I was surprised to learn I had an accent. I didn’t grow up with one, at least one that was mentioned. Now I suddenly realize that, except for when I was a child, wherever I lived, I have always had an accent. I was always considered a foreigner.
In some respects, having an accent is like having a sign on your back. It doesn’t say kick me. But people do notice. Some ask. Some don’t. Some care. I can’t say, though, that I was always made to feel like an outcast. I probably did that to myself at times. Anyway, that’s how I would hear my accent, somewhere in my head as I imagined how others heard it. Maybe that is another reason why I didn’t talk so much. I didn’t enjoy the sound of my own voice. It sounded too foreign. Who knows? I can’t be certain.
The irony is that this thought never occurred to me before this moment. I have always thought that everyone else had an accent. From my point of view, I always remained the center of my world. I was the same. Everyone else was different. I still believe that today. Perhaps I am a little self-centered. I suspect most of us are a bit that way.
As a child, my language was German, with a distinctive East Prussian twist. To understand the difference, think of the way the same words can be pronounced in different parts of America. Even now, after nearly sixty years in the United States, I still have trouble understanding some people when they speak. I suppose they say the same about me. My daughter-in-law dislikes it when people tell her she has a cute southern accent. I completely understand how she feels. Too many people make assumptions about those who speak differently than they do. Being a foreigner does not make one an alien, at least not the kind from outer space. Rather than make assumptions, perhaps these people should listen to what is being said and not so much to how it is spoken.
I was born in October, 1922, in Preussisch Holland in the German state of East Prussia. The town name derives from early settlers from Holland centuries earlier. To simplify, Preussisch can be shortened to its abbreviation, and most refer to it as Pr. Holland. That’s what I do. It certainly is easier to think of it that way.
Most of my official documents say I am from Elbing. Technically, that is true. The hospital was eighteen kilometers away in the much bigger city of Elbing, but our family home was in Pr. Holland. The way I saw it back then, Pr. Holland was the little circle in the center of the universe, at least, my universe. As children, I think that is the way we all imagine the world. Growing up, living in Pr. Holland, I did not have an accent, and I, most definitely, didn’t know a foreigner.
Don’t search for Elbing, Pr. Holland, and East Prussia on a map, at least not one drawn in this century. None of these places exist anymore. They were erased less than twenty-five years after I was born, when the country boundaries of Europe were changed and the continent re-divided following World War II. That’s when the world’s powers punished Germany for another of its many terrible transgressions.
According to my birth certificate and baptism records, I was born Gerhard Udo Albert Wobser, after my father (Udo was his nickname) and my adopted grandfather, Carl Albert August Wobser (we called him Grandfather Albert). My name is no longer Gerhard Udo Albert Wobser; why it changed to Jerry Webster is a story for later. In Pr. Holland, when I was a child, everyone called me Gerhard. No one blessed me with a nickname, particularly one as special as Udo.
You might wonder why I refer to Grandfather Albert in English rather than using the German vernacular like Großvater Albert. Truth is, sometime in the latter half of 1939, I began dreaming in English and have been dreaming in English ever since. I can still speak German fluently but am not really interested in using many German words. When I am awake, I do all my thinking in English. Dreaming works the same way. Using words like Tante or Onkel instead of Aunt and Uncle would be as difficult and foreign for me as they might be for you. I left Germany behind many years ago, though, at the time, I was convinced that it had left me.
My sisters loved to tell the story that I was a premature baby, born so very tiny, at 4 ½ pounds, I was able to sleep in a shoebox. As the story goes, I was so small that my parents would keep me in the kitchen warming oven that first winter. Fortunately, someone always took pity. True or not, I remain unbaked and survived. Today, if that were to happen, everyone would be outraged. Funny how parenting has changed. At least my parent’s circumstances enabled them to have a warming oven. I can’t imagine what would have happened had they used their regular kitchen oven.
I have no memory of my baptism but assume that it must have been a pretty big deal since it took place on Christmas Day in 1922. It was held at the old Lutheran church in Pr. Holland. I know little about how baptisms work, then or now. But, at the time, I imagine the competition would have been quite big on that particular day.
With the exception of Mother, all of us had been baptized as Lutherans: Grandfather Albert, Grandmother Marie, Father, my sisters, and me. Mother was raised in a household that followed Jewish customs. Her ancestry was Jewish, but like many Jews in Western Europe, her family had adopted the culture of their non-Jewish neighbors. Some might say they had assimilated. When she married Father, she abandoned her Jewish upbringing. She chose to follow Father’s Lutheran faith, and that is the way our family was raised. None of us felt any connection with the Jewish faith or considered ourselves Jews.
I have always been thankful that some of Mother’s rituals were retained and I was circumcised shortly after birth. There was no ceremony for this noteworthy event, rather a whispered conversation between Mother and doctor; my future health was the primary concern. Admittedly, I have been grateful to Mother ever since. I remember being startled to observe the distinct difference when I and the other eight-year-old boys, all uncircumcised, showered before swimming lessons. That was the first time I thought of myself as being a curiosity. That was the first time I ever considered the idea that I might be different.
By all accounts, our family, the Wobsers, was one of the more prominent and successful, some say the most, in our small town of Pr. Holland. However, all wealth is relative. Bragging rights aside, we may have been big fish, but it was a very small pond. As a child, how would I have known? Children don’t measure the world that way. Children measure with simple equations, like who is circumcised and who is not.
Excerpt from A Smile in One Eye. Ralph Webster. Author