I Sleep in Hitler’s Room: An American Jew Visits Germany. That’s the book’s title, and the text itself is every bit as compelling as the title leads one to expect.
So, for that matter, is the book’s back story, as the author, Tuvia Tenenbom, relates it in his preface. Tenenbom spent several months traveling around Germany and recording his observations, and had a contract with the major German publisher Rowohlt, which accepted the completed manuscript and planned to bring the book out in April 2011. But then the head of Rowohlt demanded certain cuts and changes–mainly in Tenenbom’s no-holds-barred references to German anti-Semitism. Tenenbom flatly refused.
“Germans are a tribe, I was told,” explains Tenenbom, “and the tribe will protect itself. This is something I am not used to. Walk into any American bookstore and you will find quite a number of books that are fiercely anti-American. … But Germany … is not America.” An unpleasant struggle ensued, confirming for Tenenbom that German “hate for the Jew then, and the hate of the Jew today … is the same exact hate.”
So it is that the book has now appeared under the imprint of the Jewish Theater of New York, of which Tenenbom is the founder and artistic director.
It’s a book in a category all its own—deeply sobering, depressing even, in its observations of the darker side of Germany, yet at the same time so chatty and engaging and laugh-out-loud funny that it’s hard to put down. Tenenbom is an acute observer of his fellowman, but also a born entertainer, a comedian, who approaches his interview subjects—of whom there are dozens, ranging from leading political and cultural figures to folks he runs into on the street—as a combination inquisitor and tummler.
But it’s all done on a human level: he’s not a journalist taking notes but a fellow human being, intense in his curiosity and incapable of hiding his emotions. He challenges his interlocutors, posing questions nobody has ever asked them before, and he’s relentless, always demanding the truth, wanting to know what these people really think and feel, rejecting their canned answers, the things they say because they think that’s what he wants to hear.
Yet even when they turn out to have emotions that he finds chilling, he’s able—at least in some cases—to like them anyway, able to separate his intellectual revulsion at their ideas from his personal response to them as human beings. He has a gifted playwright’s fascination with people and an unwillingness to reduce them to their opinions. He’s also, as noted, blessed with an extraordinary sense of humor, and indeed it’s plainly his humor that gets him through it all, that enables him to press on and even find enjoyment in so much of what he experiences in Germany–this, despite the apparent ubiquity of anti-Semitism, which, if not the book’s sole topic, is the thread running through it.