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May 1, 2020 9:14 am

On Anniversary of Hitler’s Death, Remembering His Birth

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

Opinion

Adolf Hitler giving a Nazi salute. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This week marked the 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 trip to visit the killing fields of Europe where six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. We arrived in Braunau am Inn, Hitler’s birthplace in Austria, on July 16. The town is adjacent to the Inn River, which serves as the border with the German state of Bavaria. When we speak of Hitler as an Austrian, we also have to acknowledge that he was born just a few miles — literally — from the German border.

I had to see the place where Hitler was born, but when I got there, I was disgusted. It was vile. 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. Now, walking down the street of this provincial town on a beautiful summer day, I could not wrap my head around the fact that the man responsible for the Holocaust was born right here.

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? How could one person have done that? It wasn’t just one person — 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.

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Of course, we found nothing in the air nor the water. Still, there’s a part of you that wants to blame the city. But the city is not evil, 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. 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 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 worked as a customs official. Adolf was born to Klara, Alois’ 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-Straße 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 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. Yes, Hitler was responsible for the death of millions of people, but it was only the Jews and the Roma whom he sought to exterminate. This was a pretty pathetic way to distinguish the house of the world’s greatest mass murderer.

Walking through the city is eerie. There is a silence between onlookers and visitors. As in other towns we visited, the residents all know why you are there — but don’t want to say anything. We are a Jewish family. We look Jewish. We are traveling around Austria and Germany, and not a lot of people know much about the Jewish people other than they were slaughtered in these places — and many young people do not even know that. They look at us. They don’t mean to look at us in a weird way, but they do because they don’t see a lot of Orthodox 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, and against antisemitism. It is especially important now with the global growth of antisemitism.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s memoir, “Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell,” will be published later this year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.

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