When History Is Personal contains the stories of twenty-five moments in Mimi Schwartz’s life, each heightened by its connection to historical, political, and social issues. These essays look both inward and outward so that these individualized tales tell a larger story—of assimilation, the women’s movement, racism, anti-Semitism, end-of-life issues, ethics in writing, digital and corporate challenges, and courtroom justice. A shrewd and discerning storyteller, Schwartz captures history from her vantage as a child of German-Jewish immigrants, a wife of over fifty years, a breast cancer survivor, a working mother, a traveler, a tennis player, a daughter, and a widow. In adding her personal story to the larger narrative of history, culture, and politics, Schwartz invites readers to consider her personal take alongside “official” histories and offers readers fresh assessments of our collective past.
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About the Author
Mimi Schwartz is a professor emerita in the writing program at Stockton University. She is the award-winning author of Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village(Nebraska, 2008) and Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed (Nebraska, 2003) and is the coauthor of Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction. Her essays have been widely anthologized, and ten of them have been listed as Notables in the Best American Series.
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My Father Always Said
For years I heard the same line: "In Benheim, you didn't do such things!" It was repeated whenever the American world of his daughters took my father by surprise. Sometimes it came out softly, in amusement, as when I was a Pilgrim turkey in the P.S. 3 Thanksgiving play. But usually, it was a red-faced, high-blood-pressure shout — especially when my sister Ruth became "pinned" to Mel from Brooklyn or I wanted to go out with friends whose families he didn't know.
"But they're Jewish," I'd say, since much of our side of Forest Hills was. The eight lanes of Queens Boulevard divided the Jews, Irish, and Italians pushing out of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan from the old guard WASPs of Forest Hills Gardens. No Jews or Catholics over there — except for a few blocks near the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium where, from fifth grade on, we kids all went to watch what is now the U.S. Tennis Open. It was our end-of-summer ritual before school began.
"You're not going," my father would announce before all such rituals.
"But everybody's going."
It was the wrong argument to make to a man who fled Hitler's Germany because of everybody. But I couldn't know that because he rarely talked about that Germany, only about his idyllic village where everybody (as opposed to the everybody I knew) did everything right. If my friends didn't have an aunt, grandmother, or great-grandfather originally from Benheim or vicinity, they were suspect. They could be anybody, which is exactly why I liked them — not like the Weinberg kids whose Benheim mother was "a born Tannhauser," as if that were a plus.
"I don't care about everybody!" my father would shout (that was his second favorite line); but it was a losing battle for him. My sister Ruth smoked at fifteen, I wore lipstick at twelve, we hung out at Penn Drugs after Friday night basketball games with friends who were third-generation Brooklyn and Romania — and didn't give a hoot that "In Benheim, you didn't do such things!"
The irony of those words was inchoate — even to him, I realize now — until we went back to his village to visit the family graves. I was thirteen; it was eight years after World War II ended, and my father wanted to show me where his family had lived for generations, trading cattle. He wanted me, the first American-born in the family, to understand that "Forest Hills, Queens, is not the world" (his third favorite line). A hard task to tackle, but my father was tough, a survivor who had led his whole clan, like Moses, out of Nazi Germany and into Queens, New York. He was ready to take on an American teenager who said no to keeping a diary to remember. (I took photos and made captions instead.)
"So Mim-a-la, this is Benheim!" my father boomed as the forest opened upon a cluster of fifty or so red-peaked houses set into the hillside of a tiny, green valley. We had driven for hours through what looked like Hansel and Gretel country, filled with foreboding evergreens that leaned over the narrow, winding roads of the Schwarzwald. Even the name, Schwarzwald, which means Black Forest, gave me the creeps, having been weaned on Nazi movies at the Midway Theater on 71st Avenue; but I was optimistic. Life did look prettier than in Queens.
