Writer Ralph Webster is with me today. We’re talking about his memoir, a Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other.
Ralph Webster is a happily married, retired guy, living with his wife, Ginger, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Never a writer, his aptitude was numbers. Years ago he started a software company which he later sold to his employees. This is his first book.
Welcome, Ralph. Please tell us a little bit about your book.
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, and 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 rarely considered, but a distinction that 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.
Ralph Webster is the descendant of the Wobser family. This is the story of his father’s Holocaust journey. It will touch every emotion.
What inspired you to write this book?
Last year my wife and I took an extended hiking trip across Europe. Our trip took us from Croatia to Sweden traveling by train to all parts in between. At the time the international news was flooded with images of the refugee crisis. Thousands upon thousands were fleeing Syria. Some were from Afghanistan. Most were headed to Germany in search of employment and opportunity. We saw this firsthand on trains and at train stations.
I have a great compassion for those forced to leave their homelands. Much like during World War II, the world continues to be confronted with issues of ethnic cleansing, immigration and how to cope with the influx of refugees. History keeps repeating itself. How can it be, in this day and age, that people are forced to leave the homes of their mothers and fathers through no fault of their own?
I wanted to convey that sense of helplessness - what it is like to have to run for your life – what it is like to leave the country where your family has always lived - what it is like to leave family behind – what it is like to be totally disconnected and not know who has survived and who has not - what it is like to try to survive in a place with a different language and culture. In today’s error of terror and violence, I believe we too often forget that the refugees of the world are not the enemy. These are the victims. They are the innocent. They are the bystanders. They are people like you and me – and they are leaving with only the clothes on their backs.
My father’s journey took place 75 years ago. Yet, the parallels with today’s world are clear. We need to learn from this story. That is what inspired me.
Excerpt from a Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other:
We had no idea, no reason to expect that Father’s business would become a target, too. There was no forewarning. That morning, along the front of his building, in large red letters, was the message, “Udo Wobser is a Jew!”
I speak as an adult now, with the collected wisdom of age and hindsight. I will always remember that Saturday through the eyes and mind of a ten-year-old boy. That was the day Father became known as Udo Wobser, the Jew, no longer simply as Udo Wobser. That was the day I learned that I could be both a Jew and a Lutheran at the same time, that being a Jew was about bloodlines and ancestors, that it was about race, not only religion. That was the day I learned I was still a German, but now I was a German Jew. That was the day I learned that my family was a member of a much larger family, a family that ran generations deep, a family that was viewed with disdain and contempt.
From that date forward, a line had been drawn. It wouldn’t matter what we thought, how we had lived, what we believed. Please don’t misunderstand. We had never rejected the notion. We simply had never been taught to embrace it. Before April 1, 1933, I never entertained the idea that our family was Jewish, that I was a Jew. It meant nothing to me. If asked the question, I would have answered, “No, I am Lutheran.”
Ultimately, the answer was not ours to give. Others told us who we were. Both Mother and Father were descendants of Jews. There was no denying. There was no appeal.
At times, I wonder what Mother and Father really felt that day. Given the choice, how would have they answered the question. Did they consider themselves Jews? Now I know their answer was obvious. Our opinion did not matter. There was no choice. No one asked. The question was not needed; the answer was evident.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I think I am a “one and done” author. Instead of writing another book I am spending my free time meeting with book clubs and other gatherings participating in discussions about the book. This fall I believe I am doing 9 or 10 of these kinds of events. People are very interested and I am finding their insights fascinating. They find the story compelling. It is about family. It is emotional. It is about survival, about accepting your circumstances and moving forward, about race and religion, about what we learn from our parents, about what we want to tell our children. People find the book provocative. There are so many contemporary themes.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
That is a great question because I never considered myself a writer. Both of my parents were immigrants with limited education. My mother loved to read. I never saw my father open a book. English was our language at home but I now know that our vocabulary was limited. I never was in AP English. I never took creative writing or participated in discussions about great books in the classroom. When I started writing this book I thought it would be a family book for the coffee table – some pictures – some words – something for the next generation. Somehow during the writing process it morphed into something different. When I sent the manuscript off to the editor the pictures were gone and there were only words. We were literally blown away by his encouraging comments. That was when I realized this was a real book that others might want to read. It was a real story and I had become an author. That is also when my wife realized, much to her dismay, that I was about to share the privacy of our family’s story with the rest of the world.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
That’s easy. Early in the process, I asked Google how long a book of this type should be. To my amazement I learned that 90,000 words would be a good goal. I set my word processor up to tell me the word count as I typed. That is what drove me. Each evening I plotted the next day’s writing with that goal in mind. I didn’t want the book to end too early or too late! The final product is about 92,000 words.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Like most of us, I am sure there were many ideas. What I remember was baseball player, President, and rock star. When I realized that none of these were within my reach I put my sights on just being happy with whatever I have done. I think good goals for growing up are to enjoy life, leave only footprints, and to be respectful of others. We are only here for a relatively short amount of time.
Anything additional information you want to share with the readers?
The audio version will be released in November. It will be available at Audible, Amazon, and at the ITunes store. You can listen to a 5-minute snippet.
Thank you, Lisa.
You’re welcome, Ralph. Thank you for being here today.