If you want to read a troubling book, troubling because it reveals the extent to which Germany and Germans are obsessed with Jews — how a relentless in-denial masquerading anti-Semitism is part of Deutschland’s cultural psyche — I heartily recommend I Sleep in Hitler’s Room: An American Jew Visits Germany (The Uncensored Version) by Tuvia Tenenbom.
I met Tuvia this spring in New York City at a wonderful lunch put on by the Gatestone Institute. Jolly, roly-poly, mischievous, a real character, Tuvia is a popular columnist for Die Zeit, for which he pens regular commentary about the land of the cowboys and Indians. And Jewish bankers. This book was to be and is a travel log, commissioned in 2009 by Rowohlt, the big German publishing house, which had prepped a major publicity campaign and targeted the book (its original title, Ich bin Deutschland: Eine Entdeckungsreise, refers to a “voyage of discovery”) as a bestseller for early 2011.
And so off Tenenbom went to Germany, to discover. And what he discovered, from the get-go, as he ricocheted from city to countryside, from protest to tourist spot to fair, from museum to business to soccer match, from church to synagogue to mosque, were two consistent things: In nearly every German’s hand (Muslims aside) was a beer, and on every German’s mind was . . . Jews, and how they control international commerce, or, more likely, just how terribly Israel treats Hamas and the Palestinians, spewing forth typically via the defensive rhetoric of I love Jews, it’s just the Zionist state I can’t stand. (Muslims not aside on that.) The commentary of the Tenenbom-engaged German flows freely, often with little or no prompting. (What did not freely flow were answers to his inquiries about what grandpa did during WWII, and, in East Germany, whether relatives were Stasi snitches: Raising these subjects rendered Johann Q. Public mute.)
Over his five months of travel, Tenenbom interviewed big shots (Helmut Schmidt, Adenauer’s grandson Paul), little shots, no shots, rabbis, imams, editors, protestors, hooligans, Nazis. Tenenbom is a wild writer, a real wiseass, terribly funny, sarcastic, engaging, powerful, accusatory, judgmental, good! He is happy to share his own bugaboos and prejudices (like: organized religion—he could stand a smack upside the head for this), but all told this is a tremendous book, hugely entertaining as prose and terribly unnerving for the picture it paints of Germany and how its infamous past may not be so distant. One interview is particularly symbolic and maddening: the director of the concentration-camp museum at Buchenwald boasts of his active support for Palestine and Gaza extremists. “Hamas, Hamas ϋber alles!”
Delivered to the publisher as promised, I Sleep in Hitler’s Room now finds itself a book without a country. German-speaking anyway. What was originally an anticipated goofy/funny romp from Bavaria to the Rhineland has proven to be an indictment: Anti-Semitism is alive and well in Europe. Not that we don’t know such. But Tenenbom has hit a nerve with his temerity to point out the big elephant in the room. Or big Jew. Rowohlt is now doing its best I-zee-nuzzing impression of Sergeant Schultz: It dropped the book. Supposedly, some other German publisher may be interested.
Back in America, Tenenbom has self-published an English edition. That’s usually a death-kiss for any book’s potential seriousness. In this case, however, what’s usual should be meaningless. I Sleep in Hitler’s Room is an important work that deserves a large audience.
The one and only.