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.
After he’s spent a while in the land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, Tenenbom decides that Germans “are obsessed with Jews.” It’s impossible, he finds, to get through a day without hearing mention of Jews, Israel, and/or the Holocaust. He is constantly exposed to rote expressions of sympathy for the victims of Auschwitz—and rote expressions of rage over Israel’s supposedly deplorable treatment of the Palestinians. In a bookstore window in Düsseldorf, he sees three titles: “A book about Palestine, a book about the Holocaust, and another book written by an Israeli leftist who is a strong critic of the Israeli government.”
He keeps being told by Germans that there’s more anti-Semitism in the U.S. than in Germany. Why? Because there are more Jews in the U.S.–they simply take for granted that if there are more Jews, there must be more Jew-hate. He meets secondary-school students who complain that their teachers don’t tell them much about the Nazi era: “Just numbers and dates. They don’t go into depth. They don’t tell us what really happened. We want to know more.”
Insights that seem random at the outset gradually coalesce into a picture of a distinctive sensibility. Noting the excessive preoccupation of many Germans with things like recycling, Tenenbom points out that “righteous people can turn into animals in a second…It wasn’t the bad economy that turned the country to Nazism; it was the Weimar people and their righteousness.” He meets Germans who are so politically correct, so perfect in their leftism, that they cheer for North Korea at a soccer game. And he interviews a young man who’s head of education at Buchenwald—and who’s also such a passionate pro-Palestinian that even after having lost an eye and his brother as the result of a bomb placed in their car by a Palestinian, he remains a fierce supporter of the cause. Tenenbom is brilliant, telling the young man that he has every right to his politics, but asking him how someone in his job cannot “feel the need to be a little more sensitive to Jewish feeling. … I ask him if his hate for the Jew is so deeply rooted that sense has simply failed him.” The young man listens silently, his hands shaking.
What’s going on here? All too many Germans, Tenenbom suggests, “want to erase the shame of being the Jew killers of yesterday by uniting with the Jew haters of today. … Peace and Love, they say, a thousand times a day, and it’s a thousand times empty. They flash two fingers, front and back, for Peace and for Love, but their hearts sing Sieg Heil.” The German media not only don’t expose the Jew-hate, moreover; they strive to hide it. “Eighty-two million Germans,” he notes wryly, and they “have nothing better to do than be obsessed with 106,000 Jews living among them.” Why? One of his interviewees, a businessman, has this to say: “There are basically no Jews in this country, just a very few. The relationship the people here have to the Jews is theoretical, not real.”
As for Tenenbom himself, he has these reflections to offer:
“The Germans, and sorry for generalizing, will do everything and anything to look good, to appear beautiful, to sound smart. But who are they, really? They are the most narcissistic nation on the planet. They think the world of themselves, and they want everyone to agree with them. … More than any other nation in the world, the Germans concentrate deeply on visual beauty – and they get results. But they don’t stop there. Subconsciously the Germans think that if they occupy themselves with the Palestinians of Gaza they will erase from memory the Brown Bears of Buchenwald – and will look beautiful in the eyes of the world.
Tenenbom’s conversation with the young man at Buchenwald is far from the only arresting exchange recorded in these pages. Visiting the concentration camp at Dachau, Tenenbom meets an “average” couple who live in the town and is invited to lunch at their home. He devotes four pages to a stunning account of his unrelenting questioning of them. (It is in such passages that one is reminded that he is a playwright.) He asks them about Dachau’s past. At first they profess indifference. But eventually he breaks them down. The man weeps and confesses that he doesn’t want to look into the past because it would be like looking into a mirror. He is the Nazis; the Nazis are him.
Then there is the fatuous “peace activist”—an ethnic German woman who thinks she is furthering the cause of intercultural harmony by planting a rose garden on the grounds of a mosque. “In other words,” Tenenbom explains to us, “this is a p.r. tool for promoting an image of the mosque and of Islam as being full of friendliness and love.” He grills her like a first-rate prosecutor. “You will achieve world peace, love between the three religions, because of a rose?” he asks. “Why will those who hate the Muslims come to your garden?” And how, while we’re at it, can a feminist support Islam? When she tells him that Islam means peace, he corrects her; this woman who has been working on a pro-Islam project for years has apparently never heard that Islam actually means submission to Allah. “Nobody,” Tenenbom realizes, “has ever challenged her before, and now she feels like a total idiot.”
