The American-born daughter of a German Jew tells the story of her father’s tiny village, where charity mostly trumped hate during Hitler’s reign.
Schwartz (Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, 2002, etc.) compiles material from personal interviews, local archives and Holocaust literature into an eloquent and affectionate account of Benheim (a fictional name). Jews and Catholics had lived as friends in this small southwestern farming community for centuries, until Nazis from a nearby town shattered the interracial and interreligious peace by destroying the local synagogue on Kristallnacht in 1938. A number of the town’s Jews had left the year before; some established a refugee community in Israel, others emigrated to America, as Schwartz’s father did. Many chose to stay and were aided by their Christian neighbors; nonetheless, almost a third of Benheim’s Jewish population eventually died in concentration camps. Schwartz’s main concern is to distinguish between historical truth and inherited nostalgia, to find out whether Benheim really was a uniquely peaceful hamlet of loyal neighbors who rejected the Nazis’s systematized stereotyping and brutality. Her final tally reveals a town in which personal decency was frequently upheld. The village’s most cherished story (recounted in several versions) is of a policeman who hid the synagogue’s Torah during Kristallnacht, then gave it to his Jewish neighbors to take to Israel. Wisely conceding that village life during the Holocaust wasn’t always so generous, Schwartz also includes stories of Christians turning their heads so as not to see the deportations and of the Nazi-appointed mayor erecting a swastika over the village. The town contained “contradictions that refuse a neat labeling,” the author acknowledges, to the chagrin of Holocaust scholars who favor more official records. As she got to know the surviving villagers, she writes, “their stories [made] my need for judgment recede.” Schwartz’s tone is gentle, her prose brilliantly clear and her insights keen, if not entirely new.
A ruminative exploration of the murkiness of collective memory.