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

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Overview


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 what these stories might really mean. Thus began a twelve-year quest covering 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 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.
 
How, this book asks, do neighbors maintain a modicum of decency in such times of political extremism when fear and hatred strain the bonds of loyalty and neighborly compassion? How do we negotiate evil and remain humane when, as in the Nazi years, hate rules?
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Editorial Reviews

National Jewish Post & Opinion
"Schwartz's excellent presentation defies categorization. It has some elements of journalism, autobiography, history, reporting, feature writing, and literature. All these components are creatively combined to result in an eminently readable product that grips the reader's attention. Schwartz has augmented our limited capacity to comprehend the Holocaust, which is ultimately an incomprehensible phenomenon."

— Morton I. Teicher, National Jewish Post & Opinion

Dallas Morning News
"[A] beautiful memoir of introspection and contrasts."-Harriet P. Gross, Dallas Morning News

— Harriet P. Gross

America
"Whether or not one can, or should, move on from the Holocaust is central to Schwartz's many important themes. . . . 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. . . . 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."

— John C. Hawley, America

The Jewish Week
"Thoughtfully told. . . . With an open spirit, Schwartz looks at individual struggles and choices in order to better understand the nature of heroism and loyalty, the meaning of good and evil, writ large and small."-Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week

— Sandee Brawarsky

Michael Walzer
"Mimi Schwartz has written an engaging account of her journey into her family's German-Jewish past. But Good Neighbors, Bad Times is much more than that: it is also a shrewd and insightful meditation on how our collective histories are discovered, constructed, revised, and debated-and how, finally, we learn to live with them."

-Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars

Rosellen Brown
"Good Neighbors, Bad Times is utterly riveting. It reintroduces, one story at a time, the kind of human complexity to our understanding of 'the perpetrators' so often lacking when we confront the devastation of the Holocaust. Mimi Schwartz bravely takes us along on her journey to re-create the ethos of a particular village, its surprises, uncertainties, contradictions, provocations, and shares with us her humbling conviction that-no matter how inhuman the orders that come from above-there is no such thing as a monolith when it comes to the reactions of individuals. Her book casts a ray of light into the darkness, which was not so absolute as it has often seemed."

-Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After and Half a Heart

Phillip Lopate
"Mimi Schwartz has found a fresh way to write about the unspeakable loss of the Holocaust: her humor, warm humanity and honesty, her appetite for contradiction and irony, sparkle on every page. The result is both deeply affecting and full of surprises."

-Phillip Lopate, author of Getting Personal and The Art of the Personal Essay

Carol Rittner
"A thoughtful, elegantly written memoir. . . . Through the author's voice, we hear the voices of a dwindling group of survivors-Jewish and Christian-whose perspective and remembering are as complex as they are insightful. This is a Holocaust memoir that is as much about then, as it is about now. Good Neighbors, Bad Times will make you smile, but it will also make you think. I highly recommend it."

-Carol Rittner, co-author of The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust

Suzanne Keller
"In this book history is brought to life in a stunning way. By tapping individual and collective memories, the crisis of a German village is illuminated in recall and ritual as century-old patterns of coexistence between Christians and Jews are torn asunder under the impact of Nazism and War. By interweaving the personal and the political, the institutional sinews of the village fabric are laid bare along with the historic forces eroding them. Beautifully written, the diverse reactions of ordinary villagers reveal both the fragility and the strengths of the bonds that held them together, broke down, and were emotionally reclaimed in the struggle to comprehend their fate."

-Suzanne Keller, author of Community: Pursuing the Dream, Living the Reality

Floyd Skloot
"Schwartz's book is an original contribution to the crowded field of Holocaust literature. Its reach combines the full arsenal of creative nonfiction: personal experience, family history, interviews, observation, philosophy, literature. Good Neighbors, Bad Times speaks to issues regarding the process of memory, the balancing of experiential and archival information, and the ownership of history's narrative."

-Floyd Skloot, author of In the Shadow of Memory and A World of Light

Max Apple
"This is a personal and introspective book distinguished by its intelligence and its quiet clarity."

