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.
The only officer in Braunau who worked there that long ago was the police chief. He was preoccupied with potential disturbances linked to Hitler’s birthday but promised to look in an old storage space for the log book for the time of my jail stay. We locked eyes, grinned, and bonded: two middle-aged people remembering the escapades of youth.
As it turned out, nothing untoward happened in Braunau that year on Hitler’s birthday. And the chief made good on his promise: the next day he produced a huge ledger that had taken some time to find. We leafed through the yellowing pages, and there it was! It was a bit of a let-down, though: all it said was “übernachtung”—overnight stay.
“Can I see the cell?” I asked.
Yes, I could—and I was lucky, the chief told me. The cell I had been in was a sort of holding facility, for drunks and such; and it was due to be demolished later that year.