Good deeds deserve big headlines
Publicizing good deeds could help inspire more.
Princeton, N.J. — As synagogues burned across Nazi Germany in 1938, a Torah was saved in my father's German village. Not by Jews, but by Christians. I saw its sacred scrolls almost 50 years later in a memorial room in Israel built by Jews who fled after that night, Kristallnacht, and started life again a continent away.
Seeing the Torah gave me hope. Even one small story of goodness about Nazi times is reassuring if, like me, you were raised on 1950s Hollywood movies of Germans in black boots killing Jews. Were there others who saved Torahs?
I thought of Anne Frank's faith, even toward the end: "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart." I wanted to believe that, too, but had never dared: So many had died because of illusory optimism that it was safe to stay. Yet this rescued Torah with its charred edges – there was even a knife gash – made me think: Maybe, just maybe...
A few months later I discovered that a second Torah from the village was rescued that night. It is now in Burlington, Vt. The widow of the man who brought it there told me that "a Gentile saw it lying in the street and thought, 'This is not right! A holy book!' " He picked it up, buried it in his garden, and brought it one night to her husband who was leaving for America.
I wish my father's entire village of 1,200 had rescued Torahs. But most people did as they were told by a man shouting from the street to stay indoors and shut the curtains. That's what I heard from those who fled the village (the Jews) and those who stayed (their former Christian neighbors). They recalled how "everyone got along so well before Hitler" and that some tried to maintain decency during Nazi times.
Like the two Christian carpenters who fixed the Jews' broken windows. The shoemaker who continued to repair Jewish shoes without permission. The grocer's wife who kept bringing soup at night to her elderly Jewish neighbor. The farmer who, at a public meeting in 1940, declared that no Jews assigned to their farm would work on the Jewish Sabbath, Nazi orders or no.
These small acts of decency were no match for the horrors of the Holocaust – one third of the nearly 350 Jews of this village were deported – but I needed to hear them anyway. Perhaps because the scale of rescue and decency was so small and doable, it forced me to ask: "What would I have done then? What would I do now if my neighbors were threatened?"
I am not a Raoul Wallenberg or Oskar Schindler, bold enough to save thousands. I doubt I am brave enough to risk my family's lives. But I can imagine bringing soup or fixing windows – even rescuing a Torah under cover of night if it were for people I knew, had lived with in peace, had shared a history with.
Especially if I knew that others do such things. Not just a few others, but lots of others, as in Billings, Mont., in 1993. When a hate group threw a bottle at a house with a Hanukkah menorah in the window, spraying glass on the child inside, residents of all faiths taped photocopies of menorahs in their windows. The hate groups committed more violent acts, and the residents posted more menorahs until, after a rally against hate groups, the violence – and the skinheads – went away.
What if more stories like this one appeared on the evening news or on Page 1 of our newspapers? Would we, the timid but decent, be more inspired?
I just received an e-mail from two Germans I met in my father's village. They were born after the war ended and knew little about the Jews until, 10 years ago, they bought a farmhouse near the old Jewish cemetery of my father's village.
They looked at 300 years of graves and wanted to know more (there are no Jews in the village now), so they joined an organization of more than 100 German Christians in the region who promote events so people will not forget what happened in Nazi times. (They also sponsor programs to help integrate Muslims now in the village.)
Their e-mail told how they'd stopped a neo-Nazi rally planned in a nearby town: "We were surprised how much support we got from the people ... with help of many local clubs, schools, and labor unions. [On our website] you will find all the newspaper articles with lots of photos."
If Anne Frank's faith is to have a chance, we need armies of people who, like those in Billings and in my father's village, refuse to let the silent majority be comfortably silent. Their acts of decency, big and small, need to be told and retold wherever political extremism – Iraq, Darfur, the Gaza strip, and so on – attacks the integrity of neighbors trying to get along.
• Mimi Schwartz is a writer. This essay was adapted from her book, "Good Neighbors, Bad Times – Echoes of My Father's German Village," which will be published in March.