Good Neighbor Policy
By Laura Peirce Raymond
In 1962 I was 10 and my dad was in the U.S. Army in Germany, where the economy was beginning to recover from World War II. We lived off base in a small, brand-new townhouse in a little row of eight townhouses. Our next-door neighbor, a former teacher, had been a Nazi soldier and was terribly wounded during the war. His brain injury meant that he could never teach again. He couldn’t communicate well or organize his thoughts, but he still remembered loving language and debate, and he knew how much he’d lost.
He took the pain and rage from his shattered life out on us whenever he could escape his wife’s watchful eye. He slashed tires on our bicycles, broke our windows, and threatened us in a thick, garbled voice that mercifully we rarely understood. His wife appeared when he began yelling, and gently urged him back inside. Later, she came over, looking sad and harried, apologizing to my mother for his behavior, though obviously it wasn’t her fault.
Often she brought a little gift of a few cookies or a pretty picture cut from a magazine. My mother finally realized that they were extremely poor, and that “Frau Wedel” couldn’t work because her husband needed around-the-clock attention. They were subsisting on his tiny pension.
As time passed, we became friends with our neighbors in the other units, and my mother mentioned the difficult situation that Frau Wedel faced. When our neighbors realized her dilemma, they started to sit with Herr Wedel for an afternoon or evening here and there. Then his wife could get out to shop, see a friend, or enjoy a snack at the Bakerei down the street.
It was mostly the men who came to play chess or checkers with him, or to chat about gardening and whatnot. I can’t say that they healed Herr Wedel, because we only lived there for a year, but after a few months he was calmer and his wife looked more peaceful.
At the time, many Americans despised the Germans and were rudely outspoken about their hatred of the “Nazis”. The neighbors could have resented us for being Americans, being an occupying soldier’s family, and for stirring up so much trouble in Herr Wedel — yet they didn’t.
The urge to revenge is human, on both personal and national fronts. I believe we all need to strive to get past that urge, to become more sensitive and responsive to other people and other cultures. Problems will always be with us, however we have the opportunity to become good neighbors and learn to work on them together.
I will never forget the example of my German neighbors. They welcomed us into their homes as friends and visited ours, cared for and loved their damaged neighbor, and worked together to protect us all from further harm. Their humanity was so great they could embrace different people and meet their needs, without being distracted by political or cultural differences.