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.
Julius Streicher was hanged on October 16, 1946 following his conviction by the international war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg. Streicher’s headquarters were in Nuremberg, where Hitler held rallies to whip up fervor for his dictatorship. Streicher’s particular charge was was to stoke Germans’ hatred of Jews. To this end, Streicher published a weekly magazine, Der Stürmer, a pornographically vicious hate sheet directed at Jews. He was also famous as a speaker given to lengthy antisemitic harangues.
Perversely, while overseeing propaganda against Jews Streicher acquired a large and valuable library of Judaica. From the earliest years of Nazi rule party officials routinely stole property from Jews and others out of favor with the regime. Streicher pursued manuscripts and books relating to Jewish religion, history and culture. By the time the Nazis fell in 1945, Streicher had accumulated more than 30,000 volumes. At the end of the war, the Allies seized Streicher’s library and turned about 10,000 of the books over to the remnants of the Jewish community of Nuremberg, called the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, or IKG. Decades later, lacking the facilities to care properly for their collection, the IKG negotiated a loan arrangement to have the Nuremberg City Library house it. The IKG remains the legal owner and has a designated librarian to oversee the collection on its behalf. The IKG considers itself the trustee for the original owners and has lovingly cared for and preserved the books. Over the years some of the books were claimed by the descendants of the original owners, most of whom had been killed or forced to flee. Beginning in the 1990s, more aggressive efforts were made to find identifying marks in the books that might give some clue as to the original owners. With the advent of the Internet, the IKG posted the first of a number of search lists online with identifying information about the books and their possible previous owners.
Readers of this blog know that I have been researching my family’s history for the last several years. In the course of this work last fall I was trying to track the sister of my great-great grandmother. The sister was born Bernhardine Oppenheim and married a Berlin jeweler named Heinrich Friedeberg. I had no reason to think that Heinrich and Bernhardine had done anything that would cause them to be in some historic record, but I nevertheless Googled their names. The result was astonishing. The first hit was the lost books list of the IKG in Nuremberg. It seems that two volumes of the Collected Writings of Abraham Geiger were stolen by the Nazis from a descendant of Heinrich and Bernhardine Friedeberg. Geiger was one of the founders of Reform Judaism and a close friend of Bernhardine’s brother. The stolen books ended up in Julius Streicher’s hoard of Judaica and after his execution went to the IKG.
I wrote to the IKG and asked for a further description of the books and their history, and received a gracious email in return from Leibl Rosenberg, the erudite curator of the IKG collection. Herr Rosenberg sent scans of the Friedebergs’ bookplate and Bernhardine’s signature taken from one of the volumes of Geiger’s work in the IKG collection. Herr Rosenberg’s email concluded with the unanticipated observation that I might well be the closest living relative of the Friedebergs. He invited me to confirm that fact and to start the restitution process to have the books returned — to me.
It did not take me long to respond to Herr Rosenberg. I expressed my gratitude and sent him a copy of a genealogy chart handwritten by my grandfather in 1928 showing our family’s relationship to the Friedebergs along with other documents from my family’s archive. In response, Herr Rosenberg sent me an agreement acknowledging my receipt of the books. I signed it and returned it to him and a few weeks later received the package pictured at the top of this page. I am now the custodian of these books and of their poignant history. I am entrusted with caring for them and preserving them as the Jewish Community of Nuremberg and the Nuremberg City Library have done for all these years.
Of all the adventures I have had in researching and writing about the Hoeber Family, this is perhaps the most moving and unexpected.
I am descended from a long line of women for whom nontraditional roles were a tradition. My mother was a PhD economist. My grandmother was a physician an biochemical research scientist. My great grandmother was a portrait artist of more than usual accomplishment, and apparently so was my great-great grandmother. The earliest proponent of of women’s equality I have found so far in my family, however, is my great-great-great-grandmother, Sophie Gumpel (died 1846).
Sophie Gumpel (née Meyer) was the wife of the Hamburg businessman, banker and philanthropist Lazarus Gumpel (1770-1843). Although the records are incomplete, Sophie and Lazarus had at least five children, three daughters and two sons. Lazarus was himself a progressive and charitable man, devoting a good portion of his fortune to building a large apartment house in Hamburg to provide subsidized housing for poor families in the city. He was also one of the founders of the first Reformed Jewish congregation in Hamburg, significantly leading in modernizing Jewish religious practice, including greater participation for women in the liturgy. When Lazarus died, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Hamburg-Ohlsdorf. A modern gravestone replaces the original .
After Lazaruz died in 1843, Sophie prepared a new will to dispose of the considerable fortune she inherited from Lazarus. A legal transcription of the will appears at the top of this post. Sophie included one paragraph that was most unusual for the time:
Since the rules of Jewish law, which give preferred status to sons over daughters, are not acceptable to me, who always loved all of my children equally, I declare herewith, as I am legally authorized to do, that I constitute all of my children my heirs, and in the case that one should have predeceased me then his or her marital offspring shall take his or her place per stirpes. To all these my heirs I leave my entire estate in equal parts without exception, including furniture, household inventory, linen, gold and silver.
Interestingly, Sophie anticipated that not all of her heirs or their children would agree with her egalitarian approach to the disposition of her estate, and included the following additional paragraph:
Should any of my designated heirs, for whatever reason, not recognize this will or contest its validity, he shall be totally excluded from any right in my estate, and the share left to him shall go to the other heirs who will honor and recognize my will.
The value of the estate, by the way, came to some 52,000 Taler, the equivalent of an estate of millions of dollars today, providing plenty for everyone.
The jaunty fellow pictured below has returned to his family — to me — after an absence of more than a century and a half. He was drawn in charcoal and pencil by my great-great grandmother, Amalia Höber, née Oppenheim. Based on his clothing and what I know about Amalia, I believe Amalia drew him between 1840 and 1850. I wonder where he traveled during the strife and wars in Europe since then — the Franco-Prussian War, World Wars I and II and the Cold War. What I do know is that he popped up for sale over the internet recently, and my dear friend Achim in Dresden spotted him. The seller, a small-scale dealer in drawings and paintings living in Bonn, bought him at auction in southern Germany. She had little information about his origins, but Amalia’s signature on the drawing is perfectly clear. Given the unusual name and the period in which it was drawn, I have no doubt of its authenticity. I do wish I knew who the man in the drawing is.
Amalia (1817-1895) was the daughter of Simon Daniel Oppenheim, a jeweler and financier from Hanau, near Frankfurt. She married my great-great grandfather Eduard in 1839. He died ten years later at the young age of 45, leaving the Amalia with three sons and two daughters, all under the age of ten. Eduard left her a fair sum of money, however, and her father and brothers also helped to support her.
Until I saw this excellent drawing of the young man, I didn’t know that Amalia was an artist. I knew, however, that her uncle Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was a famous painter and that her daughter, Marie Höber, was an accomplished miniaturist. The predilection for portraiture seems to have run in the family.
The drawing of the young man in the tailcoat was initially offered for sale at more than I could pay. After some email exchanges facilitated by my friend Achim, however, we were able to agree on a manageable price. You may imagine that the day the package containing Amalia’s drawing arrived here in Philadelphia recently was pretty moving. I am delighted to have the young man back home.
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.