The following is the unedited account by my father, Johannes U. Hoeber, of what he experienced on the night of November 9-10, 1938 in the large north German city of Düsseldorf .
Wednesday November 9, 1938. The Nazis had been celebrating that day, as every year, the anniversary of Hitler’s 1923 putsch. That night an old friend of ours had come to see us. We had been associated in the early days of the Third Reich in some underground activities, trying to build out of the remainders of the Catholic, liberal, Socialist and Communist opposition a group of resistance against the rising tide of Fascist tyranny. He had been caught in 1934 circulating illegal leaflets and sentenced to 18 months hard labor. He had served his term and now lived in a small village far remote from his former center of activities. He rarely could risk to come to see us, because no Gestapo agent would have believed either him or us that we would talk anything but politics. Only a few weeks before he and we had again been subject to a Gestapo investigation and therefore had to be more on our guard than ever before.
The conversation had centered around the recent political events, Chamberlain’s Munich surrender and its repercussions on Germany’s internal policy. Munich undoubtedly had bolstered the regime’s declining morale and everybody viewed with alarm the reviving arrogance of the Nazis after a period of relative moderation. Incidentally our friend told us that he had heard on his way to our house that Herr vom Rath, secretary of the Paris German embassy, who had been shot by a young Polish Jew, driven to despair by the treatment of his parents by the Nazis, had died that afternoon. We did not discuss the implications of this news item. Not because we did not fear them. But in the past six years of our life under the Nazi government we had developed a habit that might be called a technique of mental self defense: not to speculate on the possibilities of disaster implied in any news, before we were confronted with this disaster and could cope with the concrete emergency by concrete maneuvers. No one of our company that night was Jewish but we all had some very close Jewish friends. I myself have some Jewish ancestors, not enough to make me subject to the humiliating clauses of the infamous Nüremberg laws, yet enough to brand me as a second class citizen in the Germany of today, the Germany of the Bohemian born Hitler, the Egyptian born Hess and the Baltic born Rosenberg.
The possible consequences of vom Rath’s death were uppermost in my mind, when I drove to the station at about 11 p.m. to mail some letters. [Illegible] in the streets I noticed an unusually large number of brownshirts. First I thought they were on their way home from some of the day’s celebrations. Then I noticed that they did not go in the direction of the residential quarters but hurried towards the center of the city. So, on my way home, I drove through some of the main thoroughfares of the downtown business section and found on two different places brownshirts gathering quietly in front of Jewish business establishments. I went home and without telling my wife what I had seen offered our friend who had to leave at midnight to drive him to the station and asked my brother in law to accompany us. After having dropped our friend at the station we hastily drove downtown. We had not to drive very far to find what we had anticipated. In front of a large shoe-store, owned by a Jewish woman whose husband had been killed in action in the world war and who therefore, despite of six years of Nazi boycott, had still one of the largest businesses in the field, a detachment of brown shirts had assembled. We just came in time to see two of them starting – on a given signal – to break the shop windows. This done they forced the entrance and the whole group rushed into the store. It was one of those modern outfits with plenty of glass, attractive wood paneling on the walls, every shelf full of shoe-boxes. Twenty minutes later it was so completely devastated that no bombshell could have done a more thorough job. No piece of glass, no piece of wood was unbroken. The carpets were cut up, the lamps torn from ceiling and walls, shelves, tables, chairs smashed to pieces. The problem to destroy thousands of shoes in a hurry otherwise than by fire had been solved in an ingenious way: they had been strewn all over the place and then oil paint had been poured over and into them. When they had finished their job the wrecking crew on the blow of a whistle assembled in front of the store, in a line two deep, stood at attention in perfect military discipline, drilled into them by endless training, and marched off.
We got into our car and drove on. A few blocks away we encountered another group of stormtroopers looting a fashionable lady’s outfit store. This was on our city’s “Fifth Avenue” and the wrecking crew corresponded to the distinction of the district. Our city is the seat of a higher district leader of the Nazi party. Every such district leader has a staff of his own and a body guard of his own whose members are easily recognized by red squares on the lapels of their brown uniform coats. The squad that wrecked this store was composed almost entirely out of members of the district leader’s staff and body guard under the personal command of a well known Nazi-Lawyer and S.A. officer. A few yards away a police car with two higher police officers was parked at the curb. The two officers watched with apparent interest the work of destruction carried out under the leadership of the chief aide of their superior.
The next time we stopped in front of a tailor’s workshop. Here a particular problem presented itself to the wrecking crew: how to destroy the stock of bolts of cloth. It was solved no less efficiently than the shoe problem had been solved: one man unrolled the bale and another poured ink over it from one end to the other. Then they left it lying in the street.
