She said she’d seen those faces before. Ukrainian women and children, who were running away from Russian soldiers, had a look she’d once seen in Germany as a little girl when Hitler was coming into power. Those faces held fear, she said, and terror, and the knowledge that they were probably going to die.
Valencia author Margot Webb, 94, shared reflections from her new book, “Tears in the Eyes of My Enemy,” in commemoration of Yom Ha’Shoah, a Holocaust remembrance day, Thursday evening at Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita. She said that what’s happening in Ukraine now very much brings back the nightmare of what she’d experienced before leaving her home in Germany during the early stages of the Holocaust.
“When I first heard that Russia had invaded Ukraine, I wasn’t as concerned for one or two days as I am now,” Webb told a small congregation at the Santa Clarita temple. “Because Russia had been on our side during World War II. They had fought with us. But I felt a certain nervousness, an atmosphere that I can’t describe — insecurity, perhaps — and it was the same thing in Germany when Hitler began to be the leader.”
Born to a Jewish family in 1927 in eastern Germany, Webb grew up not seeing a difference between the Christians and the Jews. Nobody saw the difference, she said. Everyone in town was simply German. In fact, her Jewish uncle fought and died for Germany during World War I. Webb said she even found herself wanting to join the Hitler Youth when that became a thing. This, of course, was before she knew what Adolph Hitler, the German dictator who would commit genocide, was all about.
“It was, at that time, like Girl Scouts,” Webb said. “They were going on trips to other countries. They were singing songs in praise of this wonderful new leader, Hitler, and I wanted to be part of it.”
One day, Webb said she’d overheard a girl reminding others about a Hitler Youth meeting.
“And I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about it. Can I join, please? Can I join?’ And she said, ‘Of course not. You’re a Jew.’ And that was my first rejection. And I’ve never forgotten it.”
From that point on, Webb said to the congregation, she began to gradually fear Hitler, the soldiers and the Gestapo. She would be thrown out of school for being Jewish, and her family eventually came to believe that in order to survive, they’d have to leave their home country. Webb’s father was able to get out and go to America. Her grandparents offered the same opportunity. They had two visas, and they gave them to Webb and her mother.
Webb left for California when she was 11 years old, she said. Her grandparents, having given away their passes to freedom, stayed behind. They were soon after picked up, sent to a death camp and gassed, Webb said. Webb also lost her other grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends who were like family to her.
She, on the other hand, would go to college and become a school teacher. She’d marry and have children. And she’d never lose the feeling of guilt, she said, that her grandparents might still be alive had she never been born and used that visa.
When Webb was 68 years old, a cousin of hers in England asked if she’d like to come visit her. Once there, the cousin told her about a trip she arranged to Germany, to which Webb said she did not want to go. Her cousin, though, had already paid for the tickets.
“She was two years older, so I had to obey her, no?” she asked the audience. Webb’s one condition was that she and her cousin go to the town where she was born. “The town where I last lived. Where I last saw my grandparents. Where I saw my grandfather being dragged off … Where I saw my grandmother being beaten with a billy club. Yes, I wanted to go there.”
Right away, Webb said she felt conflicted. In a hotel there, she saw furniture that reminded her of home. She smelled German food that reminded her of home.
“I felt I was home,” she said. “And two seconds later, huge guilt covered me. How can I feel at home in a town where they murdered my grandparents, where my friends were killed?”
That visit, however, led to a second trip to Germany, where Webb spoke with the descendants of the Germans who had persecuted the Jewish people during the war. At the time, Webb’s husband questioned his wife’s motives. Webb told her spouse that these kids and grandkids and great grandkids were innocent. During the Holocaust, they only knew their fathers and grandfathers to be soldiers, off to war. Webb’s experience with these descendants, who had been dealing with what, little by little, they learned their fathers and grandfathers had really done, inspired her latest book.
“Tears in the Eyes of My Enemy” shares the journey of a fictionalized version of Webb who goes back to Germany, where family had suffered and died during the Holocaust, to help educate the next generation of Germans. There she builds unlikely friendships with the children and grandchildren of her former tormentors. And while Webb shared some stories from the book with those on Thursday at Temple Beth Ami, Rabbi Mark Blazer wouldn’t let her give away too much of the book’s contents.
“Because people have to buy the book,” he told Webb.
Later in the evening, after speaking, Webb met with guests, shared other anecdotes and signed books. According to Blazer, anyone who bought a copy at the event would be giving money to the babies and children of Ukraine. That’s what Webb wanted, he said.
“I feel that when this Ukrainian war is over — when it’s finished — the Ukrainian little children, who will be teenagers or in their 20s later, will be getting help because the whole world has watched how they’re being punished by the Russians,” Webb said. “But I think the Russian children also will need help. The children are sitting there with their parents — with their mothers while the fathers are off to war — and they think their fathers are soldiers, liberating Ukraine. But they hear from time to time about the tortures. And little by little, they’re going to find out that the people who tortured little children in Ukraine were their fathers.”
That’s essentially what Webb’s book is about.
Webb has also written other books, including “Coping with Street Gangs,” “After the Monsoon: A Novel of an Intermarriage” and “Shadows at Noon: A True Story of Love, Terror and Escape.” Those and “Tears in the Eyes of My Enemy” are available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.