We drove up a rutted main street and stopped before a crumbling stone house with cow dung in the yard. "This was our house!" my father announced, as I watched horse flies attacking the dung, not just in our yard but in every yard on Eelinger Weg. And there were chickens walking in front of our rented car. What a bust! My mother at least came from a place with sidewalks; we had driven by her old house in Stuttgart, sixty kilometers north, before coming here. My father, I decided, was a hick. All his stories of country hero adventures about herding cows with a book hidden in one pocket and his mother's raspberry Linzertorte in the other were discounted by two cows chewing away in stalls where I expected a car to be.
I can still see the stooped old man with thick jowls and a feathered leather cap coming out of the house with a big smile and a vigorous handshake for my dad who, looking squeezed in his pinstriped suit, nodded now and then and looked polite, but did not smile back.
Sind Sie nicht ein Loewengart, vielleicht Julius oder Artur? The man kept jabbering and my mother translated. He was Herr Schmidt, the blacksmith, and he recognized my father: "Aren't you a Loewengart, maybe Julius or Arthur?" The man bought the family house in 1935 from my Uncle Julius, the last of the Loewengarts to leave Benheim, and was reminiscing about how my father and his brothers, Sol and Julius, liked to play in his shop with all his tools. Eine nette Familie, sehr nette ("A fine family, very fine"), he kept saying.
I understood nothing because I learned no German at home. When my father reached Ellis Island, he announced that our family would not speak the language of those who drove us out of Germany. Which was fine with me. It was embarrassing enough in those days to have parents who, for all my coaching in "th," couldn't stop saying Fader and Moder in front of my American friends.
The man beckoned us towards Dad's old house, but my father shook his head, Nein, Danke! and backed us quickly away. I wanted to go in and see his old room, but my father did not. It would be forty years until I followed Frau Hummel, the blacksmith's daughter, up the narrow, dark stairs to a loft with two windows like cannon holes and searched the heavy, low beams for my father's initials — AL — carved in the worn, smooth wood. They weren't there.
"And here is my downtown! No Penn Drugstore for hanging out around here!" my father said cheerfully, as we drove past four buildings leaning together like town drunks. He pointed to where Grunwald had his kosher butcher shop and Zundorfer, his dry goods. "And here's the Gasthaus Kaiser! We Jews had wonderful Purim and Shavuot dances here with green branches and ferns and flowers like marbles in candlelight." I could picture Mr. Grunwald — he sold sausages in Queens — but I could not picture my big-bellied, baldheaded dad dancing, a kid like me.
We turned into an alley and stopped next to a gray building with stone columns, like sentinels, on each side of the doorway, and what looked like railroad ties set into stone corners. I wouldn't have noticed it among the houses.
"Here is where we spent every Shabbat." My dad got us out of the car to look at his old synagogue. He pointed to a Hebrew inscription carved into a stone plaque above the doorway: "How great is God's house and the doorway to Heaven," he translated haltingly in his rusty Hebrew. Right below was a wooden beam with another inscription, this one in German. It said the same thing, my father said, but it was new. He'd never seen it before.
I found out later that the German inscription had been added the year before we came. That's when the Jewish synagogue was converted into a Protestant Evangelical church to accommodate an influx of East Germans, who, fleeing the advancing Russian troops late in World War II, had resettled into the empty Jewish houses of this village of Catholics and Jews. Keeping the same words inscribed over the doorway was meant as a tribute of respect: that this building was still God's house. But the 270 Benheim Jews who had fled to America and Israel were never grateful. Their beautiful synagogue was no more; that's what counted.
"Well at least it didn't become a gymnasium or a horse stable like in other villages," one villager told me huffily in 1993 when I first returned to Benheim on my own. We were in the former mayor's living room. Two other villagers nodded vigorously, but a lively fourth woman, who said she had lived next door to my great-uncle, disagreed: "Na Ja, I wouldn't be so happy if our Catholic church became a mosque — and believe me, we have plenty of Turks here now ..."
"They are our new Jews," the former mayor's wife interjected.
"Na Ja." The lively woman shrugged and continued, "I wouldn't feel good just because the Moslems said our church was still God's house!"
