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Reiss, Tom 1963(?)–

Reiss, Tom 1963(?)–

PERSONAL: Born c. 1963; married; children.

ADDRESSES: HomeNew York, NY. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.

CAREER: Writer and journalist. Political and cultural journalist for New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and New Yorker.

WRITINGS:

(With Ingo Hasselbach) Führer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.

The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life (biography), Random House (New York, NY), 2005.

SIDELIGHTS: The grandson of Holocaust victims and the son of survivors, Tom Reiss has always had an interest in the horrors of Nazi Germany. In a curious development, however, his first book was a collaboration with a man who had a much more ambiguous relationship with the legacy of Nazism. Führer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi recounts the story of Ingo Hasselbach, who was a great admirer of the Third Reich before he experienced a dramatic change in outlook. Reiss described their different backgrounds and subsequent meeting in People: "While I spent much of the early '90s writing about the rise of the neo-Nazis, Ingo spent that time leading them. But in 1993 he underwent a transformation, triggered by his feeling of indirect responsibility for a grisly triple murder, and became the first German neo-Nazi leader to renounce the movement. Within four months of hearing of this transformation, I was alone with him in an isolated cabin in Sweden…. At times it felt like a therapy session for people obsessed with Nazism."

The Jewish author and the one-time anti-Semite developed a guarded friendship that deepened when Reiss, after hearing that his great-uncle Lolek had died, began telling Hasselbach stories of Lolek's adventures eluding Nazis in the 1930s. By then, Reiss had a box full of tapes recounting Hasselbach's childhood in communist East Germany and his increasingly strained relationship with both his parents and the government. As David Cesarani explained in the New Statesman, "When Ingo started school, his natural father had a political radio show for youth. His parents and the paternalistic state seemed to coalesce: to defy one meant to attack the other." Curious about Nazism, a forbidden subject in East Germany, Hasselbach founded a movement for the study of the Third Reich, although it was a mythical version, devoid of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Only when he traveled west as a refugee in 1989 did he start to encounter the full force of German neo-Nazism, with its virulent hatred of Jews and foreigners.

Ingo was soon targeted by the movement as a promising young recruit with leadership potential and was sent back to East Berlin to organize the neo-Nazis there, eventually gaining the moniker Führer of the East. Soon he was engaging in pitched battles with anarchists, occupying buildings, and appearing on television talk shows before audiences that were both repulsed and fascinated by the new movement. Finally, the growing violence and the deadly firebombing of a Turkish family turned Hasselbach's enthusiasm to disgust, and he fled to Sweden to escape his one-time followers. The book that came out of his meetings with Reiss "offers a riveting, seamlessly written memoir of his hate—and redemption," according to Entertainment Weekly reviewer Megan Harlan.

Reiss' collaboration with Hasselbach was fraught with conflicted emotions, painful memories, and strange turns. Compared with the subject of Reiss' second book, however, Hasselbach seems almost ordinary and simple. As Steve Weinberg put it in the Houston Chronicle, The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life "records a life so bizarre that it's difficult to believe, despite author Tom Reiss' superb reporting backed up by hundreds of endnotes and bibliography entries."

The book is both biography and detective story. What begins as an idle curiosity about the author of Ali and Nino, an old novel about Baku that Reiss picked up before visiting the ancient city on the Caspian Sea, gradually becomes an intriguing mystery and then an obsession. After discovering that Kurban Said, the alleged author, is definitely a pseudonym, Reiss pursues and rejects various leads: a famed Azerbaijani poet, a nobleman, an Austrian baroness. Eventually, he discovers that the author was Lev Nussimbaum, a man whose journey was intimately tied to the madness of Europe in the 1930s.

Nussimbaum, a member of an oil-rich Jewish family, fled the cosmopolitan city of Baku when the Bolsheviks took over and his family lost everything. Passing through Constantinople, the young Nussimbaum became entranced with the splendor of Islam and adopted the persona of a Muslim prince. Later he traveled to Nazi Germany, where his virulent anticommunism actually drew him to sympathize with certain Nazi ideals, yet he retained a dream of a cosmopolitan pan-Islamism. He married a German woman, which proved a mistake when she discovered that he was not in fact an Arab prince and denounced him as a Jew to the authorities. Nussimbaum then fled to Italy, where he died of a rare blood disease at the age of thirty-six, having produced seventeen books in his short life. "Reiss takes the reader through his own search for the truth: through the twists of twentieth-century history in Russia and Germany, and hence through the life-story itself," noted an Economist reviewer. "This would be hard work if the inter-weaving of biography, investigation and geopolitics were not so elegant."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, January 1, 1996, Joe Collins, review of Führer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi, p. 781; December 15, 2004, Mark Knoblauch, review of The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, p. 700.

Chicago Sun Times, February 13, 2005, Roger K. Miller, "Who Was Kurban Said?," review of The Orientalist.

Economist, February 12, 2005, "Unreal City: The Caucusus," review of The Orientalist, p. 84.

Entertainment Weekly, February 2, 1996, Megan Harlan, review of Führer-Ex, p. 312; February 18, 2005, Scott Brown, "The Man with Many Faces: Tom Reiss' The Orientalist Uncovers an Enigmatic Life," p. 81.

Houston Chronicle, March 4, 2005, Steve Weinberg, "'Ali and Nino' and a Mysterious Author," review of The Orientalist.

Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2004, review of The Orientalist, p. 1190.

Library Journal, January 1, 2005, Jim Doyle, review of The Orientalist, p. 124.

Maclean's, March 18, 1996, Andrew Phillips, review of Führer-Ex, p. 75.

Miami Herald, February 20, 2005, Ranen Omer-Sherman, "Identity Crisis: Exploring the Multiple Lives of an Audacious Jew Turned Muslim."

New Republic, April 8, 1996, Noah Isenberg, review of Führer-Ex, p. 28.

New Statesman, February 23, 1996, David Cesarani, review of Führer-Ex, p. 46.

Newsweek, February 14, 2005, Malcolm Jones, "Passing for Muslim: A Real-Life Shape-Shifter's Story Is Stranger than Fiction," p. 59.

New York Times, February 27, 2005, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "The Chic of Araby," review of The Orientalist.

People, February 26, 1996, Tom Reiss, commentary about Führer-Ex, p. 29.

Publishers Weekly, November 13, 1995, review of Führer-Ex, p. 52.

San Diego Union-Tribune, February 20, 2005, Peter Rowe, "Who Was That Masked Man?," review of The Orientalist.

ONLINE

BookBrowse.com, http://www.bookbrowse.com/ (April 14, 2005), "A Conversation with Tom Reiss."

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