Germany's Refugee Crisis Through the Looking-Glass

Hello Refugees!, by Tuvia Tenenbom. Jewish Theater of New York; New York 2017. Paperback; 194 Pages. $12.99

Tuvia Tenenbom is the Jewish world’s answer to the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Diet Coke is Tenenbom’s drug of choice, to be sure, but the method is the same: Get in the middle of a dodgy and maybe dangerous situation and stir up a story that you then can write about. The faux-naiveté with which he accosts the unwitting actors in his improvised theater-of-the-absurd masks a deep cunning; an Israeli-born graduate of ultra-Orthodox religious education with advanced degrees in mathematics and computer science, Tenenbom can start trouble in five languages. Two of his books, Allein unter den Deutschen (alone among the Germans) and Allein unter den Juden (alone among the Jews), were bestsellers in Germany and Israel, respectively. The former first appeared in English under the awkward title I Sleep in Hitler’s Room in 2011, and my review was, to my knowledge, the first that the then-unknown author received.

In the intervening six years Tenenbom has matured as a writer. If Kafka had written non-fiction, he could not have bested Tenenbom’s latest book. It is funny, sad, and frustrating to anyone who wants to make politics out of the European refugee crisis, at any part of the spectrum. This is his best work by far and one of the finest pieces of reporting I have seen in quite some time. Starting in 2016 Germany absorbed over a million migrants, many of them victims of the Syrian civil war but also economic migrants from all over the Islamic world. Germany’s long-serving Chancellor Angela Merkel declared, “Wir schaffen es!” (“We can do it!”) and Germany mobilized to demonstrate its good-heartedness and generosity—not so much to the world, but to itself.

Praised as an expression of German leadership and denounced as capitulation to Muslim invaders, the great migration is neither. In Tenenbom’s account,  bored refugees eat bad food and contract skin rashes in the overcrowded, unsanitary facilities where the German government has dumped them. They are happy to complain to an Arabic-speaking journalist and spill their hopes and dreams—to marry a German blonde, to get rich, to get back to Syria or Afghanistan or Pakistan where they can find edible food. Most are just bored; a few are suicidal, but there is a one-year waiting list to see a German psychiatrist.

Pretending to be a German with a Jordanian mother, Tenenbom talks his way in Arabic into an airplane hangar at Berlin’s Tegel airport, divided into boxes filled with bunk beds. The heat is stifling and sanitary facilities are disgusting. He talks with a Syrian Christian who pretends to be Muslim to avoid beatings from his hangar-mates.  He drives to a small town where a hotel for dogs has been converted into a refugee shelter, and the water runs a sickly yellow out of the faucet. He interviews a Syrian Palestinian who begs him, “Get me out of here.” He hates Germany and wants to go back to his wife and children in Syria. He meets disgruntled locals. One says, “They should go back home….They don’t integrate, they just walk here and steal things. They stole the bicycle of my friend. My girlfriend was raped.” When was this? “Ten years ago.” Were the refugees here then? “I don’t know.”