What German Students Taught an American Author

By Tom Leveen

If it were up to me, Amer­i­can high school and col­lege stu­dents would spend a manda­to­ry year liv­ing abroad before a degree of any kind is con­ferred. This trip would be ful­ly fund­ed by the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment. It’s dif­fi­cult to quan­ti­fy how expo­sure to a dif­fer­ent cul­ture can change one’s per­spec­tive for the better.

As a sopho­more (tenth grade), I had the priv­i­lege of spend­ing a week in Lon­don with sev­er­al oth­er stu­dents, dur­ing which we hit all the usu­al tourist spots and attend­ed sev­er­al musi­cals. It was a good trip, but hon­est­ly, I was too young to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the new sur­round­ings and the his­to­ry of a city so much old­er than any in the States.

The next time I trav­eled over­seas, I was 41 and brought my wife of nine years. I had become a pub­lished author with com­pa­nies like Ran­dom House, and my Ger­man-trans­la­tion pub­lish­er, Hanser, flew us to Ger­many for a ten-day book tour in coop­er­a­tion with the embassy.

There are many things to recount – amaz­ing Ger­man hos­pi­tal­i­ty, breath­tak­ing­ly intel­li­gent stu­dents, gor­geous scenery… from the moment we first arrived in Göt­tin­gen, we were entranced.

Then came our trip to the Dachau memorial.

As my wife and I stood on the grav­el yard of the Dachau work camp, we could not help but hear the voice of a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date back in our home coun­try, who that very day had pub­licly made bare­ly oblique threats to a Mus­lim for­eign head of state.

“That’s how it starts,” we both said to each oth­er. That’s exact­ly how places like this camp build their foun­da­tions: with vio­lent, arro­gant words. While we are both proud to be Amer­i­cans, we were also filled with a sad rage that some­one who is try­ing to become the “most pow­er­ful man on Earth” could show – on the world stage – such imma­tu­ri­ty, igno­rance, and lack of respect. What must the rest of the plan­et think of us? We were embar­rassed, ashamed, and out­raged to be in any way asso­ci­at­ed with that kind of point­less vit­ri­ol – the type of which is heard over and over again from our coun­try, I’m afraid. If this is what our lead­er­ship has to offer, maybe we real­ly are doomed.

Over­whelmed, we decid­ed to leave the memo­r­i­al and walk back to the bus sta­tion. On that walk, we dis­cov­ered Dachau also hap­pens to be a qui­et, scenic town, the kind of place we wouldn’t mind liv­ing in if (when?) we ever moved to Ger­many as we were invit­ed many times to do by our hosts.

Not long after­ward, I did a book read­ing and ques­tion-and-answer ses­sion with stu­dents aged four­teen to eigh­teen and had the hon­or of hav­ing din­ner with sev­er­al of them. They’re called the Book Stars and are asso­ci­at­ed with the Carl-Schurz-Haus / Deutsch-Amerikanis­ches Insti­tut. Most (I think all) of these stu­dents are flu­ent in at least two lan­guages; one of them could call upon four lan­guages if need be. That’s unheard of where I come from. These stu­dents were bright, eager, and exhib­it­ed a joy for read­ing and learn­ing that touched my heart.

The occa­sion for our trip sur­round­ed the pub­li­ca­tion of my nov­el, Ran­dom, or, in Ger­man, Ich hätte es wis­sen müssen (I should have known), which is about a girl accused of cyber­bul­ly­ing anoth­er stu­dent. The Ger­man stu­dents I met on this book tour all respond­ed read­i­ly to the sto­ry, show­ing that West­ern teens are real­ly quite sim­i­lar in their thoughts and con­cerns. They eas­i­ly grasped the theme of the nov­el which exam­ines the con­se­quences of treat­ing anoth­er human being as “less than.”

Upon return­ing home after a life-chang­ing time in Ger­many, I received an email from one of the Book Stars. He told me (and gave his per­mis­sion to share this sto­ry) that after our time togeth­er dis­cussing the book, he saw a younger boy being insult­ed and pushed around by a group of oth­er stu­dents. This Book Star said he prob­a­bly would have kept walk­ing, but now – hav­ing read the book and learned more about what oth­er peo­ple might be going through – he stopped and told the group to leave the younger boy alone. Which they did.

Imag­ine that. A stu­dent, all of four­teen years old, stop­ping to make a dif­fer­ence in the life of some­one he did not know, sim­ply because it was the right thing to do. I have no doubt his fel­low Book Stars would have done the same thing.

Hear­ing his sto­ry gives me hope. Hear­ing about a gen­er­a­tion of Ger­man stu­dents eager to read about oth­er per­spec­tives and talk about them tells me the world isn’t as doomed as it felt that chilly day on the grounds of Dachau. Our nations and peo­ples can work togeth­er and resolve dif­fer­ences with­out resort­ing to rhetoric or vio­lence. I, for one, would vote this Book Star into high office if I could.

Our stu­dents and our chil­dren are at risk from peo­ple seek­ing pow­er and dom­i­na­tion. The stu­dents I met in Ger­many all sought under­stand­ing and com­mon ground. I’ve met many stu­dents in my book talks here in the States who seek the same thing.

Let’s con­tin­ue to find them, encour­age them, and sup­port them. Let’s send them to oth­er coun­tries to real­ly learn what per­spec­tives oth­er peo­ple have in the world. Giv­ing them such an oppor­tu­ni­ty, they may save us all from ourselves.

Thank you, Ger­many! We are look­ing for­ward to see­ing you again.

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Tom Lev­een is the author of sev­en Eng­lish-lan­guage nov­els, includ­ing the Ger­man-trans­lat­ed Par­ty and Ran­dom. His nov­el Zero was vot­ed a Best Book of 2013 by the Young Adult Library Ser­vices Asso­ci­a­tion. He brings more than two decades of the­ater expe­ri­ence to his book talks and presentations.