Side by Side in the Forest

Book cover
Good Neighbors, Bad Timesby By Mimi SchwartzUniv. of Nebraska Press. 280p $24.95

If Robert Satloff’s recent book, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories From the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands (2006), offers a freshly conceived, if ultimately stark, investigation into the archive of small kindnesses shown the occasional Jew during the Second World War, Mimi Schwartz’s sites for investigation, at the center of her memoir, are far more familiar. In 1887 the village of Benheim, Germany, was 50 percent Jewish, and home to some of the most assimilated Jews in Europe. In 1938 many were frightened into emigrating. Later, 87 from the town died in concentration camps, and two survived the camps. A Torah was somehow saved, and that is one of the stories that Schwartz explores, along with related acts of mercy, or the reverse.

Schwartz, a professor emerita at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J., begins her account of the fate of the Jews in her father’s German town in the early 1940s with a telling quote from the historian Robert Darnton, who writes that “the vast majority of humans have disappeared into the past without leaving a trace of their existence.” If readers suspect they already know what Schwartz will (not) discover, then Darnton’s observation provides strong undergirding for the larger story that this author is actually telling: the importance of the voiceless millions to whom history pays no attention; and yet, Schwartz would argue, with Willy Loman’s wife, attention must be paid if we are to nurture our own humanity.


Like Theo Richmond’s Konin (1995) and Jan Gross’s Neighbors (2002), which focused on Polish villages under Hitler, Schwartz’s return to pseudonymous “Benheim” in the Schwarzwald forest southwest of Stuttgart results in a patchwork of memories and stories, of keepsakes and uncertain protestations of innocence and subsequent whitewashing—leaving the reader with a decidedly unsatisfied feeling despite the author’s enthusiastic sleuthing. The truth we are left with is much like that of Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonio: the collective reality presented here is true, even if the details are not always nailed down. The mood of the book is caught in passing observations: “in between we will exchange our mothers’ cucumber salad recipes and hike through the woods and talk about jobs and children as we step in and out of dark rooms of legacy with the hope of moving on.”

But whether or not one can, or should, move on from the Holocaust is central to Schwartz’s many important themes. One thinks of major discussions of the question, like Richard L. Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism (1992) and Emil L. Fackenheim’s To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought (1994). The tears of a 70-year-old woman crying over the death of her mutti and brother in the camps, or even the need for someone like Schwartz (who describes herself as far from an observant Jew) to retrace her father’s history—these endlessly repeated stirrings of memory suggest there are events in history that leave their victims disabled, unto many generations. Part of Schwartz celebrates her American ability to throw off all this self-defining historical detritus, with which she was unfamiliar all her life; but Good Neighbors, Bad Times gives evidence of the need to connect, to honor, to fight against the obliteration of lives with which one has some unchosen connection.

The walls of obfuscation that Schwartz encounters, often unintended or well-meaning, demonstrate again and again that hope springs eternal—or that the mind prefers to obliterate the memories that still have power to deepen scars. While visiting gentiles in Germany who are willing to share their memories, Schwartz pauses in her responses when they innocently mention that they had purchased this or that from the various Jews who needed money, or when she learns that someone now owns a building or a field that was once in Jewish hands. From survivors, too, she gets mixed messages—somewhat like Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” (1997), in which one tries to continue living and finding a bit of joy in the midst of horror, trying to placate the non-Jews who seem, it is true, to be one’s friends. As one character tells her, “You can’t minimize the illusions that people live under.” Lars Rensmann, professor of political science at the University of Munich, for example, recently told PBS’s “Frontline” that one in two Germans 24 years of age or younger cannot identify the term “Holocaust.” For those who have lived through the Second World War, this seems quite incredible. And yet....

Schwartz’s account is a suggestive hybrid: on one hand a most personal search for her roots, and on the other an invitation to see a broader ongoing history of mass movements and the toll such emotional immersion and surrender of individual choice produces at the time and in subsequent generations. She wonders about unrecorded good deeds in Sarajevo, Rwanda, Bethlehem, Baghdad and Beirut, and notes the Nazi tactic of isolating Jews so that people would first forget about them—and then forget to notice when they disappeared from their village. Her point—“celebrate decency wherever it appears”—builds humbly on her evident recognition that each of us, in a street that has suddenly gone silent, can step forward and offer a hand. Or choose not to.


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