Friday, April 04, 2008

Book Review: Good Neighbors / Bad Times

2008 marks seventy years since the tragic events of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. On November 9, 1938, the Nazis unleashed a wave of destruction against Germany's Jews. In the space of a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. Mimi Schwartz, author of Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father's German Village wasn't born yet. She would be grow up in Queens, New York, on milkshakes and hamburgers, and her father's stories of life in Germany, a life she had very little interest in. Her father grew up in Benheim (the name of the village has been changed to protect privacy), a little village of Christians and Jews in southwest Germany where according to all accounts Jews and Christians lived peacefully side by side. No allied bombs fell on Benheim during WWII so much of it is still preserved. The synagogue which was attacked during Kristallnacht is still there, now as an Evangelical Church. One can still visit the Jewish cemetery with 946 old graves.

Schwartz was in a village in Israel when she saw an old Benheim Torah and was told that “the Christians of Benheim rescued the Torah for us during Kristallnacht.” That story sent her on a quest to discover all that she could about this little village, to determine if, like her father had always told her, Benheim was special in that the people there got along and would do anything to help one another.

In “Good Neighbors / Bad Times” Schwarz interviews many old Benheimers, some in Israel and some in America. She also visits Benheim several times, a village which now has no Jews. The Jews that were there either escaped in time or were killed in the concentration camps. Only two Benheimers who were interred in the concentration camps survived. The other eighty-seven were murdered. On her journey, Schwarz discovers a series of individual stories and individual perspectives which each tell part of the whole story. She discovers both the Jewish and the Gentile perspective on what happened. She struggles with knowing what everyone knows now versus what people knew then. There was a large swastika that had been erected in the town in 1934, but as one Benheimer stated, “It was not important; no one knew what it would mean.” She learned of other kind deeds that occurred in Benheim and of a second Torah that was saved and is now located in Burlington, Vermont. She learned of how good people struggled to live through such difficult times, of people too scared to take a stand and the punishments that came to those who did. She learned of children being indoctrinated with hate in the local school and parents who struggled to fight against it.

“Good Neighbors / Bad Times” is a valuable work of social history. It is so important to preserve the stories of those who lived through these tragic events. In the end, Schwartz decides that Benheim was special, that decency managed to prevail there despite the Nazi hate that infected the land. As Schwartz states, “decency is often such a solitary act; it's evil that draws a noisy crowd.” “Good Neighbors / Bad Times” is recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about Jewish / Christian relationships during the World War II era. It would also make a wonderful text for a college course on the topic.

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