-Max Apple, author of Roommates and I Love Gootie

Sonya Huber
"Schwartz puts at center stage not a sweeping generalization about 'The Germans' but its opposite, an open question that invites the reader to examine his or her moral conduct toward 'neighbors,' and to imagine oneself in the shoes of the various speakers and voices in the book. Schwartz raises large questions, too, about the nature of history, asking whether the flavor and essential, complex truth is lost when the stories of first-hand sources are squeezed into an historical narrative devoid of subjectivity."

-Sonya Huber, author of Opa Nobody

Raul Hilberg
"When Mimi Schwartz set out with a tape recorder to discover something about the life of her father in a small German town. . . . She did not know what she would find. This is the story of her quest in vivid portraits of Jewish emigrants and German residents right up to a revealing climax."

-Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews

Edith Milton
"Mimi Schwartz is a very keen observer, a splendidly witty writer, and a committed skeptic. Her new book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times, which explores the past of the small Black Forest village where her father was born, reads like an idiosyncratic detective story. . . . The vivid portraits which Mimi Schwartz sketches of Benheim refugees transplanted to America and Israel and of Germans who stayed and still live in Benheim are brilliantly incisive, surprisingly amusing, and usually, ultimately equivocal."

-Edith Milton, author of The Tiger in the Attic

Writing it Real
"[Schwartz's] journey, the people she vividly portrays, and the stories she reveals never fail to evoke what is best and binding in our humanity. Her father would be smiling, I think, having read this book. He would cherish the fact that what he knew has been told."

— Sheila Bender, Writing it Real

Shofar
"[Mimi Schwartz] has written a brilliant book. . . . It is a book that should be read by all."

— David Patterson, Shofar

Spritual Woman

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.”—Spiritual Woman
 

JBook.com

“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.”—JBooks.com: The Online Jewish book Community

Jewish Book World

“Schwartz puts at center stage not a sweeping generalization about ‘The Germans’ but its opposite, an open question that invites the reader to examine his or her moral conduct toward ‘neighbors,’ and to imagine oneself in the shoes of the various speakers and voices in the book. Schwartz raises large questions, too, about the nature of history, asking whether the flavor and essential, complex truth is lost when the stories of first-hand sources are squeezed into an historical narrative devoid of subjectivity.”

—Sonya Huber, author of Opa Nobody

American Book Review

"Schwartz''s book is worth reading from the point of view of its new perspectives on the Holocaust and on life in Germany in the Nazi era, its information on the lives of German Jews who emigrated to the US and Israel in the 1930s, and its links to contemporary events in the world."—Elaine Martin, American Book Review

— Elaine Martin

Foreword

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.”—Spiritual Woman
 
The Washington Times - Martin Rubin

"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. . . . 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, The Washington Times
National Jewish Post & Opinion - Morton I. Teicher

"Schwartz's excellent presentation defies categorization. It has some elements of journalism, autobiography, history, reporting, feature writing, and literature. All these components are creatively combined to result in an eminently readable product that grips the reader's attention. Schwartz has augmented our limited capacity to comprehend the Holocaust, which is ultimately an incomprehensible phenomenon."—Morton I. Teicher, National Jewish Post & Opinion
Dallas Morning News - Harriet P. Gross

“[A] beautiful memoir of introspection and contrasts.”—Harriet P. Gross, Dallas Morning News

America - John C. Hawley

“Whether or not one can, or should, move on from the Holocaust is central to Schwartz’s many important themes. . . . 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. . . . 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.”—John C. Hawley, America

The Jewish Week - Sandee Brawarsky

"Thoughtfully told. . . . With an open spirit, Schwartz looks at individual struggles and choices in order to better understand the nature of heroism and loyalty, the meaning of good and evil, writ large and small."—Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week

Wilson Quarterly - Aviya Kushner

“The book of moments and little stories surprises and horrifies, soothes and disturbs. But it is, above all, a beautiful read by a charming writer. And it reminds us that behind every story is the flawed human being who told it.”—Aviya Kushner, Wilson Quarterly

 

Michael Walzer

“Mimi Schwartz has written an engaging account of her journey into her family’s German-Jewish past. But Good Neighbors, Bad Times is much more than that: it is also a shrewd and insightful meditation on how our collective histories are discovered, constructed, revised, and debated—and how, finally, we learn to live with them.”—Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars
Shofar - David Patterson

"[Mimi Schwartz] has written a brilliant book. . . . It is a book that should be read by all."—David Patterson, Shofar
Writing it Real - Sheila Bender

