Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father's German Village

Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father's German Village

Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father's German Village

Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father's German Village

Synopsis

Mimi Schwartz grew up on milkshakes and hamburgers- and her father's boyhood stories. She rarely took the stories seriously. What was a modern American teenager supposed to make of these accounts of a village in Germany where, according to her father, "before Hitler, everyone got along"? It was only many years later, when she heard a remarkable story of the Torah from that very village being rescued by Christians on Kristallnacht, that Schwartz began to sense how much these stories might mean. Thus began a twelve-year quest that covered three continents as Schwartz sought answers in the historical records and among those who remembered that time. Welcomed into the homes of both the Jews who had fled the village fifty years earlier and the Christians who had remained, Schwartz peered into family albums, ate home-baked linzertorte (almost everyone served it!), and heard countless stories about life in one small village before, during, and after Nazi times. Sometimes stories overlapped, sometimes one memory challenged another, but always they seemed to muddy the waters of easy judgment. Small stories of decency are often overlooked in the wake of a larger historic narrative. Yet we need these stories to provide a moral compass, especially in times of political extremism, when fear and hatred strain the bonds of loyalty and neighborly compassion. How, this book asks, do neighbors maintain a modicum of decency in such times? How do we negotiate evil and remain humane when, as in the Nazi years, hate rules?

Excerpt

Fragile black lines on shades of green. a handful of tilting houses, a church bell tower, rolling meadow, forest. This little watercolor hanging above my father’s side of the bed in Queens, New York, was like his reading lamp to me: nondescript. I put it in the same category as the four-poster bed and the dark mahogany armoire: old and German. It now hangs on the third floor of my house because I needed to fill a bare wall, a bare, cracked wall—and because my mother was moving to a smaller apartment in Manhattan. the village scene was surplus.

In fact, my mother said the tiny village may not be Benheim, as I had always thought; it may be any Schwarzwald scene, made up, anonymous. No matter. in the world framed in chipped gold leaf above my treadmill, I imagine my father herding his father’s German cows, a piece of fresh-baked linzertorte wrapped in his pocket. I hear his stories about growing up here before Hitler (Did I ever tell you how we had to walk five kilometers to high school in Dorn, one way? Rain or shine?) as I fast walk daily, three miles per hour in fifty minutes, rain or shine. Beneath the motor’s hum is the echo of a past I pushed aside in my busy American life, a past I now run to catch up with before everyone who knew that world is gone.

His village is tucked into a hillside of a narrow valley at the edge of the Schwarzwald forest southwest of Stuttgart. When my father was born in 1898, this tiny farming community of 1,200 was made up of Catholics and Jews (only three Protestant . . .

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