Sunday, March 9, 2008

GOOD NEIGHBORS, BAD TIMES: ECHOES OF MY FATHER’S GERMAN VILLAGE By Mimi Schwartz, University of Nebraska Press, $24.95, 260 Pages, Illus

By Mimi Schwartz

University of Nebraska Press, $24.95, 260 pages, illus.


Mimi Schwartz is an essayist and professor emerita at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey. Born in 1940 to German Jewish parents who were refugees from Hitler’s Germany, she was continually bombarded with her father’s fond tales of his bucolic home village in the Black Forest.

Like many teenagers, particularly the children of immigrants in those conformist days, Ms. Schwartz was embarrassed by the foreignness of her family. She disliked their speaking German and was not much interested in hearing tales of this lost paradise and its virtues, particularly when they were held up as a counter-example to her own behavior.

Equally typically, it was only after her father, Arthur Loewengart, died in 1973 that Ms. Schwartz began to be curious about all those stories and the actual story of what the place was like, both before and after Hitler’s accession. Her actual quest to discover all she could about it was spurred by a visit some years later to a settlement in Israel founded by Jews from the village in 1937, the same year that her parents had come to America.

Holocaust historians warned her not to rely on what people told her but to concentrate on records. “But as storyteller, not historian,” writes Ms. Schwartz, “I liked how one person’s memory bumped another, muddying the moral waters of easy judgment.”

The reader will indeed be glad that she did things her way, for the result is a fascinating picture, atypical of so much written on the subject. Blessed with good antennae and a skeptical mind, Ms. Schwartz is not an innocent abroad. Never gullible or credulous, but open to the evidence of her own eyes and ears, she is an ideal guide to her father’s lost world, which for so long she resisted.

Oddly enough, considering what a relatively benign spot her father’s hometown turned out to be, she has chosen to give it (and other associated places) fictional names. But perhaps the reason she found the people of Benheim (as she calls it) so forthcoming in talking to her was this sensitivity to their feelings.

“What will make your book different from other Holocaust books?” she is asked. “‘It’s not a holocaust book,’ I say as I do to everyone who calls it that … . I’m really more interested in how good people lived through and with Germany’s past.’”

Surprisingly, Benheim turns out to be, if not quite the paradise her father painted it, a pretty decent place, where Jews not only lived in harmony with their Christian neighbors in prelapsarian days but found less personal vileness later on than many of their peers did elsewhere.

Part of the reason for this, Ms. Schwartz learns, is the high proportion of Jews in the village population — about half — and the unusually low number of Nazis in the town.(Only 16 percent voted Nazi in the last free election.).

On Kristallnacht, it was outsiders who came to burn the synagogue and vandalize Jewish property, and only then did intimidation, fear and overt Nazi pressure make the townsfolk less openly supportive of their persecuted neighbors. Still, individual Benheimers, even officials like policemen, made gestures of support: Rules were bent and not one but two of the synagogue’s holy Torahs were rescued from the fire and made their way out of Germany.

Ms. Schwartz learns that for these good Bernheimers, such decency could carry a terrible price. On Kristallnacht, when the out-of-town Nazis came to wreak their progrom, “the neighbors could do nothing … But the next day they came and repaired all of them. Our neighbor was a cabinetmaker, and he and his sons worked for days to fix everything. Good people. But for that, they were punished. Both sons were shipped to the front …and never came back. They were cannon fodder.”

In Benheim and from her father’s refugee contemporaries, she learns of countless acts of kindness. Among the village’s elderly, she senses a genuine pity for the victims they were powerless to save.

A young German graduate student acting as her translator and guide warns Schwartz not to be naive: He still has a grandfather who keeps a Nazi flag in the home they share. But as he joins her on her quest, he too is won over by hard facts and testimony that passes both their smell tests.

Benheim does seem to be something special, but how much can such an exception be worth against an overwhelmingly horrendous norm? That is the underlying question inevitably posed by a quest such as Ms. Schwartz’s. It is a measure of her nuanced approach and refusal to settle for pat, simplistic answers that her book finds and genuinely values a rare point of light in that darkest of times without ever exaggerating its overall significance.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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