My parents, Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, were fortunate in escaping Nazi Germany. The story of how they got out in 1938-1939 is the subject of the book Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939 to be published next year. Not all of their friends were as fortunate as they. When I was working on the book, I found a letter among my parents’ papers that told the astonishing story of a close friend of theirs. The letter was written to my father in 1960, during the time when Adolf Eichmann was on trial in Jerusalem.
Natalie Freyberger was a bright young woman who lived in Düsseldorf when my parents did. She worked part time for Johannes and Elfriede as a secretary in their small newspaper distribution business (the Nazis having expelled my father from his government post years earlier). Because she was completely reliable, Johannes and Elfriede could leave Frau Freyberger in charge of the business for a couple of weeks when they had to be away. Like many of Johannes and Elfriede’s friends, Frau Freyberger was Jewish. Early in 1939, her non-Jewish husband divorced her under the Nuremberg laws, which made marriages between Jews and non-Jews illegal. Frau Freyberger desperately wanted to leave Germany but was unable to do so because she couldn’t find a country that would let her in. Some time after my parents left Germany, Frau Freyberger was arrested and transported to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. The story of how she managed to survive is told in the letter she wrote my father many years later:
May 25, 1960
Dear Dr. Hoeber,
* * * * *
Eichmann’s arrest has aroused all sorts of memories. He was the most feared visitor to Theresienstadt. Every time there was an announcement of his visit it set off a panic; his presence meant the same thing as transports to Auschwitz. He then carried out the selections himself in Auschwitz. Only one of them took place in Theresienstadt: for the spouses of mixed marriages. He found me suitable for removal to Auschwitz too.
It was in October 1944 that the last transport ever went from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. All through October there were transports of 2500 people to Auschwitz every second day. In this desolate confusion someone dispatched me from the main office to the telephone center, which had just been completely “cleansed” by Eichmann. While I was using the nearest steps to the telephone center, Eichmann was coming down the main stairway to “cleanse” the main office. They forgot about me in the telephone center. Everyone who was in the main office was gassed in Auschwitz, so that I alone remained as the result of “forgetfulness.”
Although our parents were nonreligious — Konfessionslos in German — Düsseldorf was a Catholic city and our family measured life around the celebration of the holidays of the Christian calendar — Lent, Easter, Pentecost, St. Martin’s, Advent, Christmas. The Karnival season in late winter — the German equivalent of Mardi Gras — was celebrated raucously in Düsseldorf and the surrounding Rhine valley. Rosenmontag, the Monday before Ash Wednesday, was celebrated with a huge costumed parade in which children participated as well as adults. For Rosenmontag in February 1939, Susanne decided she wanted to dress as a Mexicanerin, a Mexican cowgirl. Her grandmother helped her assemble all the accessories for her costume — wide skirt, big belt, checked shirt, kercheif and a broad-brimmed hat. Elfriede tracked down the makeup Susanne wanted as well as a cap pistol (despite Elfriede’s pacifist aversion to such toys). The final charming effect was documented both in a photograph by Susanne’s Uncle Günter and in her own self-portrait drawing.
Had Johannes and Elfriede remained in Germany, Susanne would have been required to enter the Hitlerjugend, the Nazis’ corps for indoctrinating children in the fascist ideology of the Third Reich. Protecting her from such an intolerable experience was one of the many reasons our family fled Germany.
POSTSCRIPT: After I wrote the piece above, I sent it to Susanne to review. She liked it, and sent the following additional story. Note that this is a memory from 75 years ago:
During the Vietnam War, the battles between American and Vietcong forces had the collateral effect of destroying the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians. To help alleviate the suffering of these innocent victims, the United States initiated a massive program of foreign aid and refugee relief. The program was administered through the Vietnam Desk of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in the State Department. My father, Johannes U. Hoeber, was appointed to head that effort in 1967 and continued in that position until 1972. It was the last job he held in his life and, despite the difficulties, the most rewarding.
During the time he was heading the refugee program in Vietnam, Johannes met frequently with members of Congress on matters of funding and policy. He developed a close relationship with Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Kennedy was an increasingly forceful opponent of the American war policy, and Johannes was able to provide him with off-the-record information that Kennedy used in the debates over bringing the war to a conclusion.
