Photo Gallery: A Travelogue of Modern Germany

Foto: Isi Tenenbom

Those Wonderful, Awful Germans A Journey Deep into the Nation's Surface

Tuvia Tenenbom, who runs a Jewish theater in New York, spent a summer traveling through Germany. He found much to dislike, and detailed it all in a sometimes shocking, sometimes hilarious way. But the real value is in the telling, rather than the truth.

The first time I met Tuvia Tenenbom, in January 2012, we had tea in a New York office cluttered with stacks of paper, across the street from Penn Station in Manhattan. It's the office of the Jewish Theater of New York, a small theater where the 55-year-old works as an author, director and impresario.

Tenenbom talked about a book he had written on Germany. At that point, I had only read the book's preface, in which he writes that the anti-Semitism in present-day Germany is exactly the same as it was during the Nazi era. I told him that I thought his conclusion was audacious and wrong. "A book like mine, which outs the Germans as anti-Semites," Tenenbom said with an indulgent smile, as he took a drag from his cigarette, "this sort of a book, as several people I know have assured me, should never have been published in Germany."

Nevertheless, the book is now available in bookstores as "I Sleep in Hitler's Room: An American Jew Visits Germany." The German translation, which comes sans polemical preface, is called "Allein unter Deutschen" ("Alone Among Germans"). This bold, funny and often outrageously absurd travelogue describes a side of Germany that reporters only rarely encounter.

Take, for example, Club 88, a neo-Nazi bar in the northern German town of Neumünster, where Tenenbom tells people that he is the son of Germans who emigrated to the United States. "My name is Tobias, and I'm a perfect Aryan," he says. Then, as he writes in the book, the bar's owner buys him a drink and informs him that the Nazis absolutely did not murder 6 million Jews, that symbols of oppression by the Jews can be found on every German identification card, and that all Jews living today ought to be "killed." The Nazi type, Tenenbom notes, is "friendly, sympathetic, always smiling, and a very welcoming man…. He is cleaner than God."

Tenenbom also pays a visit to radical leftists in Hamburg's Sternschanze neighborhood, where he tells people that he is Jordanian. He describes the place as "extremely dirty." He looks on as a couple of anarchists throw beer bottles at police officers. He attends a concert entitled "HITLER KAPUTT!" Most of all, he is astonished by the locals' drinking habits, writing: "They drink beer and immediately vomit it out. Then they drink again … Money is no problem, it seems … This is the Radical Left, I'm told."

Things are even worse in Tübingen, a university town in southwestern Germany, where the author, now identifying himself by his real name, encounters environmentalists obsessed with separating their garbage. "Where else, on this planet, would you find people who care so much about an empty bottle?" he writes incredulously. When he is about to throw away a cigarette pack, a woman informs him that the plastic sleeve and the silver paper need to be placed in a yellow bin reserved for packaging. "She stands next to me to watch me comply," until, finally, "the Nazi lady is leaving," Tenenbom writes.

Problems between Author and Publisher

Tenenbom's book is an expedition into a darker side of Germany as much as it is a journey on a ghost train. Tenenbom, who grew up in Jerusalem as the son of an Orthodox rabbi, found little to like in Germany in the summer of 2010. The Germans are "the most narcissistic nation on the planet," he writes. "They're a racist, supremacist, anti-Semitic society," as well as being "the most self-deluded and self-righteous people in the world."

Rowohlt, a German publishing house, was initially behind the project, in which Tenenbom, an admirer of 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine, spent a few months crisscrossing Germany. Equipped with an advance and the help of local tourist offices, Tenenbom met church convention attendees in Munich and anarchists living in trailers in Berlin. He interviewed entertainers like Helge Schneider and famous restaurateurs like Charles Schumann and Herbert Seckler, owner of the Sansibar Restaurant on the North Sea resort island of Sylt. He spoke with politicians, rabbis, schoolchildren and the imam at a mosque. He fraternized with important media figures like Kai Diekmann, editor in chief of the Bild, Germany's top-selling tabloid, and with screaming soccer fans at live public broadcasts of matches.

In the end, Rowohlt decided not to print the book. Publisher Alexander Fest says that several editors had remarked that there were serious problems with Tenenbom's narrative style, and that "the manuscript had no structure whatsoever." There were also legal concerns about a large number of the quotes by people Tenenbom had interviewed. Under German law, many passages would have to be submitted to the interviewees for their approval, according to an expert report Fest commissioned with a law firm in Hamburg. Rowohlt also proposed a number of cuts. For example, it wanted to delete the passage on Tenenbom's visit to Club 88 in Neumünster.

Fest voluntarily produces months of correspondence between Rowohlt and Tenenbom indicating that the latter was unwilling to entertain many of the publisher's requests. Before long, Tenenbom started talking about "censorship" and contacting lawyers. In the end, the two parties cancelled the contract, and Tenenbom walked away with two-thirds of the agreed fee. He soon found a new German publisher: Suhrkamp.

At the same time, he self-published his manuscript -- for which he was apparently unable to find a major English-language publisher -- in New York under the title "I Sleep in Hitler's Room."

In its preface, Tenenbom attacks Fest, the Rowohlt publisher, claims that people who have read Fest's emails say that his messages "point to a 'Herrenrasse' (master race) mentality," and asserts that he was berated with anti-Semitic slurs. An outside reviewer for Rowohlt allegedly called him a "Jewish hysteric," in the artistic tradition of Woody Allen. The coercion to which he was subjected, writes Tenenbom, who lost relatives in the Holocaust, amounted to "pure censorship, fit for an Iranian publisher under the ayatollahs."

