uniting Jewish Heritage Sites Across Czech Republic

Ten Points of the Jewish Star

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

NOVA CEREKEV, CZECH REPUBLIC — No Jews have lived in this nondescript little town 80 miles southeast of Prague since the Holocaust, but driving in, you can’t miss the synagogue.

Rose-pink and ochre, with fanciful arched windows and a central peaked roof flanked by two squat towers, it rises dramatically over the rooftops, dominating the otherwise drab surroundings.

Inside, chandeliers glow above cream-colored walls and graceful arched galleries.

Though built in the 1850s, the synagogue looks brand-new — and in some ways it is. Derelict for decades, it has been painstakingly restored, inside and out, over the past few years.

This summer it was opened to the public as part of one of the most ambitious Jewish heritage revitalization projects in Europe — the Czech 10 Stars.

Carried out by the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities and financed by an approximately $14 million grant from the European Union, with further funding from the Czech Culture Ministry, the 10 Stars project links newly restored historic synagogues and other Jewish buildings in 10 towns, cities and villages widely scattered over all parts of the country.

Each site hosts a permanent exhibit focusing on one specific aspect of Jewish history, culture, religious life or traditions. There is space for concerts and other cultural events, and in several places Jewish cemeteries dating back centuries (and even a couple of mikvehs) lie within an easy walk.

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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.

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Start of the olive harvest

Just one thought at the start of the annual olive harvest: I love the little tug and the almost inaudible sound — phut! — when I pull the olives off the branch.

This year, I seem to have double the usual amount of olives. Hope the weather holds.

Here’s  an article I wrote about the harvest a few years ago, in Tablet Magazine:

Dec. 17, 2009

It’s surely just a coincidence that in Italy, where I have a home, the olive harvest generally takes place in the month or so before the most oil-centered of Jewish holidays.

For me, though, the olive harvest and subsequent production of oil provide a parallel seasonal ritual, in which bruschetta, or grilled bread drenched in dense new oil, provides the ceremonial flavor.

My family and I have property in an olive-producing area of Umbria, in central Italy, where the landscape is a hilly mix of forest and farmland, and many of the slopes are covered with groves of olive trees.

Umbria is home to several big olive oil concerns, with huge groves comprising thousands of trees. But many people, like me, have small private holdings that provide enough oil for their own needs, as well as a portion left over for sale.

On our land, we have several dozen olive trees. I keep most of them pruned, but otherwise, I admit, I’m a very poor farmer. I don’t plow or fertilize or do much else to care for them; I regard what they produce as something of a gift, and only about half of the trees, in fact, bear fruit.

Still, each November sees me out in the field, gathering olives and then having them taken to a local frantoio, or olive press, where they are turned into oil.

The picking process is hard, repetitive work, but it’s simple. I spread a net on the ground at the base of each tree and then strip the branches, using my fingers or an orange plastic hand-rake specially made for the job.

In Umbria we pick olives before there are overly ripe, so that you have to really pull them off. They are green and purple and brown as well as a mature black, and I love the little tug and the sound they make as they detach from their stems. The ripe black olives look luscious, but there is no temptation to sample them: raw olives are intensely bitter, inedible unless dried, salted, or processed in brine. […]

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My article on new thriller by Adam LeBor

I’ve written about the new thriller by Adam LeBor, “The Geneva Option” — LeBor talks about fiction writing versus non-fiction writing.


Creating modern Israeli heroine, LeBor crosses Lisbeth Salander and biblical Yael

By Ruth Ellen Gruber 

BUDAPEST (JTA) — There’s a new Jewish heroine on the block, a tough but tender Israeli who does undercover work for the United Nations and stars in a new series of thrillers by the British author and journalist Adam LeBor.

The first installment, “The Geneva Option,” was released in the United Kingdom in April and recently hit U.S. booksellers. It spins a tale of corporate greed, international corruption and insidious plans for mass murder, with intrigue spanning the globe from New York to central Africa to Switzerland.

The protagonist is Yael Azoulay, an auburn-haired Israeli army veteran forced to use subterfuge, computer savvy and Krav Maga skills to thwart the villains.

“As far as I know, she’s the first Israeli woman protagonist in a thriller,” said LeBor, a Budapest-based correspondent for the Times of London, the Economist and other publications.

