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German Travelogue Unveils Stubborn Anti-Semitism

An unusual book was published recently in Germany: a travelogue that reveals, through hundreds of interviews in nearly 40 cities and towns in Germany, a disturbing obsession with the Jews, as well as outright anti-Semitism, among the German population today.

The book, “Allein Unter Deutschen” (“Alone Among Germans”), published by the European publisher, Suhrkamp, is a German translation of the English original, “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room.” The author, Tuvia Tenenbom, had published “I Sleep…” in the United States in 2011 with the Jewish Theater of New York, of which he is the founder and director.

Since the publication of the German version, it has become a Spiegel best seller, equivalent to The New York Times best-seller list — a true victory for Tenenbom, who until recently had been unable to find a publisher for his candid and unsettling book.

During a recent interview with the Forverts in his Manhattan office, Tenenbom, the New York- and Berlin-based columnist of the German national weekly newspaper Die Zeit explained how the German publisher Rowohlt commissioned him to travel around the country and talk to Germans, then write about their thoughts and feelings, using the same folksy style he uses in his column on sport and fitness. (His essays are written tongue-in-cheek, as Tenenbom is rather stout and smokes a pack of cigarettes a day.)

“I thought it was a great idea, and would be lots of fun because I enjoy talking to people,” Tenenbom remarked.

But as he engaged people in conversation, he discovered two distinct qualities about the Germans: First, that they drink an excessive amount of beer, and second, that many of them harbored disturbingly negative views about Jews and Israel.

As the owner of an elegant hotel and restaurant in Wannsee, Germany, remarked: “Everybody knows that the Jews control the American economy.”

After a profound disagreement regarding Rowohlt’s editing of the manuscript, Tenenbom decided to publish it elsewhere. “There was no way I could accept these changes, because it was no longer the book that I had written,” he said.

The walls of Tenenbom’s tiny office reflect his multifaceted accomplishments. Ther are posters of his theatrical productions — “The Last Virgin” and “Last Jew in Europe.” A dark wooden bookcase is filled with books on various topics, including, surprisingly, Jewish holy books written in Hebrew. As it turns out, the secular, cosmopolitan Tenenbom hails from a Haredi home in Israel.

Tenenbom is a warm conversationalist, chatting easily about diverse topics, and often with a twinkle in his eye. This affable quality may have been the reason that his subjects in Germany opened up to him so readily. His light skin and blue eyes didn’t hurt, either. He admits that he didn’t always tell his subjects he was Jewish, calling himself a journalist from New York. “If I’d told them I was Jewish, do you think they’d tell me what they were really thinking?” he asked.

One of his most controversial visits was to the Neo-Nazi bar Club 88 (8 representing H, the eighth letter of the alphabet, HH being an abbreviation of “Heil Hitler”) in Neumunster. Telling his fellow patrons that his name was Tobias and that his German parents had immigrated to America when he was 1 year old, Tenenbom added, for good measure, “I’m a perfect Aryan.” It wasn’t long before Frank, the club owner, offered him drinks on the house and showed him a book about “the Jewish devil.”

What disturbed Tenenbom most, however, was the anti-Semitism he discovered among the everyday, supposedly liberal, Germans he encountered. Often, these people didn’t hesitate to state that the Jews controlled the economy or the media. “They like the Jews that were killed during the war, but hate the Jews of today,” Tenenbom said.

Tenenbom is also sharply critical of the Jewish community in Germany. After the chief rabbi of Munich informed him that the Orthodox community there has 9,000 members, Tenenbom joined him for services at the multimillion-dollar synagogue, apparently paid for by the German government.

“I start counting the nine thousand,” Tenenbom writes in the book. “Well, not really. The number of worshippers, including those who are tourists and guests from Israel and the United States: thirty-five. In other words, the place would be practically empty if not for the foreigners.”

And what of the growing number of German musicians playing Yiddish and klezmer music? Tenenbom pays them a visit, and is disillusioned to discover that, despite their fondness for Yiddish culture, they harbor hostile views of Israel. After he asks a violinist whether she has ever been to Israel, she replies angrily: “I don’t have to go to Israel! My music has nothing to do with it!”

For Tenenbom, the stubborn persistence of anti-Semitism in modern Germany strikes a personal nerve. As a child of Holocaust survivors, he always knew that his parents had suffered terribly, but the Nazi horrors were beneath the surface — never discussed.

“My father refused to tell me the name of the city he was from, and I didn’t even know my mother was in a concentration camp, or that seven of her siblings were killed, until after her death,” Tenenbom said.

Years later, thirsting for more information about the family’s experiences during the war, he visited one of his mother’s surviving siblings in Brooklyn. It was a warm day, and the air conditioner was broken. Tenenbom was perspiring uncomfortably, while his Hasidic uncle, dressed in a buttoned-up, long-sleeved shirt, sat calmly, eating hot soup. “You should be drinking cola with ice,” Tenenbom said.

Without looking up, his uncle took another long sip and said, “That’s what saved me — one soup a day.”

Rukhl Schaechter is a staff writer and editor at the Forverts.

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