I’ve read some strange books in my time, but this one certainly pushes the boundaries. At first glance it seems to be a typical travel book in Bryson-esque style. But with its title, I Sleep in Hitler’s Room – An American Jew Visits Germany, you know from the start that this is not going to be your usual travelogue.
I first encountered it from an article in the English edition of German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, and being a bit of a Germano-phile (I love travelling in the Germany), I thought I would see what it was like.
Tuvia Tenenbom is the son of Holocaust survivors and also Founding Artistic Director of the Jewish Theater of New York. He was invited to write this book by the publishing company Rowohlt Verlag, one of the biggest in Germany. The company’s representative asked him if he would like to come to Germany, to “travel around the country a few months, and write a book about my experiences”. By the time Tenenbom had submitted the draft of his book he found himself in serious dispute with the publishers who evidently did not feel that they have got what they bargained for.
The scurrilous, partisan, rude and hilarious manuscript ended up being red-penned to the degree that Tenenbom felt that he could no longer be associated with it and the publishers refused to publish it without major changes. Tenenbom eventually published the book himself in the USA and finally this year, a German version was published but with quite a number of deletions of passages which may have fallen foul of German law. In the English version reviewed here, you get the complete text, a book which I found to be one of the funniest and also the most controversial things I have read this year.
Tenenbom delights in provocation, reminding me slightly of Sacha Baron Cohen in his Borat character. He loves getting himself into situations which will draw out the worst in those he meets and seems to be on a quest to show Germans in the worst possible light. For example, he never admits to being Jewish, but goes innocently into an extremist bar in Hamburg called Club 88 (the 88 standing for HH, or “Heil Hitler”) and in conversation with Frank, the owner, tells him that he is a computer analyst from the United States and that both his parents are German. Tuvia says to Frank,
OK, let’s talk about Jews. What should we do with the Jews of today? “Kill them!” (Frank replies) – Turks are bad. Idiots. Or, as he calls them, “dumb Jews.” Turks have no patience, can’t calculate ahead of time. Not so the Jews. The Jews, who are the worst of creatures, they can stick it to you five years later. Just wait and see. “The Jews are the worst. There are millions of Jews in Germany.” How many millions? “At least one million.”
The Jews, who consider themselves Children of God, used to sacrifice their own kids to their God. This is a known fact. Today, in keeping with their ancient custom, they take dolls and perform a sacrificial ritual. Yes. When George Bush was president, Jewish leaders performed such a ritual in the presence of President Bush and other world leaders. This ritual was filmed and is available on YouTube.” Where on YouTube? Frank opens his laptop to show me the YouTube clip. It takes some time. Much time. He can’t find the clip. Maybe a Jew from Berlin has blocked him. But don’t worry. Frank has the clip on a DVD. In his house. Maybe I will come again.
Tenenbom is not only intent on finding anti-Semitism among the German right but has a field day finding it among the left also. He visits a left-wing demonstration and discovers that the main purpose is to protest about Israeli actions against the Palestinians. As he travels around Germany he finds that the political consensus is to blame Israel for the problems of the Palestinians and he enjoys confronting Germans with some simple facts about Israel and Palestine to test out the depth of their knowledge. Whether the anti-Israeli attitudes he discovers are anti-Semitism or not is a matter of opinion of course – most readers would want to question whether condemning Israeli agression is the same as sending Jews to concentration camps, but Tenenbom has a lot of fun along the way exposing the shallowness of the average citizen’s knowledge of Middle-East politics.
There are many amusing stories om the book. Tenenbom gets into a railway carriage on a hot summer day and opens the window to let some air in . . .
. . . immediately, there is a German Invasion. First, a thirty-year old woman approaches. She asks me, in German-accented English, to please pull up the window. “There is too much draft!” she says. How did she know I speak English? She must have been trained in the German secret service. She’s so tough, so demanding, that I think it’s not really worth it to start World War III just for this. I offer a compromise: half opened, half closed. She says nothing and so I assume she agrees, and I close it halfway. One and one-half minutes later another German lady approaches. This one looks to be in her early twenties, fit and healthy, beautiful and athletic. She wants me to close the window because, she says, “it’s too cold.” Where was she born, in the Sahara Desert? Today is one of the hottest days of the year. What’s happening with her? She demands that I comply with her order. I try the 50 percent formula again. She leaves, saying nothing. I pull up the window. Now I have it open only one quarter of the way.
He laughs about their extreme “green-ness” . . .
I walk about smoking my cigarettes. Done with one pack, I try to dispose of my empty cigarette box in the garbage can. But it’s not an easy task in this town, as I soon learn, when a local woman catches me in the act and sternly reminds me that anything that has a plastic cover, like my empty cigarette box, must be taken out, together with the silver wrapper inside, and be disposed of in the yellow bin, bitte! You cannot put the whole empty box in one bin, just like that. She stands next to me to watch me comply. I must first separate the parts of the empty box. Yes. I’ll never live in Tübingen!
This is an easy humour – anyone who travels in Germany can find these things happening to them. Yes, Tenenbom hits the mark here, but it is not all trivial – he also meets ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who happily discusses the historic legacy of Germany after the Holocaust and the Middle-East conflict. The ensuing conversation is not the most respectful I have read, but at least gives a touch of seriousness to this otherwise satirical book.
Knowing that Germany has a large Turkish minority Tenenbom takes time to go and stay in Turkish suburbs and visit homes and mosques, meeting both ethnic Turks and also Germans who work among ethnic minorities. Again he disguises the fact that he is a Jew and soon discovers a huge amount of hatred for Israel and the Jewish people. At this point he makes the perhaps obvious connection that Germans have no right to be so supportive of Islamic immigrants or Palestinians when these people are so committed to wiping Jews off the planet in Israel . . .
I found pride in the Turkish community, huge pride, but also much hate. I admire their spine, their passion, their commitment, and the warmth of their culture. But their senseless hate, their never-ending Jew mocking, and the ease with which their community embraces fanaticism disgust me. I’m sorry. And then there are the Germans. What they protect is not the Quran or Islam, as they know nothing about either, but the kind of Islam that prevails in their society. Here are Germans who want to erase the shame of being the Jew killers of yesterday by uniting with the Jew haters of today. These Germans have no backbone, no pride, no knowledge, and very little humanity. 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.
No doubt it is statements like this that turned the German publisher away from wanting to be associated with the book.
I found this to be a rather one-sided book but anyone who challenges a political consensus is bound to appear to be polemical. I am glad that I read it and it provided me with several days of amusement, but I can’t say that its changed my liking for modern-day Germany and the German people or made me think that the whole nation is anti-Semitic in the way Tenenbom suggests. Tenenbom could have gone to any European country and find the same sort of people saying the same sort of thing. It might even be worse in America which is not exactly known for its liberal attitudes. The book is a great read however and bears comparison with journalists turned social commentators such as Michael Moore (Downsize This and Stupid White Men) and Jon Ronson (Men Who Stare at Goats and Them, Adventures with Extremists).
The photographs in this article are taken from the book.