They pointed to "the Moslems" outside: four bearded men squatting around a table sipping Turkish coffee in a terraced yard below the synagogue. They had come in the 1960s as guest workers from Turkey and Afghanistan and by 1990, they made up 20 percent of the village. Quite a few lived in the old Gasthaus Kaiser, where my father used to dance at Purim festivals and where my Aunt Hilde and family had once lived above the restaurant. This village, Dad, is more like Forest Hills than you thought! and I wished he were around to discuss the ironies of migration. But he died in 1973 and didn't know that the "restricted" Forest Hills Gardens is now owned by wealthy Asians, and our house on 110th Street is owned by a family from Iran.
My father loosened his tie and wiped beads of sweat from his forehead with a checkered handkerchief. "And if you weren't in the synagogue by sundown on Friday, not a minute later, and there all day on Saturday, you were fined, a disgrace to your family. Three stars had to shine in the evening sky before anyone could go home."
I thought of his fury whenever I wanted to go bowling on Saturday at Foxy's, where all the boys hung out. Not that my father went to synagogue in Queens. The most religious he got, as far as I could see, was to play his record of Jan Peerce singing Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of repentance. And he fasted, which I tried once or twice but got hungry when my mother ate a bagel. She never fasted.
The sun was high, the car seat sticky on my thighs, so I sat in the shade of five tall, arched windows that someone had been fixing. My mother returned to our rented car, saying she didn't like standing in the open where everyone could see us. In fact, she would have skipped Germany altogether and stayed in Belgium with my sister Ruth, who had married Edgar, a Belgian Jew instead of Mel from Brooklyn. But my father had insisted on this pilgrimage.
"Aren't we going inside?" I asked when my father started to follow my mother. He was the leader on most everything, the man who, soon after Hitler was elected, convinced his brothers, sister, cousins, and parents-in-law, to leave Germany as quickly as possible; the man who figured out schemes for smuggling money taped to toilets on night trains to Switzerland — it took a few years — so that they'd have enough cash for America to let them in. Jews without a bank account of $10,000 or a wealthy sponsor could not get visas out of Hitler's Germany.
"No reason to go in. The building is just a shell. Everything was gutted by fire during Kristallnacht."
I imagined a Jewish festival with candles out of control. In 1953 there was no Schindler's List, no Holocaust Museum, so I had never heard about the Nazis systematically burning all the synagogues in Germany on the night called Kristallnacht or the pogrom of 1938. All I knew was that good Americans, in movies with Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck, fought mean-looking men in black uniforms who clicked their heels a lot and shouted Heil Hitler. And we won.
Kristallnacht, Dad had explained, was when the Jews finally realized they had to leave — and fast — even from Benheim where Jews said it wasn't so bad. "People felt safe until synagogue was torched, everything in flames." He became quiet. I urged him to continue, but he held back, tentative. Not at all like him.
"My cousin Fritz ... Do you remember him?" I shook my head no as a story began. "He lived in that alley," he pointed, "and when he smelled the smoke, he raced over. He was part of the Fire Brigade, many Jews were, and began shouting, 'Why don't we do something? Get the hoses!' Men he knew all his life were standing around, silent. 'Against orders!' snapped a Nazi brown shirt, a stranger. 'Except if the Christian houses start to burn!' He pointed his rifle at Fritz. So everything inside was lost — a Torah, the Ark ..."
I thought about the old blacksmith who lived in our house. Was he there? Was he one of those firemen? Why was he so friendly if he hated the Jews? "These people weren't from our village," my father said quickly. "They were thugs from outside, brought in trucks by the Nazis to do their dirty work."
My father, already in America by then, had this assurance from Benheim Jews who, like Fritz, had left as soon after Kristallnacht as they could get exit visas. "The Benheimers would not do such a thing!" said many who resettled in New York.
My father opened the car door. "In fact, many Christians helped the Jews fix the store and house windows also smashed that night. For that, they got in trouble. Everyone who helped was sent to the front as cannon fodder."
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's what you feed to guns, so they shoot."
I imagined a young man being stuffed into a cannon, like at the circus, and aimed at American guns, his mother in the red doorway of the house we just passed, getting a telegram, crying like in the movies. But I wasn't going to feel sorry, not when they let the synagogue burn.
