Checking in to Germany

What better way to study German anti- Semitism than to travel the country for five months? A journey with Tuvia Tenenbom.

Tuvia Tenenbom (right) with ‘Die Zeit’ editor-inchief Giovanni di Lorenzo. (photo credit: ISI TENENBOM)
Tuvia Tenenbom (right) with ‘Die Zeit’ editor-inchief Giovanni di Lorenzo.
(photo credit: ISI TENENBOM)
It is difficult not to like Tuvia Tenenbom – the man simply runneth over with bonhomie.
That glaringly positive trait stood Tenenbom in very good stead when he undertook to spend time – around five months – traveling the highways and byways of Germany as he set out to discover what it means to be German, and what Germany is really all about.
The results of his escapade can be enjoyed in his characteristically tonguein- cheek entitled book, I Sleep in Hitler’s Room: An American Jew Visits Germany, published in association with the Jewish Theater of New York.
The tome is an inviting read and chronicles Tenenbom’s madcap tour through Germany, during which it seems he encountered practically every kind of person living in the country today.
Indeed, the Jerusalem-born writer spends time with 90-something former chancellor Herman Schmidt, whom he whimsically calls “rabbi.” For starters, Tenenbom discovers that Schmidt’s paternal grandfather was Jewish, and adds that Schmidt is blessed with what the writer considers a rabbinical trait: his own way of tiptoeing through minefields.
There are so many and manifold characters in I Sleep in Hitler’s Room that you might get the feeling Tenenbom started out on the adventure with a checklist of German citizens, across every social class and ethnic group imaginable. But nothing could be further from the truth. The whole venture evolved like a stream of consciousness, as Tenenbom went with the flow, deciding on his next destination on a whim, or what he considered to be a natural sequitur to his most recent encounter.
For example, after an illuminating meeting with Die Zeit editor-in-chief Giovanni di Lorenzo – Tenenbom’s many professional avenues include writing for the German weekly – the writer makes a mental note to make sure he incorporates Germany’s sizable Turkish community in his psychological- sociological travelogue. The result of the latter impulse is a compelling, emotive and raucously entertaining foray into “enemy territory,” the district of Marxloh in Duisburg, where the vast majority of residents are Turkish-born or of Turkish descent.
“The book was random, it was unplanned,” declares Tenenbom. Did he really decide on his next stop on his way to, hopefully, getting a deeper understanding of the German psyche, just like that? “That’s exactly the way it went,” the author continues. “I could have done it scientifically, you know, by picking up a phone and calling people randomly, but there is nothing scientific about this book.”
Mind you, he does “cheat” a bit here or there. He often neglects to identify himself as Jewish to his interviewees, presenting himself as either an American or an American of German origin, and gives himself the nice, safe, Aryan-sounding name of Tobias, instead of Tuvia. It is a ruse that serves him well, and enables him to get a handle on his interviewees’ true feelings and non-PC beliefs – which, after all, was the whole point behind the trans-German exercise.
In fact, he hails from a haredi Israeli family, and spends much of his time plane-hopping around the world. In addition to his journalistic endeavor, he is a political playwright and founding artistic director of the Jewish Theater of New York; he also has degrees in mathematics, computer science, dramatic writing and literature.
He has an impressive command of English, but it is clearly not his mother tongue. That comes through in the book, and the writer frequently almost gets the right word or expression – but not quite.
Yet he is proudly unrepentant about not always getting it right.
“One of the pleasures of working in theater, and writing plays, is to bastardize the English language,” he states. “Sometimes you can use colloquial English, and sometimes I can use my own colloquial expressions.
That’s the fun of it. You can do that in theater, and I do that also in prose. The important thing is that the book flows.”
It certainly does; it is hard to put down.
As one chapter ends you feel the urge to get on the train together with Tenenbom and his wife, Isi, who is credited with taking 2,000 photographs for the book – they delightfully maintain the writer’s mischievous mind-set – and see who his next interviewees are.
I Sleep in Hitler’s Room is not his first attempt at delving into a cultural mind-set.
He has also written extensively about the Jewish state, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and America.
Naturally, writing about Germany and, more pointedly, investigating the level of anti-Semitism there is a very different proposition from, say, writing about the US.
Tenenbom says he attempted to approach the job at hand like any other. “I go to a place, take my old prejudices, whatever they are, and throw them away and come like a baby,” he says, “like someone from Mars.”
Surely trying to get under the skin of a country which, not so long ago, was ruled by the most fiendish leader in the history of mankind, responsible for the deaths of six million Jews, could not have been just another day at the office for Tenenbom. “Theater helps a lot with that,” the writer notes.
“You become an actor, a player. If I have to play a Pole, I really believe I am Polish. It’s part of theater.
“They say the world’s a stage, and it’s true.
For this book, I combined journalism with the world of theater. This is non-fiction but you have to make it like fiction, so it grabs the reader’s attention. Most travelogues are boring, but you can use theater to build it up and make it really interesting.”
Despite being a pleasurable read, I Sleep in Hitler’s Room contains some disturbing findings.
Tenenbom’s thespian skills come into play time and again, and help him through some choppy waters. At Club 88, for example, a neo-Nazi bar in Neumünster where Tenenbom tells people he is the son of Germans who emigrated to the US, he is told the Germans did not kill six million Jews, but that all the Jews should be killed.
The writer finds himself constantly challenged to equate the eminently personable characters he encounters with the unsavory ideas they expound. “In a place like Club 88, if you don’t play the situation theatrically, if you don’t bring theatrical techniques to the fore, you simply can’t handle circumstances like that,” he notes. “I did that in Marxloh too, but I got on very well with the Turks. They have a Middle Eastern mentality, and I feel comfortable with that.”
I Sleep in Hitler’s Room is not just about trying to understand the Germans’ view of Jews, and Tenenbom encounters hardliner environmentalists who also give him a tough time, and which he likens to Nazism. .
Tenenbom navigates all kinds of Germanic conundrums along the way and, despite concluding that anti-Semitism is rife in contemporary Germany, the German- language version of the book became a best-seller there.
After spending five months traipsing across Germany, meeting all sorts of people with very different approaches to life and to the Jews, one could easily see Tenenbom vowing never to return there.
But that is not the case. Although he breathes a sigh of relief when he “escapes” to Denmark, paradoxically he finds himself missing Germany.
The affable writer appears to be almost as unfathomable as his subject matter.