Ralph Webster’s parents had the misfortune to be caught up in the horrendous happenings in Germany that led up to the beginning of World War 2. It was a subject that Webster’s father had been rather reticent about, as so many people are when they have been traumatised by events, but as Ralph Webster and his wife Ginger witnessed the plight of refugees on their recent trip to Europe from the US where they live, it made him think more about his own family’s history. The upshot is this book A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other which I must say is a cracking good read for anyone interested in that era. The author says that most of the story is based on fact, with just a few bits of fiction – to join the dots. He asked me to review the book as his father had found refuge in the west of Scotland as a teenager and was eventually able to join the British army – the Pioneer Corps.
There are two narratives running in tandem in A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other. One relating the experiences of the Wober family in Prussia in the Nazi era as told by Gerhard Wober and the other the told by his son Ralph Webster as his father’s life draws to a close.
The story begins with Gerhard Wober (Webster’s father) describing his family, he’s the youngest and has three very much older sisters. The family is well off, his father is a businessman, selling farm machinery and he also owns a farm. They have several servants who are like part of the family, and life is good, but as time goes on the rise of the Nazi Party was to change all that.
The trouble was that although the Wober family were Lutherans who regularly attended church and the children had all been baptised Lutherans, Gerhard’s mother had actually originally been Jewish, although not a particularly religious one. Gerhard’s father had been adopted and he later discovered that his parents had also been Jewish.
Living in a rural area in Prussia they had been fairly sheltered from what was going on in the cities, but when members of their extended family phoned to warn them what was going on in their town it was no longer possible to ignore the facts. The fact that they had completely assimilated and didn’t think of themselves as Jewish wasn’t going to save them from the horrors. The mayhem of Kristallnacht in 1938 woke them up to the fact that the Nazis weren’t a passing phase. It wasn’t long before the locals joined in with the violence of the National Socialist thugs and the Wober family home was trashed. Obviously unknown to the Wobers there had been a lot of jealousy over the years in some quarters.
It was time to move out. It might be safer in a city and they would have to think about escaping. With everything they had owned having been trashed or confiscated escape wasn’t going to be easy. By this time Gerhard is a teenager and his father’s top priority was to get him out of Germany to safety, but with no money and not having any friends abroad to sponsor him it seemed a forlorn hope.
The fact that as far as the family was concerned they were Lutherans, not Jews, only complicated things further. Taking advantage of the Kindertransport would have meant Gerhard would probably have been fostered to a Jewish family, but his father wanted him to hold on to his Lutheran upbringing.
Eventually Gerhard finds a sponsor and makes it to the west of Scotland where he gets a job working on a farm in Balfron, Stirlingshire – not that far from where I grew up actually.
When war actually breaks out all foreigners in Britain were interned in various places. Those in power naturally worried that some of those people might have been German or Italian spies. Jerry – as Gerhard was now known, was moved to the Isle of Man but when it was decided that he was no threat to Britain he was able to join the British army and do his bit. It was at this point that he changed his name to Webster as it was thought that if those in the Pioneer Corps had been captured by the Germans they would be likely to be killed as traitors.
I found this to be a really fascinating read and for me it answered some questions that I had always had – such as – Why didn’t they all just get out as soon as they realised what the Nazis were like?! But of course it wasn’t that simple.
Ralph Webster contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in reviewing A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other, mainly because of the Scottish connection. His father had always been grateful that he had been welcomed in Scotland, his sponsor had probably saved his life. I had to laugh though when it became evident that the farm workers that he had been working with were obviously rather rough in their speech, as many rural people are. So the Scottish dialect that he learned from them was quite different from the English that was spoken elsewhere in Britain, that must have been quite a shock to him. The blighters might have made an effort for the foreigner as certainly where I was brought up we were all bilingual with one dialect for in the school playground and ‘correct’ speech for in the classroom!
I rarely accept books review requests but the subject matter of this book was right up my street. My thanks go to Ralph Webster for giving me the chance to read his book.
As it happens today – the 9th of November is the anniversary of Kristallnacht – when any Jews who had been in denial about all the restrictions that had been going on in their lives could no longer have any belief that the Nazis couldn’t possibly mean people like THEM – normal law abiding people.
I thought that I knew a lot about this subject but I hadn’t realised that German birth certificates had a space for ethnicity/religion. So it would seem that that information was something that had always been important to those in power, long before the Nazi party reared its ugly head. There was no need for them to wait for jealous neighbours to denounce people as Jews, they had all the information already.
I wonder if German birth certificates still have that information on them. British birth certificates definitely don’t have a space for anything like that, it’s unimportant. It’s the child’s name, birthplace and the parents’ names and address only.
I know that South African birth certificates did/do have space for ethnicity. But that’s another weird country, and midwives in the past have been known to just decide that a baby was of black descent, causing all sorts of problems to the family.
I do wonder though if the nasty anti-foreigner post Brexit and let’s face it – pre Brexit attitudes to foreigners by some people nowadays were at all prevalent in 1930s Britain. Has our relative affluence made some people more hard-hearted towards people fleeing war and mayhem. It makes you think!
This one counts towards the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.