Good Neigh­bors, Bad Times Revis­it­ed: New Echoes of My Father’s Ger­man Village

  • Review
By – July 12, 2021

A sur­prise cor­re­spon­dence from the oth­er side of the world prompts Mimi Schwartz to return to Good Neigh­bors, Bad Times, her chron­i­cle of her father’s child­hood in the Ger­man vil­lage of Rexin­gen. Max Say­er, a Catholic man who grew up in the same vil­lage at the time of the Third Reich, writes to her from Aus­tralia and shares his unpub­lished mem­oir doc­u­ment­ing what he remem­bers of his child­hood. With Sayer’s writ­ings as a cat­a­lyst, Schwartz returns to her quest to bet­ter under­stand what hap­pened in Rexin­gen, and how the vil­lagers’ mem­o­ries of their expe­ri­ences shaped their per­son­al and col­lec­tive histories.

Schwartz excels in out­lin­ing the diverse rela­tion­ships that exist­ed between the Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish res­i­dents of Rexin­gen, as well as allow­ing each per­son she inter­views to speak for them­self. Schwartz fol­lows the Jews who, like Schwartz’s father, left Rexin­gen and Ger­many in the 1930s for safer havens; the author’s records of these inter­views are com­pas­sion­ate, hon­or the indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence, and are free from over­ly sac­cha­rine nos­tal­gia. The author uses this atten­tion to detail and research to rich­ly illus­trate the expe­ri­ence of non-Jews who Schwartz goes back to vis­it in Ger­many. The result is that Good Neigh­bors, Bad Times Revis­it­ed is a pow­er­ful book with engag­ing nar­ra­tives, doc­u­ment­ing the lives of peo­ple who Schwartz nev­er attempts to present as any­thing oth­er than themselves.

The clar­i­ty of Schwartz’s writ­ing ensures that read­ers do not get lost, even as the author trav­els from New York to Ger­many to Aus­tralia and back, from the city to the coun­try­side, and between alter­nat­ing time­lines of the war years, her child­hood, and the present day. This is even more impres­sive giv­en the gen­er­ous sprin­kling of Ger­man lan­guage through­out the book, and inter­spersed prose and let­ters. Schwartz’s gift for sto­ry­telling and her includ­ed pho­tographs keep read­ers fol­low­ing close­ly along, even if they haven’t read the orig­i­nal vol­ume. The only addi­tion­al tool I might have wished for was a map of Ger­many by which to trace our travels.

Good Neigh­bors, Bad Times Revis­it­ed will res­onate with read­ers who appre­ci­ate an inti­mate approach to his­to­ry and have a healthy curios­i­ty for the com­plex­i­ties of human behav­ior and the nuance of per­son­al deci­sion-mak­ing. A will­ing­ness to accept that truth and mem­o­ry can nev­er be ful­ly rec­on­ciled — at either the indi­vid­ual or col­lec­tive lev­els — is essen­tial, as Schwartz unapolo­get­i­cal­ly demands that her read­ers strug­gle along with her in try­ing to untan­gle the ambi­gu­i­ties of both. The book includes dis­cus­sion ques­tions and pro­vides ample mate­r­i­al for a book club or adult edu­ca­tion class. Schwartz has suc­ceed­ed in shar­ing a thought­ful and com­pelling com­men­tary that hon­ors her own per­son­al his­to­ry and the chal­lenge of under­stand­ing it in the con­text of the mem­o­ries of oth­er indi­vid­u­als, a close-knit vil­lage, all amid the back­drop of cat­a­stroph­ic nation­al and glob­al events.

Deb­by Miller is a long-time board mem­ber of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, serv­ing on its Fic­tion com­mit­tee, and lat­er found­ing the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Book Clubs. She is cur­rent­ly a Vice Pres­i­dent of the orga­ni­za­tion. Deb­by is based in Greens­boro, NC and has been involved in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty through Nation­al Coun­cil of Jew­ish Women (NCJW), AIPAC, B’nai Shalom and the Fed­er­a­tion. She was pres­i­dent of the local Women’s Divi­sion and cam­paign chair, and also got involved in the Nation­al Women’s Divi­sion. One of her pri­ma­ry phil­an­thropic endeav­ors is her work with JDC, where she has been a mem­ber of the board since 1994

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