A short version of this essay first appeared in “Take Note” section of The Writer, January 2014. Mimi Schwartz is the author of 6 books, most recently the second edition of Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (co-authored with Sondra Perl). She is currently at work on a new essay collection, When History Gets Personal, which will include this essay. Her essays have been widely anthologized and seven of them have been Notables in Best American Essays.
I write to figure life out—and consider a memoir or essay finished when I can say, “That’s it! I got it right on the page.” But my assumption is premature, I’ve discovered, because after publication I find out new things—from my readers. What they tell me about what I wrote keeps enlarging what “getting it right on the page” means.
Take the woman who asked me to sign a book at my first reading from Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed (American Lives Series, University of Nebraska Press), about life in a long marriage. The woman was my age and said in a lilting voice: “I so identified with your arguments about how much to leave the window open in February—two inches or less!” I assumed she was a New Jersey wife like me until, with more lilt, she said: “Make it out to Sister Irene.” She was a nun from Ireland. Then a young man with a ring in his nose told me enthusiastically that he was a morning person like me and his partner was a night person just like Stu, my husband. I should make the inscription to Mike and Patrick.
I expected my book to appeal to the long married, newly married, and those about to take the plunge. But the common ground of relationships was much larger than I thought. People who shared a life or knew people that did (like their parents) recognized their own experiences in mine whether they slept in a single, queen, or king-sized bed.
When my next book came out, Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village (Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press), my readers surprised me again. This time who they are, where they came from, what family stories and religion they grew up with, dramatically altered the way they responded to my discoveries in a little Black Forest village of Catholics and Jews “who all got along before Hitler.” I’d first heard about this village from my father, as I was growing up in Queens, New York. I wasn’t interested until forty years later when I saw a Torah that had been rescued on Kristallnacht, not by Jews but by their Catholic neighbors. Who were they? Why did they do it? By then, my father had died so I couldn’t ask him, and so began a twelve-year quest, on three continents, in dozens of living rooms, to find out about these once good neighbors. How did they remember and live with the past? What’s true or not about memory? Was this community special?
I read first at my college, Richard Stockton College, and an old man asked during Q and A: “Would you write a book about small decencies if you had lost your family as I did?”
“No,” I answered, a bit stunned. “I don’t think so.” My family had escaped the Nazis and landed safely, some 40 strong, in row houses in Jackson Heights three years before I was born. His family, the man said, all died in Auschwitz.
At a reading at the Unitarian Church in New York, congregants delighted in the idea of good Germans trying to help—even by small acts like bringing soup to a neighbor at night or sharing a ration card. This audience never commented on my ambivalence and skepticism about who and what to believe. But German non-Jews, especially younger ones, wrote me letters emphasizing that skepticism about goodness. For them a continuum of decency was disturbing because it meant placing their parents and grandparents on it. How much easier to embrace historians like Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, who say that all Germans were equally guilty!
Jews from Eastern Europe, unless hidden by Christians, shied away from the idea of decency, whereas many German Jews, often more assimilated, accepted it. Many like my father had non-Jewish friends who helped them flee. Also, Germans had time—eight years or more—to plan their escape, whereas the Nazis invaded Eastern Europe from one day to another. Only 10 percent of Poles escaped the death camps.
Some readers with stories far removed from a German village during Nazi times surprised me with common ground. My husband’s colleague from India told me how his family village sat on the border with what became Pakistan, and neighbors who had gotten along for centuries were suddenly expected by their governments to be enemies. A young Croatian woman at a reading in Berlin told how, during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992-1996, good neighbors in her apartment house—Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian— helped each other. “While the men were outside killing each other, our families were sharing food and water.”
The dilemmas of decency touched America too, as a man at a St. Louis reading reminded everyone. In the McCarthy era in the 1950s, his neighbor was blacklisted as a Communist. “I wouldn’t have ended in a concentration camp for staying friendly, but I worried about being blacklisted by association and losing my job.”
And New Jersey students who read Good Neighbors, Bad Times for a class connected more dots between my father’s former world and mine. Responding to the assignment: “What similarities, if any, do you see between life in this one village before and during Nazi times and your life in your neighborhood?”, their answers echoed those I’d heard from former German Jews. Some had beamed in affirmation: “My German town was just like your father’s!” Others scowled in disagreement: “There wasn’t a decent neighbor to be found.”
The two New Jersey students had this to say:
A. “I came from a small farm town… small enough for everyone to know everyone and their family and their business and what their kids are up to. My neighbors (who are from Puerto Rico, five Chihuahuas, thick accent and all) will periodically knock on our door with a big bowl of soup or rice or even chicken or pork. In return, we send them pies and cookies. Other neighbors feed our outdoor cat while we’re on vacation. It’s a good neighborhood.”
B. “The neighbors on my street are not friendly and keep to themselves. The universe of obligation does not extend beyond one’s own home. The boy who lives across the street broke my window seven years ago and neither he nor his parents ever offered to fix it. He often blasts his music so loudly that my windows rattle. There does not seem to be any respect for any of the surrounding neighbors. Everyone just stays inside with doors shut tight, as I do.”
My readers greatly enriched the global perspective I had when I declared Good Neighbors, Bad Times finished. What happened in one village 75 years ago has found contexts in times and places that keep challenging my sense of closure. I like that, how new stories keep me honest about certainties. I look forward to more.