Are These Germans Different?
By RACHEL SOMERSTEIN
GOOD NEIGHBORS, BAD TIMES
Echoes of My Father's German Village
By Mimi Schwartz
280 pages. University of Nebraska Press. $24.95.
"The end of World War II
is now as distant... as the end of the First World War was from the Reagan
presidency," Michael Kimmelman wrote recently in the New York Times. With that distance, a number of innovative, and at
times hotly debated, approaches to studying and teaching the Holocaust has
emerged. From German students reading new graphic novels about the war (not Maus, but The Search) to French President Sarkozy's declaration that each
ten-year-old in France will learn the story of one of the 11,000 French
children who died in the Holocaust, the dwindling of witnesses has given life
to a new generation of inquiry. Although some might say that the topic has been
exhausted—one thinks of Israeli-born performance artist Tamy Ben-Tor, who mocks
the Holocaust "industry" in her 2005 video Women Talk About Adolph Hitler—the fact is that we have not
finished talking about it. Two and three generations later, artists, writers,
teachers, and students are still finding their own approaches to this chapter
In that vein comes Mimi Schwartz's new memoir, Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father's German Village.
Unlike profiles of Oscar Schindler and Raul Wallenberg, those well-known,
righteous gentiles who saved Jews through a combination of money, power, and
bravery, Schwartz focuses on the everyday kindnesses practiced on a small
scale, neighbor to neighbor. Her book centers on Benheim, a village 60
kilometers from Stuttgart, where her father was born. The town was distinct
because of its many Jews, who made up nearly 30 percent of the population when
World War II began. Schwartz's father, who fled to the United States in 1937,
always maintained that Jew and Christian lived in peace in Benheim: "We
all got along." That sort of coexistence was almost unheard of in Germany
in the early part of the 20th century; hindsight makes that harmony
even more difficult to believe. Still, like many children of immigrants seeking
to "Americanize" themselves, Schwartz avoided finding out more about
her father's town and his past there. Growing up in Queens, New York, she was "allergic"
to his stories, she says.
What spurred her to embark on an investigation of Benheim was her encounter
with a Torah rescued from the town's synagogue after Kristallnacht. The scroll, which she happened upon while visiting
an Israeli village founded by immigrants from Benheim, was saved by
"Christians of Benheim." Schwartz, a writer and teacher of creative
nonfiction, could hardly believe it. "I never thought of ordinary Germans
rescuing a Torah or anything else Jewish back then," she writes. "Did
the Christians really do that? If so, Benheim was more interesting than I had
thought, maybe even special, an idea I felt obliged to resist."
Much of Schwartz's search is driven by her desire to find out if Jew and
gentile got along during the war,
thereby debunking her personal mythology that gentiles didn't do much for their
Jewish neighbors. Because her father and his family had died by the time she
began her research, Schwartz interviewed many villagers she'd never met before:
Jews who left Benheim before the war, non-Jews who stayed for the duration.
Interviewing subjects unknown to her lends the book a sense of authenticity,
even scholarliness, which a memoir limited to one's family's experiences would
So was peaceful coexistence the rule? Schwartz attempts to answer her question
by publishing a variety of testimonies—some contradictory, some not, but which
generally tend to confirm a sense of neighborliness that even lasted after the
war began. She assembles a list of kindnesses that range from "The barber cut
Jewish hair under the sign NO JEWS ALLOWED HERE" to "Christians paid
back debts to Jews even though the law said they didn't have to." Most
absurd: "the head of the Hitler Youth Group turned the lights on and off
for the Jewish youth group that met in the same building on Friday
nights." These may be "small acts of defiance," Schwartz
concludes, but "decency is so often such a solitary act; it's evil that
draws a noisy crowd."
Not that Schwartz is blinded by the notion of coexistence; she digs deep for
dirt. She lists the crimes that she knows took place in Benheim: one Jew was
murdered over a land dispute and no one was arrested; Jewish children were
beaten up; two graves vandalized; 89 Jews were deported to the East in three
roundups, and "people kept the curtains shut. But was there anything
else?" she asks Herr Stole, a non-Jew who lived in Benheim during the war
and who now maintains its Jewish cemetery. He answers with a story of an
official who refused to take a Jewish body to the cemetery in the funeral
wagon; a farmer took the body in a hay cart. The tale, although sad, arrests
the reader by virtue of what it is not. Far worse indignities, committed in
towns large and small, are by now familiar to most readers. We are surprised,
perhaps enlightened, that the loaded gun of Schwartz's question turns out not
to be loaded at all.
The second, more philosophical aspect to Schwartz's quest revolves around the
difficulty of arriving at some indisputable version of 'truth.' Benheim,
Schwartz tells us in her introduction (and in a footnote on page 5) is not the
village's real name. Neither is Dorn, the large nearby town, or Oleh Zion, an
Israeli village founded by Benheim emigrants in 1937. Schwartz also changed
people's names and identifying details. She did so, she writes, to "honor
requests for individual privacy." That distinguishes the book from so much
Holocaust literature, which is characterized by a need to tell the precise
truth, to bear witness.
But Schwartz is writing memoir, not history, and so is not beholden to the same
stringencies as an historian. And because her book is comprised of oral history
and memory, the 'truth' advanced here is by necessity a fluid one. To her
credit, Schwartz does not shy away from the contradictions and gaps in these
histories. She seeks out and publishes, for instance, various renditions of the
story of the rescue of the Torah. These competing stories give the book a
casual feel that belies the rigorousness of Schwartz's reporting—she spent 12
years on this book. Although she inserts her reactions alongside each
revelation, the writer does not weigh too heavily on any one side, allowing
readers to sift and shuffle for their own version of what really happened.
It may be inevitable that the further removed we are from the war the less the
line between truth and fiction will matter. But that's not necessarily a bad
thing. Historians and survivors have already published answers to What? and
How? It is the new generation's responsibility to seek answers to those most unwieldy
questions: the How Come? and What Next? In excavating those answers, it doesn't
matter what the truth was precisely, who said what, or the name of the town
where Schwartz's father was born. To learn anything one must imagine the times.
Which is what fiction and books of creative nonfiction like this one attempt to
do. And why they so often get to the truth of the story as a conventional piece
of nonfiction never could.