March 28, 2008

Faithful Lines / Shirley Vogler Meister

A memoir: Good neighbors even in bad times

Shirley Vogler MeisterWhen it comes to neighbors, my husband and I have been blessed in each area that we have lived.

We were fortunate when we moved from Illinois as “young marrieds” and settled into an apartment in the Broad Ripple and Glendale area of ­Indianapolis.

Then, after our babies arrived, we bought a small home. As our three daughters progressed through Christ the King School and Bishop Chatard High School, we purchased a larger home from fellow parishioners who moved to California.

Every place that we have lived, we have befriended neighbors of many different faith traditions. Never did we feel uneasy. We also trust that we never made others uneasy because of our faith.

Recently, I read a book prompting these musings, Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village, written by Mimi Schwartz and published by the University of Nebraska Press ( Schwartz is a professor emerita at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey and has written five books.

When viewing her photograph, I did a double take because she reminded me of the pleasant but (thankfully) demanding journalism teacher and writer Lillian Jossem, who mentored me when I became “social editor” for my hometown daily newspaper in Belleville, Ill.

Schwartz teaches workshops in memoir and creative nonfiction writing nationwide and abroad.

Another coincidence is that both women have a Jewish heritage. Even Belleville has a synagogue. So when reading about Schwartz’s father’s village near Stuttgart, Germany, I recalled Belleville’s history—founded by the French and settled by Germans. I wondered if early Bellevilleans enjoy the same close friendships as Schwartz’s village despite having varied faiths?

Schwartz’s father extolled the virtues of his village named Benheim in the book—even after megalomaniac Adolph Hitler’s regime of hate and systematic brutalization and eradication of Jews and anyone else against his evil.

Hitler mesmerized Germans into believing they were a superior race. They eradicated not only the Jews, but also anyone who opposed Hitler’s “master plan,” including Catholics, some now recognized as saints.

What is remarkable about Schwartz’s book is how she carefully and repeatedly interviewed and recorded Jews, Christians and others in the U.S. and abroad in order to learn the full story about her dear father’s beloved Benheim.

Telling too much about the book would deprive readers of the authentic unfolding of this remarkable history. If I revealed the unselfish Catholic/Christian roles, that would ruin the blessed surprises for potential readers. Despite the horror of the times, the book emphasizes the importance and comfort of good neighbors.

A pivotal point of interest is how Christians saved the Torah when Benheim’s synagogue burned on the infamous Kristallnacht—the “night of breaking glass,” which signaled the doom of millions of innocent people.

Now I ponder: Would I—would we—do the same if people of other faiths were in peril?

(Shirley Vogler Meister, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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