"[Schwartz's] journey, the people she vividly portrays, and the stories she reveals never fail to evoke what is best and binding in our humanity. Her father would be smiling, I think, having read this book. He would cherish the fact that what he knew has been told."—Sheila Bender, Writing it Real
Rosellen Brown

Good Neighbors, Bad Times is utterly riveting. It reintroduces, one story at a time, the kind of human complexity to our understanding of ‘the perpetrators’ so often lacking when we confront the devastation of the Holocaust. Mimi Schwartz bravely takes us along on her journey to re-create the ethos of a particular village, its  surprises, uncertainties, contradictions, provocations, and shares with us her humbling conviction that—no matter how inhuman the orders that come from above—there is no  such thing as a monolith when it comes to the reactions of individuals. Her book casts a ray of light into the darkness, which was not so absolute as it has often seemed.”—Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After and Half a Heart
Phillip Lopate

“Mimi Schwartz has found a fresh way to write about the unspeakable loss of the Holocaust: her humor, warm humanity and honesty, her appetite for contradiction and irony, sparkle on every page. The result is both deeply affecting and full of surprises.”—Phillip Lopate, author of Getting Personal and The Art of the Personal Essay
Carol Rittner

“A thoughtful, elegantly written memoir. . . . Through the author’s voice, we hear the voices of a dwindling group of survivors—Jewish and Christian—whose perspective and remembering are as complex as they are insightful. This is a Holocaust memoir that is as much about then, as it is about now. Good Neighbors, Bad Times will make you smile, but it will also make you think. I highly recommend it.”—Carol Rittner, co-author of The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust
Suzanne Keller

“In this book history is brought to life in a stunning way. By tapping individual and collective memories, the crisis of a German village is illuminated in recall and ritual as century-old patterns of coexistence between Christians and Jews are torn asunder under the impact of Nazism and War. By interweaving the personal and the political, the institutional sinews of the village fabric are laid bare along with the historic forces eroding them. Beautifully written, the diverse reactions of ordinary villagers reveal both the fragility and the strengths of the bonds that held them together, broke down, and were emotionally reclaimed in the struggle to comprehend their fate.”—Suzanne Keller, author of Community: Pursuing the Dream, Living the Reality
Floyd Skloot

“Schwartz’s book is an original contribution to the crowded field of Holocaust literature. Its reach combines the full arsenal of creative nonfiction: personal experience, family history, interviews, observation, philosophy, literature. Good Neighbors, Bad Times speaks to issues regarding the process of memory, the balancing of experiential and archival information, and the ownership of history’s narrative.”—Floyd Skloot, author of In the Shadow of Memory and A World of Light
Max Apple

“This is a personal and introspective book distinguished by its intelligence and its quiet clarity.”—Max Apple, author of Roommates and I Love Gootie
Sonya Huber

“Schwartz puts at center stage not a sweeping generalization about ‘The Germans’ but its opposite, an open question that invites the reader to examine his or her moral conduct toward ‘neighbors,’ and to imagine oneself in the shoes of the various speakers and voices in the book. Schwartz raises large questions, too, about the nature of history, asking whether the flavor and essential, complex truth is lost when the stories of first-hand sources are squeezed into an historical narrative devoid of subjectivity.”—Sonya Huber, author of Opa Nobody
Raul Hilberg

“When Mimi Schwartz set out with a tape recorder to discover something about the life of her father in a small German town. . . . She did not know what she would find. This is the story of her quest in vivid portraits of Jewish emigrants and German residents right up to a revealing climax.”—Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews
Edith Milton

“Mimi Schwartz is a very keen observer, a splendidly witty writer, and a committed skeptic. Her new book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times, which explores the past of the small Black Forest village where her father was born, reads like an idiosyncratic detective story. . . . The vivid portraits which Mimi Schwartz sketches of Benheim refugees transplanted to America and Israel and of Germans who stayed and still live in Benheim are brilliantly incisive, surprisingly amusing, and usually, ultimately equivocal.”—Edith Milton, author of The Tiger in the Attic
American Book Review - Elaine Martin

"Schwartz's book is worth reading from the point of view of its new perspectives on the Holocaust and on life in Germany in the Nazi era, its information on the lives of German Jews who emigrated to the US and Israel in the 1930s, and its links to contemporary events in the world."—Elaine Martin, American Book Review
JBook.com

“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.”

