Are These Germans Different?


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 of history.

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 lack.

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.