Good Neighbors, Bad Times Book Cover
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Good Neighbors book coverAuthor’s Note
This is a book of the small stories, the ones that history has no time for as it paints the broad brushstrokes of the past. These stories, I found, often lead to the big stories about Good, Evil, Truth, Bravery, Loyalty, Decency and Denial—and, in my case, helped me to sort what I discovered to be true from the more official Truths of a world I inherited, but never knew firsthand.

That world is a little village of Christians and Jews in southwest Germany, sixty kilometers from Stuttgart. Some stories I heard as a child in Queens, New York—told by a father who remembered a pre-Hitler life “where everyone got along.” Other stories came later, and one in midlife—again about decent Christian neighbors, but during the Nazi years—set me on a twelve-year quest on three continents to find out more. By then my father and his family had died, so these stories come, mostly, from villagers I’d never met before: both the Jews who fled from the Nazis and their Christian neighbors, still in the village today—and who remembered those times.  All welcomed me into their kitchens and living rooms as “die Tochter von Artur Loewengart” (the daughter of Arthur Loewengart), a family they remembered well. And plying me with coffee and home-baked German goodies, the ones I loved as a child in Queens, they opened the albums of their lives with unexpected generosity.

"Don't be naive!" warned Holocaust scholars at my college where I’ve taught writing for twenty years. “Trust the records, not what people tell you! People are unreliable, contradictory!” But as storyteller, not historian, I liked how one person’s memory bumped another, muddying the moral waters of easy judgment. I liked how the same landscape of images—the white cross, the black swastika, the burning synagogue, the fresh-baked Berches and linzertorte—kept reappearing, no matter who was talking. And how the many angles of vision, taken collectively, made my father’s village real for me: a blend of fact, myth, and memory that I could reclaim, at least a little bit.

The people I met, the stories they told, the facts of village life and history, are true as I learned them. Nothing is made up except for people’s names; some identifying details; and three names of place, including that of my father’s village, which I call Benheim. Many urged me to keep its real name, but I decided to follow the tradition of other nonfiction books about small communities, such as Laurence Wylie’s Village in the Vaucluse, Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, and William Sheridan Allen’s seminal work, The Nazi Seizure of Power: the Experience of a Single German Town: 1922-1932.

The issue is the right to privacy for people who are neither famous nor infamous –and are still alive. Place them in a village of 1,200 and you’ll find only one postman’s son and one barber’s daughter; so to name the real place is to name real people. Some villagers were fine with that. “Use my name, no problem!” and I was tempted until I realized that my subjects, who were in their seventies, or older, kept thinking my book was only about the facts: the who, what, when, where and how of their lives. What they didn’t realize, no matter how often I explained, is that I wanted their personalities to come alive on the page so readers would meet them as I did: who they were in their memories, who they are now, and how they struggled between those old and new selves.

In this book you’ll meet farmers, tradesmen, factory workers, factory managers, teachers and civil servants who all share a village past, now lost. Many are old-timers (Catholic and Jewish); a few are newcomers (Protestant and Muslim). Some are well educated; many more did not go beyond the eight years of the local Volksschule. There is a Jewish survivor of several concentration camps; a schoolteacher with a Nazi father and grandfather; a Jewish daughter who escaped to America but could not get her mother out; a Catholic boy who was in Hitler’s army and now spends his retirement years doing research on local Jewish history. And many others, people neither heroic nor evil, whose stories allowed me to reenter my father’s old world and walk around for a while with you, my reader—as if it were ours.

Mimi Schwartz
March, 2009

Critical praise for Good Neighbors, Bad Times