Fest says that he regrets that the conflict escalated. He points out that he only met with Tenenbom once, that they got along well and that "he kissed me at the end." But since Tenenbom had been "obstinate" with respect to all requests for changes and proposed corrections after submitting his manuscript, they were unable to reach a compromise. "Of course there is anti-Semitism in Germany. And of course it can be interesting to write a book about it," says Fest. But Tenenbom's work, he adds, is "like a young girl's diary, containing nothing but a series of impressions."

A New Publisher…with Lawyers

Fest is completely correct. But what he overlooks is the fact that the humor and power of Tenenbom's book lie in its blatant naïveté. In the book, a dewy-eyed innocent blunders his way through Germany. He is a radically subjective observer, one who constantly stumbles over the same obsessions and who judges instead of arguing. He is someone who finds it irritating that people all over Germany constantly want to talk to him about Israeli policy -- and who, when this doesn't happen, naturally addresses this policy of his own accord.

He gets worked up about the "brainy stupidity" and "childish extremism" of the Germans, and yet he exhibits precisely the same traits when he berates peace activists with the group Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, calling them friends of the Palestinians, or when he scoffs at the fact that almost none of the Germans he meets is willing to be explicitly "proud" of his or her country.

Suhrkamp published Tenenbom's harangue of rhetorical questions, erratic observations and audacious statements, often without very much editing, and praises the book as a "sarcastic, provocative travelogue," whose author "doesn't mince words when it comes to holding up a mirror to our society." While a little heavy on the metaphors, Suhrkamp's assessment is basically correct.

One thing the publisher did do is subject the manuscript to a rigid legal review. This explains why the German edition is missing scenes in which Tenenbom questions and is sharply critical of Stanislaw Tillach, governor the eastern German state of Saxony, and Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann. Suhrkamp also deleted a portion of Tenenbom's absurd attacks on two officials at the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial.

Odd Hatreds and Heroes

Tenenbom has an ongoing aversion to the many ways in which the Germans commemorate the Holocaust. He is bothered by the Stolperstein ("stumbling block") mini-memorials, which are small bronze squares honoring individual victims of the Nazis and placed in sidewalks across the country. He scoffs at the pastors of Munich's Frauenkirche church who organize a poster campaign to commemorate Jewish victims of a pogrom in the late Middle Ages. He is disgusted by a tour at the Neue Pinakothek art museum in Munich, where a lecturer talks about the history of the painting collection during the Nazi era. He makes repeated claims that Germans are somehow obsessed with Jews.

As a reader, one could find it irritating that Tenenbom, who can't possibly want the Germans to conceal the mass murder of 6 million Jews, goes to such lengths to condemn the German commemorative industry. The reader could also find it amusing that Tenenbom encounters a band in the eastern city of Weimar that specializes in Jewish music. The musicians perform in a restaurant as part of Yiddishkeit, a Jewish summer festival. Tenenbom asks the musicians if they are Jews. "My great-grandmother was a Jew," says one of the singers, adding that he is singing in the band as: "Compensation for the past. The history of Germany." Another singer, a woman, says: "My grandma was very pro-Jewish and pro-Israel. She was religious, Baptist." The violinist says: "In my last lifetime, I was a Jew."

Marxloh, a neighborhood of the western city of Duisburg with a high immigrant population, is where Tenenbom decides that he hates Germans, their media and their spinelessness. He writes that he can't love Germans. But then, near the end of the trip, in Weimar, he discovers that, deep down, he loves the Germans. The reasons for the traveler's two different conclusions remain a complete mystery to the reader.

It is likewise surprising that Tenenbom sings the praises of three valiant man -- former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Giovanni di Lorenzo, editor in chief of the nationwide weekly newspaper Die Zeit, and Bild editor in chief Diekmann -- as the sublime heroes of his book and of the German nation. These three men, he writes, captured his heart when he met them, and he describes them as luminous figures in his horrific summer journey through Germany. Tenenbom even names Helmut Schmidt "Rabbi Schmidt" after the former chancellor mentions that he had a Jewish grandfather. "You've never told anyone that. Why not?" Tenenbom asks, as if it were some sensational revelation -- even though a simple Google search would have shown that Schmidt has mentioned this on several occasions.

The Joy of Generalizing

About halfway through the book, Tenenbom describes his impression of the Germans in the following way: "So far, what I know is this: Demand free housing and free education, drink cases of beer, be a member of some Verein, be PC, denounce Israel, eat Bio, be on time, love your neighbor's iPad, scream 'Deutschland!' or pull for North Korea, have no knowledge of what your family did during the war or call yourself Jewish, be very clean or very dirty, participate in one demonstration or another, discuss every detail of every issue until the other side gets a severe headache -- and you are German."

Indeed, the travelogue is a strangely entertaining portrayal of a German freak show, and yet Tenenbom wants the book to be seen as a dead-serious warning and indictment. "It will be much easier to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Arabs and Jews in general, than to uproot the Jew hate of the German," he writes. "Do I generalize? Yes, I do. I'm sorry, but this is what I saw."

When I met Tenenbom for the second time, in a Hamburg café in late October, we greeted each other, and it all seemed perfectly friendly -- until he was suddenly furious. Now that I was familiar with his entire book and not just the preface, he said, I should finally agree with him that anti-Semitism in present-day Germany is the same as it was during the Nazi era. I told Tenenbom that I still felt that his diagnosis was wrong.

"You won't admit it!" he said. "Because it's too painful for you! And because it's in your bones, too. German anti-Semitism!"

That remains to be proven.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan