To my astonishment, I see that it’s been a full six years since I reviewed Tuvia Tenenbom’s I Sleep in Hitler’s Room: An American Jew Visits Germany. The book, an account of the author’s encounters with anti-Semitism and Jew-obsession in a country that claims to have thoroughly repudiated its Nazi past, was, I wrote, “deeply sobering, depressing even,” yet “so chatty and engaging and laugh-out-loud funny that it’s hard to put down.” I praised Tenenbom as “an acute observer of his fellowman, but also a born entertainer, a comedian, who approaches his interview subjects – of whom there are dozens, ranging from leading political and cultural figures to folks he runs into on the street – as a combination inquisitor and tummler.”
And he does it all, I emphasized, “on a human level: he’s not a journalist taking notes but a fellow human being, intense in his curiosity and incapable of hiding his emotions. He challenges his interlocutors, posing questions nobody has ever asked them before, and he’s relentless, always demanding the truth, wanting to know what these people really think and feel, rejecting their canned answers, the things they say because they think that’s what he wants to hear.” And even when he doesn’t exactly like what they say, he often turns out “to like them anyway, able to separate his intellectual revulsion at their ideas from his personal response to them as human beings.” Indeed, although he’s revolted by German attitudes, he admits that “somewhere deep inside me…I love the Germans.”
Pretty much everything above applies as well to Tenenbom’s new book, Hello, Refugees! Like I Sleep in Hitler’s Room, it’s grim yet entertaining, and – most of all – supremely human. This time, as the title suggests, he’s concerned with the migrant issue – specifically, with the consequences of Angela Merkel’s decision to open the floodgates to undocumented foreigners. Journeying from one refugee camp in Germany to another, and to various hotels where migrants are being put up at taxpayer expense, he meets some newcomers who are gentle, civilized, educated, grateful to be in Europe, and absolutely in love with Germany, and others who are angry, violent, and seething with hostility and contempt toward infidels in general and Germany in particular. (In order not to earn the instant hatred of Muslim migrants, he speaks to them in Arabic and pretends to be one of their coreligionists.)
Although Tenenbom recognizes that it was unwise to admit veritable armies of people from the Levant into Germany and to cram them all together – despite volatile religious, ethnic, and national tensions among them – into crowded camps, he’s able to feel outrage at the execrable food they’re served and the poor sanitary conditions they’re forced to endure. (“Germany might have saved their bodies, but it is killing their souls.”) He even develops attachments to some of them – notably Thawanni, a young woman “with a million watts of warmth,” and two or three others whose empty lives and medical issues he finds “heartbreaking.” At the same time, he doesn’t hesitate to call others on their lies, game-playing, and poisonous hatred for Americans and Jews. (Several of the Muslims he meet believe that the U.S. and Israel are behind ISIS.)
During his travels, Tenenbom also sets up meetings with “right-wing” leaders who fiercely oppose Merkel’s immigration policy and who, he’s been told, are bigoted monsters, the spawn of Satan, indifferent to the fate of suffering foreigners. Among them is Götz Kubitschek, a publisher with whose family Tenenbom is invited to eat dinner. Kubitschek proves to be a blunt, straight-talking, sensible fellow of whom Tenenbom ends up being very fond. (“The villain and the devil I was dreaming of turned out to be a nice guy.”) Later, he meets Frauke Petry, head of the upstart conservative party Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), who at first puts him off with her Teutonic intellectualization of everything, but who eventually opens up her human side and wins his affection. (“It took her some time to warm up to me, but once she did, it was real….I like this lady.”) He also meets Lutz Bachmann, the head of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West), who is widely smeared as a neo-Nazi, but finds his views on immigration to be no more far-out than those of “the average New Yorker.”
He’s not crazy about everybody. At “German Catholic Day” in Leipzig, Tenenbom asks Cardinal Reinhold Marx, Archbishop of Munich and chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, why representatives of a faith based on the teachings of Jesus, who excluded no one, have banned the leaders of the AfD and the NPD (a far-right party) from the gathering. Marx’s dodgy non-answer doesn’t impress him: “The Holy Man facing me has no guts to say what he thinks. He is no Frauke.” By contrast, Tenenbom turns out to like Aiman Mazyek, head of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, who talks a very smooth game and has some liberal views (he doesn’t force women into hijab) but who, I’ve read elsewhere, has savaged Danish Muhammed cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and is not terribly fond of gays. I don’t think I’d like him and I don’t think he’d like me.
In I Sleep in Hitler’s Room, there was one question Tenenbom kept coming back to in his interviews: “What does it mean to be German?” In Hello, Refugees!, there are a couple of recurring queries. He asks the refugees what they make of Germany; he asks the opponents of open borders what it is about Germany, as opposed to other European countries, that has led it to accept a tsunami of migrants in the last couple of years. Kubitscheck explains: “Germany wants to show the world that it is not the heartless country that it is known for, but a land of people with a great heart.” Petry essentially agrees: “It has to do with the feeling of guilt that has been implanted into many Germans for decades after the Second World War.”
When he poses the same question to ordinary citizens, the answer is the same, only expressed more bluntly: if Germans don’t let in more refugees than any other European country, they’ll be viewed as Nazis. So what if they take in so many refugees that it breaks the national budget and results in violent crime on an apocalyptic scale? Anything’s better, apparently, than being called Nazis. Besides, letting in all these refugees allows Germans, finally, to regard themselves as virtuous and to say straight out what they’ve always thought about Israel but have, until now, owing to historical guilt, been careful about voicing: that, as two young men in Munich tell Tenenbom, the Jewish state is “aggressive” and “inhumane.”
Tenenbom finds one contradiction highly bemusing. On the one hand, it’s Germans’ historical guilt that opened the floodgates and leads millions of them to continue to “defend Islam and Muslims at all costs”; no matter how many terrorist acts are committed, Germans won’t admit that “too many Muslims have gone nuts, in almost every Islamic country and in non-Muslim countries as well.” And yet these same Germans are quick to demonize Israel – and Jews. Tenenbom tells a truly reprehensible (if not terribly surprising) story about a couple of German Amnesty International workers who can’t praise Muslim refugees highly enough but who make clear their utter contempt for Jews. They’re not alone. Here, as in I Sleep in Hitler’s Bed, Tenenbom tells a good many disturbing anecdotes that reveal an enduring anti-Semitism on the part of Germans that is every bit as irrational as their unqualified Islamophilia.
“Why,” Tenenbom wonders, “is it that good people who care about refugees, and about human rights in general, somehow are unable to view Jews as human?” The answer, as he himself recognizes, is that the Germans who think of themselves as being the most big-hearted aren’t really good at all – they’re just desperate to be seen as good. As they see it, Hitler ruined their image, and Merkel is rehabilitating it. But an unhealthy obsession with national image is how they got into that whole Nazi mess in the first place; and indeed, the more closely you examine the childish, selfish thinking that guides their current policies, the more it brings to mind the mentality that made possible the goose-stepping, sieg-heiling bad old days.
This book, then, explores a good deal of chilling terrain. The upside is that Tenenbom is at once an expert guide and a traveling companion who keeps your spirits up even through the worst of it.