Johannes retired in 1972 and died in 1977. Two days after his death, Senator Kennedy rose on the floor of the United States Senate and spoke:
Mr. President, I was deeply saddened this week to learn of the death of Johannes Hoeber, a distinguished civil servant and humanitarian, who capped a long life of service in behalf of his fellow man as director of U.S. programs for refugees in Vietnam. Dr. Hoeber was himself a refugee—a refugee from Hitler’s Germany. In 1933 he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis for several weeks, and subsequently spent 5 years working with the anti-Nazi underground until 1938, when he was faced with questioning by the Gestapo. Dr. Hoeber fled to the United States where he began a long career in social service programs to help people in need both here at home and abroad.
From 1951 until 1962, Dr. Hoeber served as Philadelphia’s deputy commissioner of welfare. In 1962, Dr. Hoeber became Assistant Administrator of the Area Redevelopment Administration of the Commerce Department.
However, a few years later Dr. Hoeber joined the Agency for International Development – AID – to direct its programs for refugees and social welfare activities in Vietnam.
It was in this capacity, Mr. President, that I came to know of Dr. Hoeber’s dedicated service. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Refugees I came to know of his constant effort to upgrade AID’s programs for refugees and millions of other victims of that tragic war. He often fought against the insensitivities of his own superiors in AID, who were more interested in commodity import programs to help Saigon’s ailing economy than in efforts to help Saigon’s orphans or the maimed or the crippled.
Dr. Hoeber never lost sight of the urgent humanitarian needs in war-torn Vietnam, nor of America’s great humanitarian responsibility to help meet those needs. His humanitarian service during the Vietnam conflict, like that of so many others both here in Washington and in the field, often went unnoticed and unseen. But they are the unsung heroes of America’s effort to meet its humanitarian obligations to millions of innocent men, women and children caught up in one of the most tragic wars the United States has ever been involved in.
To his wife, Elfriede, and his three children, I want to offer my deepest sympathy for their loss, and to recognize the dedicated humanitarian service of their husband and father.
My mother, Elfriede Höber, and my father, Johannes Höber, were counting on Johannes’ father Rudolf to support Elfriede and my sister, Susanne, then nine. Rudolf had fled Germany five years earlier, in 1933, and was a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. His stipend from Penn was small, however, and by 1939 he was already supporting six relatives who were unemployed refugees. Johannes had arrived in Philadelphia a couple of months earlier, so it was Elfriede who had to file the visa application with the U.S. Consul in Stuttgart. After weeks of delay, the Consul rejected her application because Rudolf’s income was insufficient to support her on top of the people he was already carrying.
Johannes was crushed when he received Elfriede’s letter with the bad news. In the few weeks he had been in America, however, he had made a friend at the office where he worked. This friend, Walter Phillips, sensed right away that something serious had happened. He asked Johannes what was wrong. When Johannes explained, Walter too was distressed that his new friend’s wife and daughter were trapped and might be unable to escape from Germany.
The next day, Walter did something totally unexpected. Although he was a young recent law school graduate with a limited income, both he and his wife Mary had inherited some money from their respective families. Without my father even asking, Walter and Mary volunteered to be guarantors for the support of my mother and sister, whom they had never met. Within days, Walter got an affidavit from his bank confirming his and Mary’s deposits and secured endorsements from leading lawyers in Philadelphia. He wrote his own extraordinary letter of support to the American Consul in Stuttgart:
I am informed that Mrs. Elfriede Höber, a Ph.D. of Heidelberg University, and Susanne Höber, Düsseldorf (Germany), Pempelforterstr. 11, have applied at your consulate for permanent residence. Mrs. Elfriede Höber and her daughter wish to come to Philadelphia to join their husband and father and his family who were admitted to the United States for permanent residence some time ago. Dr. Johannes Höber, the husband, also a Ph.D. of Heidelberg, has been working for me for about three months as a research assistant. He has proved himself to be an extraordinarily bright, intellectually honest, public spirited and able person. I am so much interested in keeping him in Philadelphia that I am willing to give my personal guarantee that his wife, after being admitted to the United States, will never become a public charge.
