I Slept in Hitler’s Bed
Mandorla Books, 2018
I Slept in Hitler’s Bed is a glimpse into the personal history of Jay Balter and part of a larger memoir to be titled Memoirs of a Middle Class Man. It is not so much inspirational (although it certainly has that element) as aspirational, a tale told to provoke readers especially young men and teens into seeing there is an alternative to violence. Balter is writing a book of conscience, exploring how and why he made the decisions he did as he lived through some of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century.
While this may sound rather rote for autobiographical works, Balter has put together a stunning first installment. With an amazing knack for zeroing in on the events that most charged his life, Balter is able to transmit to readers not so much the intrigue of the moment as the charge of energy his younger self experienced. Here is where memoir succeeds, in eliciting from readers less a ‘wow’ at the event and more of a deep resonance with the effect.
And what are Balter’s moments? There is definitely that which lends itself to the title of the book occurring when Balter is station overseas in the military. But there are more casual and moving moments from his challenging of his deadbeat father as a small boy to his talking down a mentally distraught gunman. Each scene is more about the emotion within it than the event itself. Readers are introduced to a boy whose cares wash away when he goes to Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play, who stands and cheers with “all the European immigrants, the newly arrived black people from the south and Caribbean, and the Brooklyn born” as Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier. The spirit of Jackie Robinson shows up again when Balter, now a young man in the military and stationed in Germany post-WWII, is hunting Nazis. Robinson appears to Balter along side other figures in his dreams as the avenging young Jewish man wrestles with his conscience about whether or not to kill a Nazi he’s discovered.
We viscerally feel Balter’s tension, fear, and rage as just chapters before he gave us the harrowing and vividly told story of his cousin Jacob surviving Kristallnacht and fleeing to the US. That cousin became another person to survive and in Balter’s memoir, his younger self inhabits his cousin’s skin while routing out Nazis in the military. But Balter isn’t a killer. Rather, he is perhaps one of the most articulate practitioner of radical forgiveness you’ll ever encounter. We see Balter in the Deep South during Segregation challenged by and challenging the ingrained racism there as he goes through basic training. It is in training, he discovers he can’t willfully murder, “I realized my objection to killing the moment the army put a weapon in my hand” but he can serve a medic and heal others. With patient, tender prose, Balter is able to give readers scene after scene where he takes up the path less traveled–and it is nearly always the path of kindness, of aid, of forgiveness, and solidarity.
Balter seems to have Proustian plan in mind for the remainder of his memoir planning his next book, currently titled The Corporate Conscience, to cover his life age 21 to 50, exploring how he navigated the corporate world as an ethical person. After reading this first installment, I can’t imagine his follow-up to not satisfy. Reading Balter’s memoir I Slept in Hitler’s Bed gives readers life in the sense of demonstratively show one needn’t give into easy rage or let anger consume yourself. In fact, he shows how letting these things go and saying yes to kindness and forgiveness while not simple is infinitely more rewarding.
About the Author
Jay Balter describes himself as an ordinary man who has had an extraordinary life. He has been a soldier, a social worker, a CEO, and a student of psychology. He spent the majority of his life working with the physically and emotionally disabled, primarily as a Rehabilitation Counselor, but also as a legal conservator for two family members. He is presently retired with his wife of fifty-six years, and volunteers his time with the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) as an advocate, and with the Mental Health Helpline once a week. This book covers the first twenty-one years of a larger manuscript, soon to be released—Memoirs of a Middle Class Man.