Published: June 28, 2016
Avg Amazon Review: 4.9 *
The Third Reich is rising. The creeping madness in the heart of Germany will soon stain the entire world. This is the chilling account of one family as they flee for their lives.
The Wobsers are prosperous, churchgoing, patriotic Germans living in a small East Prussian town. When Hitler seizes power, their comfortable family life is destroyed by a horrifying Nazi regime. Baptized and confirmed as Lutherans, they are told they are Jewish, a past always respected but rarely considered. This distinction makes a life-and-death difference. Suddenly, it is no longer a matter of faith or religion; their lives are defined by race. It is a matter of bloodlines. And, in Nazi Germany, they have the wrong blood.
* * * * *
It has taken me entirely too long to write this review, I know. My sincerest apologies to author, Ralph Webster, whose generosity in providing me with a copy deserves far better from me. I just wanted to make sure that I did this wonderful memoir the justice that it is due. I’ve done my best, but it isn’t near all that I wanted to say.
I call this story, “a Smile in One Eye…”, a memoir. And so it is, but it is not the memories of the author himself, at least not all of it. Let us say that Ralph Webster took up residence in his father’s memories for awhile, and wrote what he saw there. Who else could have seen so clearly, but the son…
From his father’s childhood before, during and after one of the most horrifying eras in history – World War II and Hitler’s Nazi regime – through his family’s sad journey away from their homeland of Germany and eventual arrival to the United States, this is the saga of one family’s strength and determination to hold on to their self identity, their patriotism to a country which fell into cultural hatred, and their self respect, regardless of how others saw them.
The story begins with the author’s father, Gerhard Udo Albert Wobser, as yet a child enjoying life in the bosom of a tight knit, loving family. Theirs was the comfortable existence which comes from relative success, wise investments and shared loyalties. The Wobsers were, first and foremost, German. Secondly, they were of the Lutheran faith.
Until there came the forerunners – and then the full weight – of the Nazi regime. Then they were Jews.
They were not Orthodox Jews in the religious sense, but Jewish by blood. They were steadfast Lutherans and immensely proud and patriotic Germans, living in Pr. Prussia. They fiercely held onto the belief that their loyalty to their country meant something. What they did not know was the depth to which humanity can sink in order for a select few to gain power of the masses, even to the point of genocide. “The Master Race” would have no room, no use, for them. They were Jewish by blood, and in Hitler’s mind, that was enough to exterminate an entire culture.
Gerhard’s father was an intelligent and wise man. He realized what was coming and he and his equally strong willed wife tried to prepare their family for a very austere way of life. Eventually, though, they lost everything…their business, their home and land, their money, right down to only what they could carry…and every single human right that existed at the time…and yet still they held onto their dignity. His father was determined to get his family out of the country, one way or another. Gerhard, himself only a young teenager, was sent away to live and work with a family in Scotland. His siblings (but one) and parents wound up in China for a time and finally, the family were reunited in the United States, sadly missing a few of its members.
But this is only the bare bones of the story – the shop window you look through across the town square. The author takes you so deep into the traumas and fear and sense of loss, that you become a part of that family. You feel the snow and chill of winter as you whoosh! down the hill on a child’s sled, laugh with those children…and sob when they become outcasts, even to losing the right to an education. You cry with the adults…and raise your chin high with pride for their determination to survive, and you experience the debilitating fear and anxiety that ‘not knowing’ can elicit. And you become so outraged for these strong people in their losses, that you want nothing more than to go back in time and avenge what was done to them and the other hundreds of people in even this one town.
No, this is not a simple tale. This book is raw. One generation is tested beyond endurance, while the next learns to adapt…and then are tested in their own right. And now, Gerhard, or Jerry (for that was the name he eventually adopted), himself, is closing in on his own mortality.
The book is written between ‘then’ and ‘now’, switching between the horrors of war and loss, and the memories of, and fears for, the father, as seen through the eyes, heart and soul of his son, the author, Ralph Webster.
I cried. In the space of 15 hours, I lived with this family, cried with them and ran with them for a decade. Then, just as I was settling in with them, in relative peace, I cried again for the hole that was left…and cried yet again as I understood how peace was able to overcome even this final loss.
But there was laughter and cheer and wry smiles, mostly when introduced to ‘the sisters’, who all seemed very familiar in their similarities to other older sisters I have met!
The Wobser’s tale is one that is not all that unusual, excepting their success in finally reaching safety (for out of all the thousands, how many actually made it out of that horror with their lives, and that of most of their families?). Many hundreds of thousands suffered the same injustices, loss of home and homeland the same shunning by friends, acquaintances and, sometimes, even other family members…and those who became the victims in the horror that was the Holocaust.
What is unusual is the manner in which it is told: by a son who made it his mission to tell that story in as close to first person that he could get.
While I fell in love with the whole Wobser family, I have fallen in love specifically with Ralph and Ginger, his wife, for the effort and support that they have surely shared during this journey. I cannot imagine how difficult the telling of this story must have been.
When I say that I highly recommend this book to all and sundry, I mean ALL and sundry. No matter the genre’ you prefer to read, “a Smile in One Eye” will fill you up.
* * * * * * * * * *
AN UPDATE. SORT OF.
(better late than never!)
Best Holocaust Literature #3 of 56 books
Good Books Concerning the Holocaust #4 of 52 books
Biographies of Ordinary People #5 of 65 books
Best Books of July, 2016 #2 of 10 books
Consider for your Book Club – Author Available for Video Participation