German villagers recall good deeds amidst Holocaust horror

June 16, 2008

GOOD NEIGHBORS, BAD TIMES
Echoes of My Father's German Village
By Mimi Schwartz
University of Nebraska Press, 280 pp., $24.95

Once upon a time there was a village in the Black Forest of Germany called Benheim. The families, who had lived there for generations, were a mix of Christians and Jews. These people were happy and content living together, helping each other when the need arose, sharing whatever they had. But that was before Hitler.

Mimi Schwartz grew up in Queens, N.Y. Born in 1940, three years after her family came from Germany, Mimi grew tired of hearing her father say, "In Benheim this, in Benheim that...." But the stories stuck in her mind.

Years later, on a visit to Israel, she met an old man who had known her father and who showed her an old Torah that was 1,800 miles from its home. He said, "Ja, the Christians of Benheim rescued the Torah for us during Kristallnacht."

Mimi wondered: What really happened in Benheim on Kristallnacht? She couldn't put it out of her mind, and thus began a 12-year quest.

What happened on that fiery night of Nov. 9, 1938? Not only in Benheim, but also throughout Germany, trucks full of men in brown shirts came into towns and villages bent on destroying whatever belonged to the Jews. There was terrible destruction, but because of faithful friends and neighbors, it didn't always work out as the Nazis planned.

In Benheim, some Christians decided to save what they could for their Jewish neighbors. They buried what they saved, including a Torah, outside the gate of the Jewish cemetery deep in the woods. Years later, a survivor dug up that Torah and sent it his former neighbors, who had settled in Israel. Other stories tell of another Torah and other precious belongings from Benheim being saved and eventually coming to America.

Good Neighbors, Bad Times is a collection of the stories Schwartz gathered as she called, visited and talked with those who lived in Benheim in those difficult, sad years. Today a new generation of Christians and Jews lives together in that community, remembering, sharing, learning.

The last chapter recounts a visit in 2004 when the mayor invited Schwartz to a celebration after restoring the former synagogue "as both church and living memorial, a place where Christians will pray and remember the Jews, their former neighbors."

After the formal meeting, music and feasting, the day's last event was a pilgrimage of Catholics, Protestants and Jews to the cemetery. The cantor prayed, and people remembered loved ones murdered in the Holocaust, including 87 from this small village. Standing in a circle of grief, friends and strangers hugged each other in sympathy.

Mimi imagines her father recounting this story. Starting with "In Benheim…," he would say, "Be glad you are here today to celebrate decency wherever it appears."

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