More and more, his own understanding of the German people comes to revolve around the whole business of Germans being a tribe. He notes the ubiquity of the word Verein – which means group, association, fellowship. The Germans, he realizes, “are ‘group’ people. … Germans move together, walk together, act together, and think together.” Adenauer, the businessman, agrees with him that Germans are “tribal,” and that Hitler took advantage of this by “defining the tribe as ‘Aryan’.”
Tenenbom’s one recurring question for his interviewees is: What does it mean to be German? He gets a wide range of answers. Adenauer tells him: “In the United States they believe in themselves, a feeling of ‘I can do.’ That is not the case here. Here is this belief that somebody, usually government, can and should do everything. This translates into an attitude that if something I did doesn’t work, it’s never my fault….” Tenenbom asks if this might explain World War II. “In a way,” says Adenauer. “There’s this belief and trust in authority. … Germans like to follow leadership. … They are not people who will stand their ground. They have no political backbone.”
Tenenbom serves up his own list of cardinal German attributes: “Love of technology, self-righteousness, innate anti-Semitism, cultural curiosity, stubbornness, visual genius, emulation of America, legalism, brainy stupidity, and the worst of all: childish extremism.” To be sure, German anti-Semitism “is probably more subconscious than conscious. … Polish anti-Semitism, as far as I can tell, is grounded in religion. Germany’s is grounded in psychology and narcissism.” It’s also different from Muslim anti-Semitism. When Tenenbom is in the company of German Turks, “I think they’re racist, they think I’m racist, but we felt perfect together. … Islamic anti-Semitism is grounded in politics, or in religion, but German anti-Semitism runs far deeper.”
I don’t know if I agree with this or not, but I’m sure that Tenenbom means what he says. He’s an honest broker—honest to a fault, honest about himself, honest about Jews, America, Islam, and every other topic he takes on. And he’s stubborn in demanding honesty of others. He is, in short, just the right kind of person to push past the often dense PC facades of the Germans he meets and discover what’s lurking behind them. He’s also honest about his own dramatically shifting emotions. Some days, he admits, “I hate the Germans. Hate them, their big masks, their explicit discussions, their constant preaching, their implicit or explicit Jew hating, their lack of spine, their exact ways, their exact lies, their stubbornness, their hidden racism, their constant need to be loved and congratulated, and their self-proclaimed Righteousness.”
Yet he despises himself for thinking such things, because “somewhere deep inside me … I love the Germans.” He’s enchanted by the beauty of the country: “Lucky are the men, blessed are the women, whose fate and destiny it is to live in this part of the planet.” Therefore he wants to scream: “Why, in goodness’ name, did you ever engage in a war? What else, what more, did you want?….What were you thinking?” He’s impressed and moved by the impeccable postwar reconstruction of Cologne. “But what,” he asks, does it say about Germans that they could dedicate themselves so completely and intently to such a task? Is this an entirely admirable trait – or, perhaps, not?
Then again, he reflects, if Germans can “faithfully restore every stone of their history to its former detail in all its glory,” perhaps – just perhaps—they’re also capable of restoring their own dignity and finding some backbone. “Move away from forced PC,” he advises them. Move away from ‘we decide together.’ Move away from group thinking. Move away from ‘intellectual thinking.’ And from thinking about The Jew, for better or worse. Let the Jews alone. It’s time for the Germans to think for themselves, of themselves.”
It’s too bad this book wasn’t published by Rowohlt. For myself, I don’t agree with Tenenbom about absolutely everything, but I must admit that his impressions of Germany, both positive and negative, are pretty much in line with my own over the past thirty years. I can only hope that I Sleep in Hitler’s Bed finds its way before too long into the German language—and into as many of those Judaism- and Israel-obsessed bookstores as possible. It may just make a bit of a difference.