For my own identification you may be interested in the following facts: My family on all branches have lived in the United States since before the Revolutionary War. I am a graduate of Princeton University and also the Harvard Law School. … At present I am volunteering my time to the Philadelphia City Charter Committee in the interest of good local government. … As shown by a separate affidavit the financial responsibility of my wife and me together – we are giving a joint affidavit – should be sufficient to give the necessary guarantee required by law.
May I say again that Dr. Johannes Höber has in my opinion the makings of a fine American citizen and that to have his wife here would help him to be even more of an asset. She too, I have every reason to believe, would contribute much to America. …
Very sincerely yours,
Walter M. Phillips
The impressive stack of documents did the trick. Although it took several more weeks, the Consul in Stuttgart accepted Walter and Mary’s assurances and granted the Elfriede and Susanne visas on July 12, 1939. Without Walter and Mary’s selfless generosity, my mother and sister would never have gotten out of Germany and I would probably not be alive today. When I was born three years later my parents gave me “Walter” as a middle name. It is a name I carry with great pride and gratitude.
Growing up, my father had no reason to think of himself as Jewish. He was baptized and confirmed in a Protestant church, his father was baptized and confirmed in a Protestant church and his father’s parents were married in a Protestant church in 1865. My father’s mother had been born into a Jewish family but converted to Protestant when she was a teenager. By the time my father was grown, his family lived an entirely secular life. They rarely if ever attended church, though they celebrated the holidays of the Christian calendar.
Several years ago, I found a newspaper clipping pertaining to the antisemitic Nuremberg laws among the papers of my grandfather, Rudolf Höber. Rudolf came to Philadelphia from Nazi Germany in 1933 as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Two years later, my father, Johannes, sent Rudolf this clipping from Germany. The article, captioned “Who is a Citizen?” was clipped from the Kölnische Zeitung (Cologne Daily) of November 15, 1935. The article is the first publication of the implementing regulations for the Nuremberg laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship. When Rudolf and his wife Josephine had left Germany, Johannes had stayed behind in Düsseldorf with my mother and sister. In the letter my father asked his father, Rudolf, for information about Rudolf’s father, Anselm. Was there any possibility that Grandfather Anselm, who died before Johannes was born, had Jewish origins that could have an impact on Johannes?
My father’s status as a Christian or as a nonbeliever was irrelevant to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists. The Nazis considered Jewishness a “race,” an inheritable genetic trait separate and apart from the religion. Their laws defined a person as “Jewish” if he or she had three grandparents who came from Jewish families. Under that definition, hundreds of thousands of Germans who regarded themselves as Christians or nonbelievers were brutally persecuted by the Nazis as “Jews.” Individuals of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry were sometimes subject to less harsh treatment, but the administration of this purported legal structure was capricious– a bureaucrat’s guess at interpreting the code could mean the difference between life and death. Many scholars of the Nazi period today put the term “Jewish” in quotation marks when writing about individuals subject to these codes in order to distinguish between those defined as Jewish by the Nazis and those who used other criteria to identify themselves.
I became aware of all this only years after my father died. My parents were refugees from Hitler’s Germany and I understood them to have left because it was impossible for them, as Social Democrats, to live under Hitler’s inhuman regime. This letter and newspaper clipping show, however, that my father had also faced danger from the Nazis because of his grandfather’s Jewish ancestry. In my father’s letter to his father, he asked for information about Anselm. Under the crazy calculus of the Nuremberg laws, the birth certificate of the grandfather my father never knew might have been of crucial significance for his own future.
My grandfather’s response to my father was not among the papers that my family was able to preserve. My father probably left it behind in Germany when he came to the United States three years later. Suffice it to say that my father continued to live the secular life he always had and managed to avoid any situation in which the question of his grandfather’s Jewish birth might arise. He was thus able to evade the brutal consequences of being deemed a Jew in Nazi Germany. Readers of the posts on this website may recognize that I have subsequently discovered a great deal about my family’s Jewish origins. Much of that would have come as a complete surprise to my father.