The story pivots on an unholy alliance between superpowers and multinational corporations aimed at cornering the market on raw materials essential for 21st century technology.

“I wanted to look at the tension between the moral aims of the U.N. and the actual results of superpower politics in the U.N. — there’s a pretty serious gap there,” said LeBor, who drew on his own dealings with the world body as a reporter in Bosnia during the 1990s.

“But I don’t see the book as an indictment of the U.N. or of the people who work there,” he added. “There are obviously a lot of good people in the U.N. committed to its values. At the same time there are some really dreadful people there, just placed there by their governments, or careerists out to milk the machine for as much as they can.”

LeBor drew inspiration for Azoulay from many sources, including Lisbeth Salander, the hacker heroine of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy, and Azoulay’s biblical namesake, Yael, who sheltered an enemy commander in her tent and then killed him by hammering a stake into his head.

“What if there was someone working for the U.N. with a powerful moral drive to do good, yet who was forced to operate in the shadows? Even to kill?” LeBor wrote in a recent Op-Ed in the Times of Israel.

Azoulay, he wrote, is “a modern woman — a 21st century heroine, haunted by her past, with a complex identity, but one firmly rooted in Israel.”

Azoulay faces more than just physical enemies. In her mid-30s ,she’s also contending with the biological clock. To complicate matters, the potential love interest for this proud Israeli is a Palestinian-American journalist.

“There’s always tension between career women and the call of relationships and family,” LeBor told JTA. “The basis of drama is conflict, and you need inner conflict in the protagonist.”

“The Geneva Option” is Lebor’s second venture into fiction, having already authored more than a half-dozen non-fiction books. His latest, “Tower of Basel,” is an investigative history of the Switzerland-based Bank for International Settlements that also was recently published in the United States.

Many of his books have a Jewish or Israeli theme — including “The Believers,” about the swindler Bernard Madoff’s impact on the American Jewish community, and “City of Oranges,” the story of Israel told through the sagas of three Arab and three Jewish families in Jaffa.

His previous novel, “The Budapest Protocol,” posits a shadowy World War II conspiracy aimed to achieve Nazi economic domination of Europe.

“I guess it’s a way of exploring part of my own identity in a way, being brought up Jewish in England, having gone to two Jewish schools, having lived on a kibbutz in my gap year, having studied Hebrew and also Arabic,” he said. “I realized when I got to the level of being able to write non-fiction books, I thought that there were some interesting things I can explore here.”

LeBor says writing fiction is more difficult than non-fiction, but often more satisfying.

“When you get fiction going, it’s true what you read about — the characters just come alive,” he said. “You wake up in the morning still half asleep and you know what to do. You end a chapter on a cliff-hanger. You think how on earth is she going to get out of that; you sleep on it. And you know what to do. It’s really an amazing high. It’s like flying when it works.”

As for Yael Azoulay, her next full-length book adventure will be set partly in Vienna. Until then, LeBor and his publisher will be taking advantage of new technology to issue occasional short stories or novellas that can be published as e-books within weeks of being written. The first, “The Istanbul Exchange,” came out last month.

Azoulay “is going to get into a lot more trouble, for sure,” he said.

And, LeBor said, he plans little by little to reveal more about her past.

“It’s not spelled out in ‘The Geneva Option’ if [Azoulay] has any connections with Mossad, and if so, what they might be,” he added. “So you have to wait to see that in later volumes.”

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Article notes my role in Druha Trava CD


Lubos Malina. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

An article by Ginanne Brownell about Druha Trava, published March 8, 2013, notes my role in the band‘s 2011 CD “Shuttle to Bethlehem”. From her interview with Lubos Malina:

Tell me about “Shuttle to Bethlehem.” Why did you decide to finally record in English?

We had tried a few times, we recorded three English-language albums but none of them had good translation of Robert’s original stuff. And it was the idea of Ruth Ellen Gruber [an American journalist based in Italy]. She came and pushed us to do this. She asked someone to translate the songs word by word and then she re-wrote it to a singing poetic way and then they finished it with Robert. So they both agreed on final versions of the songs and both were happy. On previous records, Robert translated himself and got some help but they had no sense for the poetics.

Do you feel like it works with English language audiences?

We have only been to the US once since we recorded it. When we sang in Czech, no one could understand but now they get it all, music, words and meanings. So I guess they should appreciate more and enjoy it more. And seems like it works.