Years later I would hear this term "cannon fodder" used again and again by Benheim Jews — and always with the same "broken window" story. It was as if they had decided collectively on this tale and how it illustrated that their non-Jewish neighbors meant well. "It wasn't their fault. They were afraid, too," they'd say with more sympathy than anger. But, like my parents, the Jews who returned to Benheim to visit the family graves did so quickly, never wanting to stand and talk out in the open or reenter old rooms of memory.
I was hungry, but my father stopped again, this time in front of a shabby building with three tiers of windows. This was his school, he said, and it looked like my old one, P.S. 3, but mine had a paved playground and better swings. This just had dirt.
"We Jews had the first floor and one teacher, Herr Spatz, who taught everybody everything. The Christians had the other two floors."
"How come?" I asked. I never heard of kids not being divided by age.
"That's how it was done!" he said. The Jews learned Torah, and the Christians didn't. They went to school on Saturdays, the Jews didn't. "To high school, everyone went together, walking six kilometers to Horb." Not everyone went; only the cleverest and those not essential to farm work.
"And did all the kids talk to each other and play games?" I thought of Tommy Molloy in the schoolyard saying I killed Christ, but then he asked me to play stickball on his team, and I said okay.
"Of course. We all got along. This village is not so big."
I didn't argue about that! The schoolyard was deserted and, looking for movement in a meadow on the far hill, I saw a giant white cross, ringed by forest that kept its distance, like dark green bodyguards. The cross was new, my father said. It wasn't there when he was a child or when he came home for an occasional Shabbat after moving to Frankfurt in 1921 to work and marry.
I picture him leaning over to nudge my mother, who had been quiet. "Remember how we had to park the car two kilometers away and walk to my father's house? No Jew dared to drive here on Shabbat! Am I right?"
"Absolutely. You'd be run out of town!" My mother laughed for the first time all day and turned to tell me how she, a big city girl from Stuttgart, first came to this village for her cousin Max's wedding. She wore a red lace dress. Very shocking! "Everyone was whispering, but your father came over and asked for every dance!" Her shoulders eased with nostalgia, wisps of black hair loosened from her chignon, and I leaned forward, close to her neck that always smelled of almond soap, to hear more about my parents having fun.
My father made a sharp left turn up a dirt road that zigzagged up a hill and stopped in front of a low, rundown farmhouse with half a roof. We needed a key for the Jewish cemetery, and it was hanging on the peg "where it has always been," my father said. This was the Brenner house. They were the gravediggers who, before Hitler, had been burying the Benheim Jews for generations. A quarter of a mile farther, a giant stone portal emerged from nowhere — the kind leading to castles — and the fat key opened the heavy gate that led us deep into woods.
I still remember the sunlight on that day, how it streamed on the gravestones, a thousand of them tipped but standing in an enchanted forest light. It was a place to whisper and walk on tiptoe. I remember the softness of the ground, a carpet of moss and leaves, and the stillness, as if the trees were holding their breath until we found everyone: my father's mother, Anna, born Tannhauser (1872–1915); and his father, Rubin (1866–1925); both marked by sleek, dark marble gravestones that looked new despite the underbrush. And Rubin's father, Raphael (1812–1889); and his father, Rubin Feit (1761–1812), their pale sandstone gravestones carved with elaborate vines and scrolls eroded by time.
Excerpted from "When History is Personal"
Copyright © 2018 Mimi Schwartz.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Preface Part 1. Family Haunts My Father Always Said The Coronation of Bobby Love in a Handbag When to Forget “It’s Just Like Benheim” Part 2. In and Out My Front Door First Thanksgiving, 1962 Off the King’s Highway A Trunk of Surprise What’s a Rally to Do? Close Call At the Johnson Hair Salon Echo across the Road Part 3. Storyscapes Story on a Winter Beach Go Away, Bear Writing with Carly My Z Man Who Will I Be in Your Story? In the Land of Double Narrative Part 4. Border Crossings Ad In, Ad Out On Stage and Off Lessons from a Last Day Lyrics and the Way We Love A Vine of Roses Fix-It Fantasy How the Light Gets In Acknowledgments Source Acknowledgments