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man who grew up in the same village at the time of the Third Reich, writes to her from Australia and shares his unpublished memoir documenting what he remembers of his childhood.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.
Deborah Miller received rabbinical ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter, where she serves as a hospice chaplain and teacher.