Sleeping in Hitler's room: the modern German-Jewish relationship

Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 00:00

Germany’s ‘obsession with Jews is frightening’, according to the author of a controversial new book

Germanophiles are a breed apart. There are more of them then you might think – but unlike, say, Francophiles they keep their love of Germany to themselves.

Speaking publicly can have unintended consequences, they learn, and so they keep quiet. Not so with Tuvia Tenenbom. When the New York-based theatre director and journalist was asked by a Berlin publisher to write a German travelogue he jumped at the chance. Already a regular visitor to the country and a contributor to Die Zeit weekly, Tenenbom was expecting a fun few months of train hopping, beer guzzling and flirtations with frisky pensioners.

“This is the only country on planet I totally understood. Their neurotic system is mine; their strive for perfection is mine,” he says on a snowy afternoon in Berlin’s bustling Café Einstein. “But I walk into this place where I feel they are my brothers and I love them, but they don’t love me: they hate me.”

Hate is a strong word but Tuvia Tenenbom is a man of strong convictions. He was born in Israel to a Rabbi father who fled Europe as a child; his Romanian-born mother survived a Nazi concentration camp.

The 55 year old has spent his life testing his own beliefs: Orthodox Judaism, Zionism, then an Israeli leftist, now a non-religious self-professed centrist who “goes where the facts lead”.

Unlike the BBC’s Louis Theroux, who delights in visiting gun-toting polygamists in the US Bible Belt, the facts Tenenbom found in Germany prompted him to take what one reviewer called a “kamikaze trip through the German character”.

From Hamburg to Bavaria, the Black Forest to Berlin, he visited politicians and anarchists, publishers and gastronomes. He records trips to spotless car factories and packed soccer-watching parties. He says that, with no influence on his part, all roads he explored in the German character lead back to the same place: crude anti-Semitic views fuelled by the phantom menace of the international Jewish conspiracy.

His book became a catalogue of these bizarre German assertions about Jews and the things they reportedly control: the world’s media and banks; the black American president and the US economy; even the Aldi supermarket chain.

“Everything in America has something to do with Jews,” a woman in Bavaria tells Tenenbom. A nun informs him: “All over the world the Jews are united.” In a Munich beer garden a fellow drinker asserts that “old Jewish ladies paint their faces and look like little dolls . . . and they all work in diamonds”.

“At first you start laughing, but soon you are too shocked to laugh,” says Tenenbom, whose moon face, blond hair and severe round glasses recall a middle-aged David Hockney.

He meets German philo-Semites who were “Jewish in a previous life” and have embraced klezmer music and German anti-Semites who, he says, wear the politically correct mask of the pro-Palestinian campaigner.

Seven decades after the Holocaust, atonement has come full circle to accusation.

“It’s not anti-Semitism if you criticise Israel, but if you think there is only one foreign government on the planet that is doing wrong, and that is Israel; that’s anti-Semitism,” he says.

For balance, Tenenbom cast a cold eye on Germany’s Jewish community of about 100,000. He visits synagogues rebuilt for hundreds yet with too few attendees for a prayer group, let alone a congregation.

For Tenenbom this is official Germany’s philo-Semitic field of dreams: if you rebuild it, they will come.

“There’s no future to Jewish life in Germany,” remarks the wife of a Berlin rabbi in a dark moment of the soul. “This is a cursed country, and no blessing will come out of it.”

He pulls no punches after visiting Germany’s growing Muslim community either, asking why the anti-Semitic assertions of imams are ignored by the authorities. “Germans who want to erase the shame of being the Jew-killers of yesterday by uniting with the Jew-haters of today,” he writes.

Conflict with publisher

His forthright assertions brought him into conflict with his original German publisher. When he refused its demands to excise anti-Semitism episodes he was dubbed a “Jewish hysteric”, he said, who had written a “deplorably undercomplex” book.

A rival publisher has just released the volume as Allein unter Deutschen (Alone among Germans).

Despite his dose of tough love, book reviews have been mixed to positive. Focus magazine suggested that Tenenbom “often gets the answers he expects and he over-simplifies”.

Der Spiegel called him a “radically subjective observer” who “gets worked up about the ‘brainy stupidity’ and ‘childish extremism’ of the Germans yet exhibits precisely the same traits”.

“Sometimes humorous, sometimes bitter, its style is generalisation,” wrote the Hamburger Abendblatt. “But it is impressive to be served up, by an outsider, what one already knows.”

Tenenbom insists he was not driven by an agenda, except to go beyond his comfort zone. His book is not a polemic, he says, yet it squeezes out millions of mild-mannered people in favour of colourful snapshots of familiar German types: intolerant do-gooders, embittered millionaires, phoney intellectuals – all sharing a pronounced German sense of righteousness that, he suggests, can “turn people into animals in a second”.

For Tenenbom the roots of the Jewish fixation he found are in six decades of state-led atonement for the Holocaust: financial compensation to survivors, rebuilding synagogues and cultural centres. What he says the country needed and needs is 82 million hand mirrors for private introspection.

A terrible collection of cultural cogs clicked into place for Hitler in Germany, he believes: overbearing righteousness and naivete, a love of absolutism and consensus groupthink rather than individual decisions and personal responsibility.

These cogs, Tuvia Tenenbom concludes, still whirr today – out of sync for now but not necessarily forever. His conclusion brings him no joy.

“I have always thought great things of the Germans . . . and I always defended them when people said they were Nazis,” he said. “I didn’t think this book would contain more than three pages about Jews if at all . . . but the obsession with Jews here is frightening. I so much wanted it not to be that, but this is what it was.”

Allein unter Deutschen is available in English as I Sleep in Hitler’s Room and as an ebook on iTunes

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