Holocaust memoirs are plentiful and varied, but Good Neighbors, Bad Times is about one woman's mission to discover how Christians and Jews from her father's hometown - Benheim, Germany - managed to get along even as the Nazis pushed their anti-Semitic agenda through this tiny Black Forest village.
Growing up, Mimi Schwartz was always being told stories of her father's village, a place so far removed from where her family lived in Queens. What prompted her to write this book was the story of how a group of Benheim Christians rescued the synagogue's Torah on the night of Kristallnacht and buried it for safekeeping. From there, she talked to Jews and Gentiles alike to find out how they co-existed in this sleepy little hamlet, and if it was true, as her father said, that everybody got along.
Schwartz's research for this book took twelve years and spanned across three continents, from the Benheim Jews who emigrated to the United States and Israel before the start of the war to the Christians who remained, clinging to the memories of their Jewish neighbors and trying to come to terms with all that happened. Sometimes the stories she heard connected with each other and sometimes they differed, but in this memoir, she reveals that all these wonderful, kind, and lively individuals and how they were all linked by a collective consciousness, a town credo in which most of them still helped each other, and respected one another, despite a Germany that was rising up in hatred against the Jews.
What makes Good Neighbors, Bad Times unique to the genre of Holocaust memoirs is that Schwartz found many stories of decency and humanity - individual and collective acts - in the midst of such monstrous cruelty. And the fact that decades later, these Benheimers are still neighbors who stay in touch and care for each other, despite being scattered all over the world, is a testament to how close-knit the community was before the worst of Nazism swept through. Of course, there were exceptions in Benheim, but overall, Good Neighbors, Bad Times proves that not all Germans during the Nazi era were bad people.
This book is touching, honest, insightful and richly textured with various voices and personalities. Schwartz's own voice adds richness, too, as one who started out being wary of the Germans remaining in Benheim, whom she felt perhaps haven't made enough restitution or felt enough remorse, but even she is won over. This is a very good read, particularly for anyone who has an interest in the Holocaust.