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Good Neighbors, Bad Times

1. What made you write this book?
I saw a Torah from my father’s village and heard a story of its rescue by Christians during Kristallnacht in 1938 and that intrigued me. Then I met some Jews from the village who had resettled in New York and they talked about hating Germany, but not their neighbors who they remembered “as decent people mostly, but what could they do?” Was this false nostalgia, or was this little Black Forest village a special place? I hoped so. I liked good stories—and spent the next twelve years trying to find out.

2. So was this village special?
With a population of 1,200, it had one of the highest percentages of Jews in Germany and that meant everyone knew everyone’s family. Despite of, and maybe because of the close-quarter multiculturalism, people made great efforts to cooperate. That attitude extended into Nazi times, enough to rescue a Torah and risk other small acts of decency.  But no villagers stopped the 89 Jews they’d known all their lives from being deported. The more stories I heard, the more difficult I found easy judgments. “Special” became a more complicated word, one that was challenged by my uncertainty about what I would risk for my neighbors if it meant danger to my family.

3. Why did it take twelve years to write?
This research involved lots of talking to villagers about a world I knew nothing about. That’s different from my first book, Thoughts from a Queen-sized Bed, when I was writing about my marriage, something I’d been “researching” for forty years of sharing a bed. This village—its people, its history, and how it fit into the rest of Nazi Germany—had to be absorbed, internalized, and then made to come alive on the page, while preserving the complexity of real people who trusted me to get their stories right.

Another reason involved “facing my dragons.” I never wanted to be the child of German refugees, confront anti-Semitism, dwell on the Holocaust or feel like a victim.  This book forced me to do all those things, although I resisted for ten of the twelve years. My friends kept saying, “We want more of you in the book!” and gradually what I planned to be literary journalism—about others—merged with memoir about how I connected a little German village with my own life.

4.  What research other than interviews, helped you write this book?
I did a lot of reading for ideas on how to tell my story and on how this village fits into a larger historical framework. Books like Saul Friedlander’s Nazi Germany and the Jews were invaluable for giving a historic overview. I watched movies about villages in Nazi times like The Shop on Main Street and Weapons of the Spirit. I did archival research in the village and in nearby towns. But what is not in the archives, on screen, or in history books are the everyday stories of real people. You find them in memoirs like Sebastian Haffner’s excellent Defying Hitler, but that is mainly one person’s experience. You find it in fiction, like Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, but that is an invented world, less messy than the one inhabited by the people I met.

5. Holocaust scholars at your college warned you to “Trust the records, not what people tell you!” Were you concerned about being duped by memories of wishful thinking?
Yes, that’s a concern when you hear one or two stories, but less so when you hear dozens. Truth comes in juxtaposition, an idea I first got from Alison Owings’ Frauen, which gathers 27 different experiences of women during the Third Reich. This Rashamon approach to history excited me: the way one person’s memories bumps against the next and how, collectively, they recreate a more complicated past. The effect is not unlike what happens in Ken Burns’ series The War: Truth, or rather truths, emerge from many small stories, side by side.

6. You tell the story in present tense, as if it were happening now. Why?
If I wrote in past tense, I would have to sound definitive. The emphasis would be more on “the answer” than on the struggle to understand and make connections. In present tense, there’s an immediacy that invites readers into the living rooms and kitchens with me, allowing them to form their own conclusions about these people as good neighbors—and about themselves, sixty years later.