After an hour of driving around town we were convinced that not one single Jewish business in [Düsseldorf ] would survive that night and that more than a hundred thousand people would have to pay for one man’s act of despair with the destruction of their lives’ work and their basis of existence.
What happened during the next hour, however, outgrew the wildest anticipations any one of us, trained by six years’ lessons of terror and used to incredible brutalities, had ever entertained. At 1.30 A.M. we stopped in front of an apartment house, because we noticed two SA sentries guarding the house-door. On the opposite pavement stood a small group of civilians looking at a brightly lighted apartment on the fourth floor. We joined them and asked one of them what were going on. “They are revenging von Rath” he said. “Which firm has its offices up there?” I asked. “That is no office, that is a private apartment occupied by a Jewish tenant.” Before we could continue our conversation one of the S.A. sentries came across the street and ordered us to move on. A few seconds later the windows of the apartment came down in splinters and one after the other the lights went out in the apartment, the last one being a large crystal lamp that we saw wildly swinging up and down before we heard it crashing to the ground.
Then panic gripped us. …
The account ends here. Johannes and my mother, Elfriede, spent the rest of the night and the next day helping rescue friends and neighbors whose homes had been attacked. Then, three days later, Johannes fled to Switzerland and from there to America.
November 9th this year marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when the Nazis launched the most vicious attacks to that point against Germany’s Jews and their businesses, homes and synagogues. This account, written in English in a tiny, painstaking script on small sheets of tablet paper, was discovered among Johannes’ papers in May 1989, 22 years after he died and some 50 years after he wrote it.
Since I started this website two years ago, I have published 41 stories here. To my astonishment, they have been read by hundreds of people in more than 50 countries. I have had just under 10,000 hits, far more than I anticipated when I started. I also did not anticipate that I would become friends with readers previously unknown to me who discovered the stories here: ocarina players in Indonesia who connected to the story of my grandfather Rudolf’s ocarina; a Swiss historian writing about the descendants of Moses Mendelssohn, one of whom was the wife of my great uncle Eduard; members of the medical faculty at the University of Erlangen in Bavaria, who were excited to find the portraits of Isidor Rosenthal and Anna Hoeber Rosenthal, who left their mark on that city; and my now-good-friend Phil White of Olathe, Kansas, who is writing a book about the Truman campaign my father worked on.
All of the stories on this website are made possible because of the Höber/Hoeber family’s mania over several generations for saving letters and other paper records. The earliest letter in the collection was written 174 years ago by Heinrich and August Oppenheim, my great-great grandmother’s brothers, who were congratulating their parents on their sister’s engagement to my great-great grandfather. The collection also includes love letters my great-grandparents exchanged daily in Berlin in the 1860s. The collection includes every income tax return my parents filed from 1939 to 1999. There are my grandparents’ photograph albums from the early 20th century in Zürich and professional papers my parents wrote from 1940 to 1980. The variety of material is dizzying. Together, this archive tells the story of a family that made a mark in business, science and progressive politics in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and then started all over again in the United States.
Organizing and preserving these family papers has taken years. I had to study German to be able to read some of the complex papers, and I have translated many documents into English so they are accessible to readers here. Physically arranging the papers so things could be found was a substantial task. They are now housed in archival manuscript boxes and filed in acid-free folders so they will be preserved for the future. The papers have been partially indexed, but I still have work to do in this area.
Eventually I will place the collection of these papers with a large historical manuscript archive here in Philadelphia. In the meantime, I will continue to write stories based on these letters for you, my kind readers.
My mother, Elfriede Hoeber, traveled to more than 65 countries in her lifetime, but her favorite trip was to a small Eskimo village in the Alaskan wilderness. In the mid-Twentieth Century, social progressives regarded providing better housing for the poor as a major step to improving the lot of disadvantaged populations. Elfriede spent 25 years as an ardent advocate of government support for housing improvement. In 1963, she accepted a position in the Kennedy administration working in an experimental bureau called the Low Income Housing Demonstration Program. This small agency tried to aid under-served populations cheaply and efficiently. They experimented with rehabbing tenements in Harlem rather than tearing them down, building prefabricated homes in Apache towns in the Arizona desert and placing needy families in individual homes in suburbs rather than in public housing towers. The Housing Demonstration Program paid particular attention to pockets of rural poverty, which had received little government assistance up to that time.