Many readers of this blog know that I have been working for a long time to translate and edit nearly a hundred long letters that my parents exchanged as they were fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938-1939. I am very pleased to tell you that my manuscript has been accepted for publication by the American Philosophical Society and will be available as a book by mid-2015.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the American Philosophical Society, it is an international honorary membership organization of scientists, scholars, artists and public officials. Its elected members include numerous heads of state and Nobel prize winners. APS was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743. Its headquarters building, Philosophical Hall, has been located next to Independence Hall since 1789. The Society has maintained a small but important publishing program since its founding, and my book will now join its list of publications.
About Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939
My mother, Elfriede Höber, had to stay behind in Germany when my father left for Philadelphia on November 12, 1938. She and my nine year old sister Susanne were unable to get out of Europe until a year later. It was a scary time. During the months they were separated, my mother and father exchanged long letters, with Elfriede describing the worsening situation under the Nazis and my father, Johannes, describing his flight from Europe and his exhilarating entry into American life. These letters form the basis of Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939.
Johannes died in Washington, DC in 1977 at the age of 73. I found the letters among his papers some years after his death but didn’t grasp their significance for some time. My knowledge of German was sketchy then. Having turned away from Germany in 1939, my parents rarely spoke the language at home; most of the German I knew I learned in high school. Working with a German-English dictionary, I could only make out a few parts of the letters that were typed; the handwritten letters entirely eluded my comprehension. In addition, the letters were full of unintelligible terms that appeared in no dictionary – Abo, Wobla, Staka, Affi – and perplexing names – Onkel Karl, Onkel Paul, Felix, Nepomuk – that didn’t belong to anyone I had ever hear my parents mention. I felt that I would never figure these letters out and that I would be defeated by the handwriting, the foreign language, the mysterious terms and the unidentifiable names. But there was something about the letters – their secrecy, their mystery, and the dark times in which they were written – that kept calling me back.
Over a period of years I tried to figure out what the letters meant. I returned to evening German classes to be better able to deal with the language. I struggled to decipher the words and their significance. It eventually became apparent, from the context, that many words were a code that Johannes and Elfriede understood but others could not. I then realized that the letters were written with the assumption that they might be opened by the Nazi authorities. If that were to happen, Johannes and Elfriede wanted to ensure that their own words would not endanger them or their friends or family. Eventually, from context and research, and from repeated readings, I was able to decode most of the content of the letters.
Working with the letters has shown me that my parents’ story during this dangerous period was not so dark as I had imagined. Indeed, the letters are full of cleverness, good fortune and a persistent optimism in the face of frightening difficulties. At the same time, there is a tension, a sense of strain I feel each time I pick them up. I sensed in these letters how emotionally challenging the events of 1938-1939 were. I often found the anxiety transmitted through their words to me. There were periods when I gave up all work on the letters for a year or two at a time.
But I did go back, and eventually there was a great reward for me in deciphering and understanding the letters in this book. Although Johannes died in 1977 and Elfriede in 1999, through the letters I got to meet and know them as two new people. As a father, Johannes could be difficult, but in the letters he is charming, caring, clever, ambitious and loving and concerned for the welfare of Elfriede and Susanne. He helped and encouraged Elfriede to do what she had to do to escape from Germany and bring Susanne to him. As a mother, Elfriede could be reserved, even stolid, but in these letters I discovered an affectionate, engaged and loving wife and mother.
In deciphering these letters I also discovered two fine, passionate, but very different writers. My father’s letters are carefully organized and precise, self-conscious and at the same time full of colorful detail and rich accounts of people, places and events that convey his deep interest in the world he observed. My mother’s letters, even when slightly chaotic, convey a full sense of her strong feelings about what she was experiencing. Her letters are often laced with a breezy wit, though the humor is mostly ironic and often witheringly sarcastic. I never knew my mother was as darkly funny as she is in these letters.
Writing a book and getting it published is no sport for the short-winded. I have been working on this project for a long time and it will be more months until the book sees the light of day. But it is thrilling work and I am very much looking forward to the day when I can share all of this with all of you.