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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Plans for new Holocaust memorial museum in Budapest spark controversy

Tablet Magazine published my article last week about plans for a controversial new Holocaust memorial museum in Budapest. It was a real pleasure to work with Tablet’s editor for the piece, Allison Hoffman.

The article prompted a lot of interest and feedback — it’s a complex and very fraught situation, and I am very pleased that people praised it for being “measured,” “insightful,” and “objective”!

The facility, which is to combine a permanent exhibit with an interactive learning center and other services, will be a centerpiece of a nationwide effort to mark the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary, but almost ever facet of the project has come under criticism or question.

 

Plan To Open Another Holocaust Museum in Budapest Faces Criticism—From Jews

Many worry it will be window-dressing for politicians who want to be seen remembering the Shoah but ignore today’s anti-Semitism

By Ruth Ellen Gruber (Jan. 10, 2014)

The Hungarian author György Konrád is arguably one of the best-known child survivors of the Holocaust. By a stroke of luck he narrowly avoided being deported to Auschwitz in 1944 along with the Jews of his hometown, Berettyóújfalu, in eastern Hungary. He, his sister, and two cousins survived the war in a Swiss-protected Budapest safe house. His parents, who had been deported to Austria, also survived and were reunited with their children in Berettyóújfalu after the war—the only Jewish family from the town to survive intact.

Yet in mid-December, Konrád, now 81, pointedly declined an invitation to take part in an advisory session for a new $22 million state-sponsored Holocaust memorial museum and education center focusing on child victims that is slated to open next spring. “It would be hard to shake the feeling that the hasty organization of this exhibition is not about the hundreds of thousands of children murdered 70 years ago, but rather about the Hungarian government of today,” Konrád wrote in anopen letter to the museum’s director. “If the government wanted to devote such a large sum to the memory of these children, then in the spirit of the children’s spiritual heritage I would suggest they turn this amount over to feeding the badly nourished, living Hungarian children of today.”

Konrád’s words reflected the powerful mix of political, emotional, and ideological passions that the plans for the new complex have ignited in this sharply polarized country since they were announced in September by the nationalist Fidesz party government, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The new institution is to center mainly on the experience of children during the Holocaust—but also on Hungarians who rescued Jews. It will be located in the disused Józsefváros train station in Budapest’s rundown Eighth District, once a teeming Jewish neighborhood, and will be called “House of Fates,” a name that harks back to Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész’s novel Fatelessness, which narrates the experiences of a teenaged boy during the Shoah. Continue reading…

 

See more site plan pictures of the museum

 

 

I’m on Italian TV (very, very briefly)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

On Saturday, I attended a ceremony in the outrageously beautiful Umbrian hill town, Polino, where the local authorities named a newly built piazza in honor of Giovanni Palatucci, a World War II Italian fascist police official who is reputed to have saved thousands of Jews by giving them false documents.

Palatucci, who died in Dachau, is revered as a popular hero in Italy (he was also honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem and honored by the ADL, the Roman Catholic Church, the Italian Jewish community and others) — even though recent scholarship has cast serious doubts on the extent of his rescue efforts. He is known to have worked to save at least some Jews, but the generally quoted figure of 5,000 seems inflated….

Anyway, it was a lovely ceremony that mixed hagiography with true sincerety.

A representative of the Jewish community in Rome was invited — but declined because it took place on Shabbat.

I myself attended mainly because my friend, Mario Carletti, sculpted the memorial that marks the new piazza. It shows a bust of Palatucci, with barbed wire gates and the “arbeit macht frei” slogan.

Still, listening to the priest, the mayor, the police band, the prefect, I felt that there needed to be a Jewish voice — so I more or less invited myself to say a few words, stressing the need to honor those who did what the majority of people did not, and reminding of the teaching that whoever saves one life saves the world.

Local Italian TV ran a spot — it starts at minute 8:00, and I can be seen (in a white linen suit) walking in the procession at 8:52 . CLICK HERE FOR THE LINK