The name “Munich” quickly brings the Oktoberfest to mind. This can be annoying to cultured Münchner, or Munich residents, who would prefer that people think of their lofty museums or at least the picturesque castles nearby. But it used to be far worse, as Munich was where Adolf Hitler rose to power. It was here where the famous Putsch attempt took place, so notorious that this is “the” Putsch that introduced the word into the English language. The Alter Hof, or old court, currently an elegant apartment building, used to be a 13th-century castle that housed the Wittelsbach rulers. Despite this, tour guides spend more time explaining how Hitler painted postcards there to peddle to tourists.
If only they had bought more of them. A lot more.
The putsch failed, and Hitler was incarcerated for a year before a right-wing sympathetic Bavarian government let him out early. He did have enough time, however, to write Mein Kampf, a book that my 9th-grade English teacher would have ripped apart just for its terrible writing. Let’s not even get into its contents.
But history now comes full circle. This city that served as the cradle of Naziism will now become the host city of the Conference of European Rabbis or CER. This organization of ca. 1,000 rabbis has had its seat in London for the past 67 years, but since the UK’s exit from the EU, that city has been deemed a less-than-optimal location. The new Center for Jewish Life in Munich will provide educational programs for its member rabbis.
I used to work right next to Munich’s prominent Jewish synagogue and walked by it every day on my way to the office. This ultra-modern building was constructed after WWII on an empty plot of land purchased by the Jewish community. Its base features huge bricks just like the ones in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. There is also a Jewish museum and next door is a Jewish kindergarten and school with a kosher restaurant on the ground floor. My colleagues and I used to have lunch there on special occasions and enjoyed talking to the Hungarian waiter while dining on hummus and other Middle Eastern delicacies.
The site of the original synagogue in Munich now stands empty behind a prominent department store, its site marked by a stone memorial. The synagogue was destroyed on Hitler’s orders and the site serves as a permanent memorial, for Munich was also a site of the Reichskristallnacht on November 9th, 1938, when synagogues, Jewish homes and stores were burned all across the country and many Jews were murdered or sent to concentration camps. It is a bitter irony that this synagogue was located right behind the Karstadt department store, one of many German department stores founded in the 19th century by Jews. These were confiscated and their owners were persecuted or killed during the Holocaust.
Almost as if on cue, construction workers by chance just discovered some of the stone remains of this synagogue which were dumped into Munich’s Isar River, including a stone tablet with the Ten Commandments.
CER’s President Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, initially referred to moving the organization to Munich as “really meshuga” (Yiddish for “crazy”). He later changed his mind and spoke of the “courage of a new beginning.” In some respects, it is fitting that the CER comes to Munich, as the city is home to one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in Germany.
I have given so many visitors the so-called “Nazi tour of Munich,” easily done as all of the major events related to the rise of the National Socialists took place within a small radius. The Alter Hof, where Hitler painted postcards, is a short walking distance from the Hofbräuhaus. This is now filled with camera-toting tourists, but it was also the site where Hitler gave rousing speeches – and where he was once mistaken for an oddly loquacious waiter.
Most intriguing of all is the “Drückebergergasse” or “Shirker’s Alley.” The actual name of this short street is Viscardigasse, and it is strategically located just behind the Feldherrenhalle or Hall of Generals where there used to be a Nazi memorial commemorating this as the site of the failed putsch. Anyone passing by this memorial was obliged to give the Hitler salute, but people quickly caught on to the shortcut through the Viscardigasse to avoid having to do this. Nazi guards caught on equally quickly to what they were doing and started requiring people to explain what business they had in the Viscardigasse.
Anyone unable to give an adequate explanation was arrested.
There is still antisemitism, no doubt. When I walked to my office across the huge Jakobsplatz, site of the current Jewish synagogue, in the early morning hours, the square would be practically empty – save for what my colleagues and I guessed to be Mossad agents placed at strategic corners, watching as people passed. They were there to protect this cluster of Jewish institutions. When we went to the Jewish restaurant we also had to pass through a metal detector and show our bags, just like in an airport.
“You work around here, don’t you?” one of the security guards said to me as I entered the restaurant.
That was a bit rattling. This guy recognized me simply because I had walked past him during the morning on my way to the office.
One can only hope that, just like the Nazi government, the heightened security measures now in place will also someday become obsolete.
Photo of Munich synagogue: Peter Addor from Wikimedia Commons