I received a copy of this book from the author.
“A Smile in One Eye, a Tear in the Other” by Ralph Webster is a biography/autobiography about his father Jerry Webster, originally named Gerhard Wobser. The book is divided into two parts: Jerry’s recollections about the rise of Nazis during his childhood in what was then East Prussia, and his son Ralph’s observations about Jerry at the end of his life. Jerry was born in what is now Poland in 1922 to a reasonably well-to-do family. He had three much older sisters and was the treasured son of aging parents who at times felt isolated from his siblings due to the age difference. As anti-Jewish sentiment grows in the region, the Wobsers, who are all baptised Lutherans, find themselves targeted for a heritage mostly forgotten.
This book was written after Webster’s travels through Europe, witnessing first-hand the “refugee crisis“. Although I have been reading quite a few stories about the children of Holocaust survivors this year, one story that I did not know much about was the story of those who tried to leave early. Although in the early days of Nazi Germany, many Jews were permitted and even encouraged to leave, lots of countries (including Australia) were reluctant to take them. With dwindling resources due to increasingly discriminatory laws, the Wobser family had to make do and send Jerry unaccompanied to England and eventually flee to China. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the reluctance of countries to take on refugees that took place then and is taking place now.
This story is written clearly with great detail, and I think captures the how slowly rights can be eroded perfectly. I liked the balance of past and present, and I think that Ralph’s own insights about his father worked well to provide a good sense of ending to a long life that had begun just before World War II. The only thing that is a bit difficult with this book is some of the earlier chapters about Jerry’s upbringing are a little repetitive, and he explains his family’s situation and structure several times over. While this helps to reiterate their situation in the beginning, it did slow the progress of the story at times.
A well-researched and well-considered book, this story is very relevant to our society today and shows that lessons can and should always be learnt from the past.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. It was actually quiet a coincidence because I got it while I was reading “Maus“, and it turns out this book complements it very well.
“The Butcher’s Daughter: a Memoir” by Florence Grende is a collection of vignettes about Florence and her family, their survival of the Holocaust by hiding in woods in East Poland and their new life in America. As a young girl stifled by their silence, Florence imagines her parents’ trauma as a beast that is always lurking within their house. It is not until she is an adult that Florence tries to learn more about her family and her people’s suffering and finds that some names and stories are lost forever.
Grende is a succinct and delicate writer who captures her experiences as a child of Holocaust survivors in bite-sized memories. She thoroughly explores the impact of her parents’ persecution on her home life and shines a light on intergenerational trauma and the effect of the war and moving to America has on her own Jewish identity. Her Mameh and Tateh are depicted as complex characters at once both stoic and vulnerable, trying to forget the unforgettable but who carry invisible (and visible) scars nonetheless.
Again, this would be an excellent companion to “Maus”. Grende provides a daughter’s perspective on her parents that is insightful and sympathetic with more of a focus on who they are rather than who they were.
Since I first got into graphic novels some years ago, this has been on my list to read. “Maus” by Art Spiegelman became the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. When I saw a copy during a recent handover shindig at Book Passion here in Canberra, I knew I had to have it.
“Maus” by Art Spiegelman is recounts the story of Spiegelman’s father Vladek’s life in Poland as a Jewish man before and during the World War II Holocaust. The graphic novel is a frame story split between two timelines. There is the present, where Spiegelman is recording his father’s memories and struggling with their difficult relationship and Vladek’s declining health and mental state. Then there is the past, when Vladek was a young and resourceful man who survived Auschwitz with a combination of luck and ingenuity.
This is really a standout example of the graphic novel medium. Although this genre still cops a lot of flak for being childish, this is a very serious graphic novel and the illustrations in “Maus” are deceptively simple. Jewish people are represented by mice and Nazis are represented by cats, and there are all kinds of inferences that can be drawn from that – everything from Mickey Mouse propaganda, the idea that Jewish people were considered ‘vermin’ and the obvious power differential. Another example is all the Ss drawn to look like the lightening symbols of the SS. It’s a story of tragedy, it’s a story of strength and it’s a story of trauma. While his father battles the demons of his experiences, Art battles spectres of a past that wasn’t his but impacted his life nevertheless.
I think that if you’ve never read a graphic novel before, then this would be a perfect place to start. If you’ve never read THIS graphic novel before, then you need to add it to your list. It is an evocative and painful reminder of how important it is to not fall prey to the temptation to make scapegoats.