Is anti-Semitism at the root of German national identity?
Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” published in 1996, set off a firestorm of controversy by arguing just that. Now comes Tuvia Tenenbom’s “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room: An American Jew Visits Germany,” a staged reading, based on the dramatist’s book of the same title, which echoes Goldhagen’s unsettling conclusions. It runs for two Tuesday evening performances at Stage 72 at the Triad on the Upper West Side with Marianne Hettinger and the Rev. Ulf Lunow in the cast.
Tenenbom, who grew up in Jerusalem as the son of an Orthodox rabbi, founded the Jewish Theater of New York (JTNY) in 1994. Most of the 16 plays he has staged there mix political and religious themes with erotic ones; their subjects have included sex-obsessed terrorists, nude followers of Kabbalah, and Nazis infatuated with Hitler.
At the behest of an editor from the German newspaper Die Zeit, Tenenbom spent six months interviewing hundreds of Germans, from artists to lawyers to politicians. Anti-Semitism came up in almost every interview; some Germans blamed Jews for controlling the global economy, and some actually wished Jews dead. (In January, Tenenbom himself came under investigation by the German authorities for giving a Nazi salute at a rally of 900 neo-Nazis; his defense was that he was merely trying to provoke them.)
Rejected by its original German publisher as presenting an oversimplified and naïve view of German culture, “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room” — the title refers to a night that Tenenbom spent in Suite 100 in the Hotel Elephant in Weimar, where Hitler once stayed — finally did get published in Germany, where it was a Der Spiegel bestseller. Subsequently, Tenenbom self-published the English language version in the United States.
“I never expected it to be a book about Jews,” Tenenbom told The Jewish Week. “But it turned out that Germans have a huge obsession with Jews — and usually in negative ways.”
While he concedes that the book has been criticized as a series of interviews with crazy people, Tenenbom insists that his interviewees are “not mishegoyim,” but ordinary people from all political perspectives and walks of life.
Tenenbom said that he reassured his interviewees by telling them that he is as “neurotic” as they are. Getting people to disclose their true feelings, he said, was less difficult than one might imagine. “If you come at any political issue without hatred, you have a much better chance to get people to open up.”
“I Sleep in Hitler’s Room” runs at Stagd 72 at the Triad, 158 W. 72nd St., on Tuesday, May 21 and Tuesday, May 28. Performances are free, but there is a two-drink minimum. For reservations, call (212) 494-0050 or email info@JewishTheater.org.