Webster, Ralph. “A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other”, CreateSpace, 2016.
One Family Fleeing
The Wobsers were prosperous, churchgoing, patriotic Germans living in a small East Prussian town. However, when Hitler seized power, their comfortable family life was destroyed by the Nazi regime. Even though they had been baptized and confirmed as Lutherans, they were told that they were Jewish, a past always respected but rarely considered. Suddenly, it was no longer a matter of faith or religion; their lives were now defined by race and bloodlines and in Nazi Germany, they had the wrong blood.
Writer Ralph Webster has said that the reason he wrote this book is because of the Syrian refugee crisis in that he wanted to tell the story of people who had everything taken from them and were forced to leave their homes, family, and possessions behind. This is the story of his father’s life as a German Jew growing up in the 1930s in what is now Poland.
Hitler needed a scapegoat to explain Germany’s economic struggles during post-World War I and he had plans to bring Germany back to its former political prominence and to expand its borders. He was able to convince common, everyday citizens that Jews were the reason for Germany’s evils and his solution was to get rid of them however he could.
At first, he used outrageously biased laws that were designed to drive Jews out of the country of their own volition. Hitler defined a Jew by heredity and not religious beliefs. Most of Webster’s family members were practicing Lutherans, but were identified by the Nazis as part of the “Jewish race,” and therefore they were subjected to humiliating and demeaning restrictions. They had to register with the government as Jews, were not allowed to own businesses or keep the associated profits and were forbidden to drive, had to obey curfews and not allowed to marry anyone who was not Jewish. It did not take long before violence against the Jews took place and their homes and businesses were looted and burned down.
They were not allowed to leave Germany because many other countries has immigration quotas,. Even so, the more fortunate members of the Webster family landed in Scotland, England, Canada, the United States, Australia, China, and Palestine. Those who could not get out were murdered in concentration camps.
Ralph Webster was born in America and now lives in North Carolina. He shares details of the lives of his grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins and in doing so he, he shows the plight of political refugees with no place to go. He draws a parallel between Nazi Germany and those who are being forced to flee war-torn countries during this century thus reinforcing the idea that those who do not know history will be forced to repeat it.
When family members tells of the atrocities of Germany, it helps them define themselves as well as find meaning in their lives. Webster uses two narratives as he retells his family’s story. First there is Gerhard Udo Albert Wobser, the author’s father. Through Gerhard we learn of his patriotic German upbringing, his Lutheran religion, and his escape to Scotland and then to the United States. The second narrative is that of Ralph Webster who uses journal entries to provide an intimate insight into his thoughts and feelings about his father, and about his family history. Webster not only describes the horrors of a world war but he also gives us a direct connection to the current state of refugees around the world. He looks backwards to provide a bridge into the future for his children and their children.