One project was in the remote village of Grayling, Alaska, a settlement of the Holikachuk tribe of Athabaskan Eskimos. Located four hundred miles west of Anchorage, Grayling’s population was the about 125. Most lived in conditions that would have been poor anywhere, but were particularly bad in a place where winter temperatures drop to 40 degrees below zero. The town is mostly treeless tundra. Word of Grayling’s housing problems made its way to the office of the Housing Demonstration Program in Washington DC, 5,000 miles away. Elfriede and the agency’s technical staff developed a plan in which trees were felled upriver from the development and floated down to the town where they were used to build log houses. The government provided kitchen equipment, doors, windows, hardware and the like at a cost of $2500 per house. The Holikachuk villagers decided where to locate their own houses and did the building themselves.
When the project was completed, the agency decided there should be a formal ceremony to dedicate the new houses. Although Elfriede was a very smart writer and policy director, public speaking was not her favorite activity. Nevertheless, when she heard there was to be a trip to a remote Alaskan village she jumped at the chance to be the Federal government’s representative. She flew from Washington to Anchorage, where she was joined by Alaska state housing officials for the last leg into the village. Their seven-seater Porter plane landed on the frozen Yukon, where they were met by snowmobiles to carry them to the village. Elfriede was put up at the home of the head of the village council, a man by the unlikely name of Harry Gochenauer (the inhabitants were Christianized by Moravian missionaries in the early twentieth century). The principal meal consisted of moose meatloaf, which Elfriede reported was “not a gourmet treat.” At the dedication ceremony in the village school, Elfriede was the honored guest who cut the ribbon symbolically stretched between two scale models of new village log houses. She later wrote to her Washington boss, “The entire village, babes-in-arms, children, parents, grandparents, had turned out for the occasion. It well warranted the front-page coverage and full-page picture spread which was given to the festivities by the Anchorage Daily News.”
On her return to Washington, Elfriede wrote a report on her trip to inspect housing demonstration programs in Alaska. It is one of the more charming government reports you will ever read. Click on the link below the image to read in a larger format.
When the Nazis took over Germany in 1933, one of their first acts was to fire thousands of the nation’s most brilliant scientists and academics from their university positions, either because they were Jewish or because they were deemed “politically unreliable.” Those expelled included Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Edward Teller and countless others. My grandfather, Rudolf Höber, a professor of physiology at the University of Kiel, was also one of them. I previously wrote about his last months at Kiel here. All of these fired individuals faced the difficult problem of finding a new place to teach and continue their research.
Some American educators quickly recognized that Germany’s loss might well be America’s gain. The Institute of International Education, a foundation established in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I, quickly decided to establish a program to place exiled German academics in American universities. To head the new Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, the IIE hired a recent graduate of Columbia University, a young man named Edward R. Murrow. A few years later, Murrow would become America’s most famous broadcast journalist, but in 1933 he led the effort to provide new careers for scientists and other scholars victimized by Hitler. His job was particularly difficult because the United States was in the depths of the Depression and money was tight everywhere. The Emergency Committee’s method was to match up a scientist with an appropriate university and have the university provide the scientist with a position. Then, using funds provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Emergency Committee would reimburse the university for all or part of the new faculty member’s salary. Once the word got around the scientific community that Rudolf Höber was interested in coming to the United States, a bit of competition arose to get him because of his prominence in cutting edge cellular biochemistry and biophysics. The Emergency Committee received offers from the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Tennessee and the University of Pennsylvania to create a visiting professorship for Rudolf. Ultimately the University of Pennsylvania won out in obtaining Rudolf for its medical faculty. The following is the offer extended to Rudolf by the University’s Vice president in charge of the School of Medicine:
Upon his arrival in the United States, Rudolf wrote to Murrow and expressed his appreciation for the work of the Emergency Committee in finding a place for him to continue his work in America. Murrow responded cordially.
Within a few months of receiving the offer from the University of Pennsylvania, Rudolf and his wife, Josephine, were on their way to America. They had escaped the Nazis and would live and work in Philadelphia for the rest of their lives.
Every family has its dark corners, its sad secrets.
My great-grandfather, Anselm Höber, was born in 1832 in the south German city of Karlsruhe, the son of a wealthy Jewish merchant. He was sufficiently well off that in his twenties he could afford to have his portrait painted wearing a handsome coat with a fur collar.
At some point, Anselm moved to the city of Stettin in Pomerania, then a province of the Kingdom of Prussia. (Much of Pomerania was annexed to Poland after World War II and the city is now known as Szczecin.) In 1865, Anselm married the beautiful Elise Köhlau, and at that time converted to his new wife’s Protestant faith.
