I walk into room 105 on the second floor of an otherwise nondescript music school and see a German student practicing the violin. Only this is no regular music school. It’s the former headquarters of the Nazi party. And this room is the private office of Adolph Hitler.
I ask the student if this was the Nazi leader’s office. He confirms that it was. I ask him if this is also the place where he signed the infamous Munich agreement of 1938, ultimately sealing the world’s fate to a Second World War. He again confirms that it was. He points to Hitler’s private fireplace.
Then, seeing my yarmulke he asks me, “What do you feel being here?”
“A palpable sense of evil,” I respond instantly.
He seems shaken by my response. Perhaps he expected something more philosophical. But I know what I feel and he did ask.
He goes silent and returns to playing his violin.
The is the infamous Fuhrer House in Munich. Specially built by Hitler once he had come to power. It is surrounded by all the organs of the Nazi party, most of them no longer standing. The building has miraculously survived the allied bombing and though the U.S. Army detonated the temple to Nazi martyrs that is immediately next door, they have left this building in tact.
It is today a German music academy. There is not a single sign on any part of the building, or on Hitler’s private office, of who built it or for what purpose. Belatedly, the city of Munich is building a documentation center around the corner to chronicle the Nazi origins that are all around us. They have likewise expanded a small sliver of a square in the city that commemorates victims of National Socialism. The monument is breathtakingly ugly, easily ignored, and pretty pathetic. Even these things have come about only seven decades after the Second World War and the Holocaust.
It remains shocking how little Munich has done to face up to its truth as the birthplace of Nazism whose beer halls, hotels, and crowds gave rise to Adolph Hitler. Contrast this with Berlin that has a national holocaust memorial just a few blocks from the German parliament and Nuremberg that has an admirable museum to the Nazi trials.
In Munich the ghost of Hitler is omnipresent. It is in the Hofbrauhaus, the world’s most famous beer hall, where in February 24, 1920, Hitler named the Nazi party and gave his first major speech before an audience of 2000. It’s also the place of Hitler’s infamous “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923 which brought Hitler national fame and public sympathy. But most of the Nazi monster’s presence is felt around Konigsplatz, the square where books were first burned in 1933, the very epicenter of Nazism, with the headquarters of the Hitler Youth, the SA, and the SS.
That Munich is only now building anything to acknowledge the infamy of the area is deeply disturbing. That German youth play instruments in Nazi national headquarters and Hitler’s private office without feeling a little creeped out is distressing. It’s as if Munich has a subterranean, sinister past, lurking just beneath the surface, that noone wishes to acknowledge or discuss.
While I did not have time to go there on this trip, on my last trip to Munich I visited the site of the murder and hostage-taking of the 11 Israeli athletes of the Munich Olympic games of 1972. Even then I was disappointed to see the tiny, insignificant stone marker outside what is today a residential unit. For goodness sake, they didn’t make the residence into a museum to educate the public about 11 Jewish athletes that came to an international competition and then through German police incompetence were mercilessly butchered?
I have spent a week now in Europe, lecturing to groups in Germany, Switzerland, and Holland. I have publicly commended Germany, on the whole, for their efforts to educate their public about the holocaust, their efforts to warmly welcome and help build a new Jewish community, and Angela Merkel’s strong friendship with Israel.
I have spoken to German Jewish audiences about wearing Yarmulkes and being proudly and identifiably Jewish in public (a reverse of the Yellow star of shame). Of all the messages I carried this one met with the most resistance. A rabbi told me before 400 people on Shabbos that I am unwittingly endangering people’s lives by encouraging them to wear Yarmulkes. The climate in Europe is too hostile, he told me.
I am not a European but I did live in Europe, in Oxford England, for 11 years. And I had my share of anti-Semitic incidents. But a continent that has experienced such a long history of anti-Semitism requires a Jewish community that stands up proudly and unafraid for their identity. And where could it possibly be more important or symbolic than Germany.