I Sleep in Hitler’s Room – Tuvia Tenenbom


This book, subtitled An American Jew Visits Germany, was due to be published by Rowohlt in April 2011. Its non appearance was because of Alexander Fest, head of Rowohlt. Mr Fest wanted some changes to the manuscript – a manuscript that had been accepted and approved by the editor assigned to the task.

What kind of changes?

From the preface:

“I was presented with a version of the manuscript reflecting cuts and changes throughout, and only if I agreed with their “edited” version would they publish the book. Most of the edits had to do with German anti-Semitism, which this book uncovers. Accounts of it were fully cut from their edited version. Also cut were passages of certain interviews where respondents betrayed their anti-Semitism and were now transformed into philo-Semites by the stroke of a pen.

Other times Mr Fest showed a creative streak. In a few instances where this book had the word Jews in it, he demanded that it be changed to Israel. It’s not nice to show that there are Germans who hate Jews, but Israel is a different story; that’s political and the Israelis, after all, are known to be bad people.

What he did was not make the book “overcomplex” or “informed.” What he did was pure censorship, fit for an Iranian publisher under the ayatollahs. He steamed when I said this, but he didn’t change his mind.”

If your heart sinks after reading this, you are not alone. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the book, but I persevered. I’m glad I did.

First, the book is about a sort of Bill Bryson journey across Germany by the Israeli journalist Tuvia Tenenbom. It’s important to stress that he did not set out with the express purpose of finding anti-Semitism. In fact, there are several episodes in the book that start off far, far away from that, but end up with the oldest hate in evidence courtesy of something the interviewees have said, unprompted. Bizarre. And troubling.

Second, though Tenenbom is a gifted an entertaining writer, this is not as laugh out loud funny as Catch the Jew! though it does its very best to make humor among the dark moments.

Dark moments? There is naked anti-Semitism on display here, right in the heart of contemporary Europe. It may not be politically correct to say so, but it is a certainty that the influx of immigrants caused by the breakup and civil war in Syria will make the situation worse. There will be more dark moments. There will probably be dark actions.

And my comment about the comparative state of the humor is not meant to be critical; it’s an observation. My guess is that the writing reflects Mr Tenenbom’s feelings about what was appropriate. Perhaps he felt no need to restrain his comic talents in Israel, where the Theater of the Absurd runs performances all day, every day, apparently.

Third, there are narratives that don’t involve Jews or anti-Semitism or Israel. Somehow, they do not have the same impact. This may be because I am not a fan of travel writing, and even the material by the superstar Bill Bryson doesn’t do it for me. Personally, I prefer Tenenbom’s perspective, his refusal to be shackled, and his willingness to tackle the hard stuff.

Fourth, the book gave me a bit of a surprise with the author’s report on the Jewish community of Germany, and the disconnect between its stated size and rebirth, and the actual numbers. I would liked to have known more, but that was outside the book’s scope. However, it may be a decent project for someone else to follow up.

It would be misleading to say I enjoyed this book. But I did get a lot out of it, and fairly squirmed as Tenenbom uncovered more and more of the hate. As you will gather, I like his idiosyncratic writing style, and can perhaps give that credit as well for getting me to the finishing line. I recommend it because it will give you a more honest appraisal of society and its attitudes than reading the mainstream media.

After reading the book, my feelings were conflicted. There are a number of Germans (gamers, of course) with whom I am on speaking terms. I have met many, and had many long, rambling, and often entertaining and enlightening discussions about life, the universe, and everything. There has never been the slightest whiff of anti-Semitism. (I cannot say the same of discussions had with gamers more close to my former home.) It may be wrong of me, but the book’s contents make me wonder if I was being naive, and those people were being devious, and hiding their true feelings.

In summary: Tenenbom is a talent, and this is an important, sharp, well written, brutally honest, and often entertaining and challenging look at an important part of modern day society that is all too readily ignored or excused.

I will finish with this significant observation by the author:

“The anti-Semitism I encountered in Germany is probably more subconscious than conscious. Perhaps it has to do more with the psychological history of the German[s] than with thought-out anti-Semitism. It is, maybe, in the line of: I have to blame the one I killed. It’s not the same anti-Semitism that I encountered, say, in Poland. Polish anti-Semitism, as far as I can tell, is grounded in religion. Germany’s is grounded in psychology and narcissism. Grandpa and grandma built entertainment centers, such as the zoo-plus-crematoriums, and I can’t live with it. For them it was double the pleasure for one ticket, but for their grandchildren it’s double the horror. The fastest and most childish way to ease the weight of such baggage is to blame “the Jews.” They are the real Nazis; not grandpa, never grandma.”

[For an earlier snippet about the book, see Why not to watch Al Jazeera.]