In Stettin, Anselm was a successful businessman, and soon owned a controlling interest in a large moving and storage firm. The couple had three children, Eduard, Rudolf (my grandfather) and Lili. Eduard later went on to become a respected journalist and literary critic in Berlin and Rudolf became a renowned physiologist. Lili, however, suffered from multiple sclerosis and died when she was just in her twenties.
By the 1890s, Anselm’s sons were on their way to being well established in the world, but something went awry in Anselm’s business. At one point his income dropped so precipitously that Rudolf had to withdraw from the University of Erlangen where he was studying medicine. Rudolf was later able to return to school, but problems continue to plague Anselm’s business.
In 1899, at the age of 67, Anselm killed himself.
Who knows why a person commits suicide? When I look at the old pictures of Anselm, I imagine that I sense some deep sadness in his dark eyes, some loneliness that haunts him even in good times. Am I just projecting that because I know what happened to him? Perhaps. Like many family tragedies, Anselm’s death was rarely discussed, and what I have written here is almost all that anyone today knows about him.
His widow, Elise, lived quietly for another 15 years, dying just before the start of World War I.
My grandfather, Rudolf Höber, was a gentle soul. Although he was a hard-driving, extremely serious scientist, he was much beloved by his students in the Physiological Institute at the University of Kiel, in northern Germany. They admired his sweet disposition and his passion for the exquisite objects of study in the world of natural science. But my Opa Rudi could also be a fighter when someone tried to interfere with teaching or research.
In 1930, three years before Hitler took over Germany, Rudolf Höber served a term as Chancellor of the University of Kiel. In October of that year, a group of Nazi students tried to prevent liberal theologian Otto Baumgarten from lecturing at Kiel because he was a “pacifist” and “Jew-lover.” Rudolf expelled the Nazi ringleaders from the University for their interference with academic freedom. These expulsions led to nationwide demonstrations by right wing students calling for Rudolf’s ouster from from the University — but he persevered in his teaching.
A little over two years after this incident, in January 1933, the Nazis took complete control of Germany. One of Hitler’s first assaults was against thousands of the most prominent professors at the country’s vast university system on the ground that they were either Jews or political opponents of the Nazis. Rudolf was one of the early targets of Hitler’s thugs.
On April 24, 1933, Rudolf was administering examinations to a group of premedical students in the Anatomy Building at the University of Kiel. During a break, he was returning to his residence when he was accosted by a group of Nazis who threatened to kill him unless he abandoned his post as a teacher. Here is his report to the Provost of the University:
Kiel, April 24, 1933
To His Excellency the Provost of the University of Kiel.
In accordance with our discussion, I am submitting this report to you concerning the events of this morning. This morning, as chairman of the Examination Commission for the premedical examination, I was present in the Anatomy Building as proctor for a makeup examination. On my way home I was accosted on Hegewisch Street [where I live] by five SS and SA men and two civilians who told me in the coarsest possible terms that if I did not want to endanger my life I had to keep out of the classrooms and laboratories of the Institute and that I no longer had the right to administer examinations. They talked about the use of hand grenades, about the need to comply with their demands, about the use of force and things like that. When I replied that as chair [of the Examination Commission] I also had to participate in other examinations, I was forced to return to the Anatomy Building, escorted by the troops, in order to share the prohibition orally with Professor Benninghoff and the remaining four examinees in the remaining four institutes.
In the Anatomy Building the people around Professor Benningson realized gradually that this oral announcement made no sense, and therefore accompanied me to the Physiological Institute and left me at my residence. In the meantime, the following had taken place in the Institute: about 30 SS people filled the corridor. They accused Assistant Professor Dr. Netter of being a Jew; the same thing happened shortly after that with Professor Mond. In addition, they issued an order that these men were no longer allowed to administer any examinations either.
I immediately notified Police Chief Count Rantzau by telephone, who promised me to pursue the matter and inform me of the result this afternoon.
There is no record of what action, if any Count Rantzau took, but Rudolf defied the threats of the SA and the SS and returned to his classroom and laboratory within a matter of days. He continued teaching for several months more, and his students loyally attended his lectures despite the threats. This situation couldn’t last, however, as the Nazis tightened their grip on the nation and the German people. In November 1933, Rudolf was permanently dismissed from his professorship. Unable to continue his research and teaching in Germany, he, like so many other brilliant scientists, emigrated, first to England and then to the United States. In 1934 he was appointed Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he continued his pioneering work in physiology until a few years before his death in 1952.
After World War II and the defeat of the Nazis, the Physiological Institute at the University of Kiel was renamed the Rudolf Höber House and a street through the University campus still bears his name.