—JBooks.com: The Online Jewish book Community

The Washington Times
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. . . . 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.
an Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies Shofar
Mimi Schwartz . . . has written a brilliant book that is 'not a Holocaust book,' not a book about the annihilation of European Jewry. And yet, if a Holocaust book should transmit how dear and how fragile every human life is-if it should transmit our infinite responsibility to one another in the light of the Nazi assault on the Infinite One-it is a Holocaust book, a Jewish book, a most human book. In any case, it is a book that should be read by all.
an Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Schwartz . . . writes beautifully; her words flow, characters are portrayed seemingly effortlessly and she makes vivid the tensions between the German generations and between those Germans who insist on remembering what others would equally insistently forget. The result is most satisfying, the tale of a woman in search of her roots who finds what she is looking for-and so much more; but the story is much larger than that. It is a vivid portrayal of good neighbors who experienced the worst of times that tested themselves and each other and that scattered fragments of the truth of that time to the four corners of the earth, seemingly waiting for one fine writer to unite them.
—-Michael Berenbaum
Kirkus Reviews
The American-born daughter of a German Jew tells the story of her father's tiny village, where charity mostly trumped hate during Hitler's reign. Schwartz (Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, 2002, etc.) compiles material from personal interviews, local archives and Holocaust literature into an eloquent and affectionate account of Benheim (a fictional name). Jews and Catholics had lived as friends in this small southwestern farming community for centuries, until Nazis from a nearby town shattered the interracial and interreligious peace by destroying the local synagogue on Kristallnacht in 1938. A number of the town's Jews had left the year before; some established a refugee community in Israel, others emigrated to America, as Schwartz's father did. Many chose to stay and were aided by their Christian neighbors; nonetheless, almost a third of Benheim's Jewish population eventually died in concentration camps. Schwartz's main concern is to distinguish between historical truth and inherited nostalgia, to find out whether Benheim really was a uniquely peaceful hamlet of loyal neighbors who rejected the Nazis's systematized stereotyping and brutality. Her final tally reveals a town in which personal decency was frequently upheld. The village's most cherished story (recounted in several versions) is of a policeman who hid the synagogue's Torah during Kristallnacht, then gave it to his Jewish neighbors to take to Israel. Wisely conceding that village life during the Holocaust wasn't always so generous, Schwartz also includes stories of Christians turning their heads so as not to see the deportations and of the Nazi-appointed mayor erecting a swastika over the village. The town contained"contradictions that refuse a neat labeling," the author acknowledges, to the chagrin of Holocaust scholars who favor more official records. As she got to know the surviving villagers, she writes, "their stories [made] my need for judgment recede." Schwartz's tone is gentle, her prose brilliantly clear and her insights keen, if not entirely new. A ruminative exploration of the murkiness of collective memory.
Wilson Quarterly

“The book of moments and little stories surprises and horrifies, soothes and disturbs. But it is, above all, a beautiful read by a charming writer. And it reminds us that behind every story is the flawed human being who told it.”

— Aviya Kushner, Wilson Quarterly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803226401
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,241,736
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author


Mimi Schwartz is a professor emerita of writing at Richard Stockton College. She is the author of  Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, available in a Bison Books edition, and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (co-authored with Sondra Perl). Her essays have been widely anthologized and six of them have been Notables in Best American Essays.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations     xiii
Author's Note     xv
Close to Home
Treadmill to the Past     3
Anonymous Translation     8
At the Nachmittag     17
Kaffeeklatsch     24
Joie de Vivre     35
Four Stories of the Torah     48
The Revolving Room     59
An Ocean Away
Off the Record     75
A Little Respect, Please     95
The Good Raincoat     102
Hedwig, Fritz, and "Schtumpela"     113
The Second Generation     122
Back and Forth
Willy from Baltimore     139
Five Kilometers Away     151
Katherine of Dorn     164
Truth Transposed     175
What Willy's Neighbor Says...     177
The Red Album     180
Where Legend Ends     193
At My Father's Grave     203
End Points
The Other Miriam     213
Three Little Girls     221
Yes or No?     234
The Celebration     243
Acknowledgments     259
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