8.5.20

Opinion: Shmuley Boteach "75 years after Adolf Hitler's suicide"

German Fuhrer Adolph Hitler

The only hint that Hitler was born in the building is that memorial stone. On one side, facing the building, is the German inscription: Stone from Concentration camp Mauthausen.

75th anniversary of the suicide in a German bunker of Adolf Hitler, the most evil man that ever lived.

In the summer of 2017, I took my family on a three-week trip to visit the killing fields of Europe where six million Jews were murdered in the holocaust. We arrived in Braunau am Inn, the Austrian town where Hitler was born on July 16. The town is adjacent to the Inn River, which serves as the border with the German state of Bavaria.

I thought I wanted to go to the place where a normal baby was born. A child like any other who through his rancid, evil choices brought the world into darkness that had never before been seen. Who would have thought that this one person, this baby, when they changed his diaper and fed him, would go on to create the single most catastrophic event in world history. One man brought it about. Without him, it probably would not have happened. 

How is that possible?

I had to see the place, but when I got there I was disgusted. It was vile. I had an all-consuming feeling that I cannot fully put in words. There was a palpable sense of evil. When you grow up learning about Hitler and the Holocaust, places seem so far away and the time seems so distant. I’ve studied about the Holocaust since I was a boy. In my mind it was black and white, it was a thousand years ago. Something like this can only happen in the Dark Ages. My attitude started to change when I was sitting in Amsterdam with Anne Frank’s best friend, Jacqueline van Maarsen, and she started showing us the box full of handwritten items from Anne. I realized then the Holocaust just happened; it is still so recent. There are so many people alive, thank God, that can attest to it; who saw, who experienced, who were part of it. A lot of the evil perpetrators are still alive as well.

Now, walking down the street of this provincial town on a beautiful summer’s day, I could not wrap my head around the fact that the man responsible for the Holocaust was born right here. There was an excruciating, palpable sense of evil; an eerie sense of foreboding.

Although I knew there was no answer, I hoped to somehow find a clue in his hometown to explain Hitler’s motivations. How did this person come into this world? How could he have caused so much suffering to so many people? It wasn’t just one perpetrator: It was the German people, it was the Austrian people, and all the people who participated. But Hitler was the leader who galvanized them all – all of the evil.

I KEPT asking myself, how does all this happen in normal settings? You expect Hitler to be hatched in hell, expect him with claws and horns. But he was a baby, born in this quiet, provincial town nestled on a picturesque river. It’s all too normal. I wanted to find some toxic waste or radiation that might have altered his DNA in a way that would explain how this man became a monster, the way Godzilla emerged in the movies by some sort of power plant because of nuclear radiation.

Of course, we found nothing: not in the air or the water.

Still, there’s a part of you that wants to blame the city. But the city is not evil, and the people are not evil – except the ones who participated in the Holocaust.

The residents are aware of their town’s horrific claim to fame, but can do little about it. One indication of their discomfort was the decision by the town council in 2011 to revoke any honorary citizenship that may have been conferred on Hitler in 1933. The vote was held despite the lack of evidence that Hitler received such an honor.

We walked down the street to where Hitler’s family lived. It is a residential area with a restaurant we found filled with diners, immediately adjacent to Hitler’s birthplace. Everyone was eating and laughing outdoors in the nice weather and I’m sure they gave no thought to the town’s most infamous resident. I felt that it was inappropriate to have a place of food and drink here. They should block off the whole street.

When we reached the address, it was unremarkable. The building had been a guest house where Hitler’s parents rented rooms to be close to the office where his father Alois, who worked as a customs official. Adolf was born to Klara, Alois’s third wife, on April 20, 1889, joining half- siblings Alois Jr. and Angela in the family. Three years later, they moved when Alois was transferred to Passau. 

In April 1938, after the Anschluss, Braunau renamed the street Adolf-Hitler-Stra├če and its town plaza Adolf-Hitler-Platz. Hitler’s personal secretary, Martin Bormann, purchased the house for the Nazi Party and it was used as a cultural center. The letters MB, presumably for Bormann, appear above the door.

The building was briefly occupied by US troops at the end of World War II and temporarily housed a documentary exhibition on Nazi concentration camps. It was kept intact because it was part of the historic city center and was returned to its original owners. In later years, the building housed a library, a bank and classrooms for a high school. Its last tenant was a charity for people with learning disabilities. Since 2011 it has been empty.

You would not recognize the house if you did not know the address – Salzburger Vorstadt 15. There is no plaque or marker that says: This is the building where Hitler was born. In fact, there was nothing at the house until 1989 – two weeks before the centenary of Hitler's birth – when the mayor, Gerhard Skiba, directed that a granite memorial stone be placed directly in front of the house on public ground. His predecessor had wanted to put a tablet on the house, but the owner of the building, Gerlinde Pommer, objected because she said it violated her property rights and feared it would make it a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis or the target of anti-fascists.

The only hint that Hitler was born in the building is that memorial stone. On one side, facing the building, is the German inscription: Stone from Concentration camp Mauthausen. On other side, it says:

For Peace, Freedom and Democracy
Never Again Fascism
Millions of Dead Remind [us]

I found this message strange. What did it mean? Why is the emphasis on unnamed fascists who carried out the Final Solution? As is the case for too many memorials created by the Polish, Austrian and German governments, there is no reference to Jews.

Neo-Nazis and other admirers of Hitler are aware of his birthplace and are drawn to it. Every year, on Hitler’s birthday, anti-fascist protesters rally outside the building. Partly as a response, the Austrian government adopted a special law to expropriate the property from Pommer in 2016 and is now considering demolishing the building. That recommendation has been controversial and I agree with the opponents.

I am completely and utterly opposed to the building’s demolition. Instead of destroying the building, it should be turned into a museum of the Holocaust. Each of these historic places presents an opportunity to educate against genocide, against fascism, against bigotry, against hatred, against racism, against antisemitism. It is especially important now with the global growth of antisemitism.

Shmuley Boteach