Escaping Nazi Germany through the Basel Train Station — November 12, 1938

 

 

The train station in Basel, Switzerland as it appeared before some years before Johannes Höber arrived there from Nazi Germany.

The train station in Basel, Switzerland as it appeared before some years before Johannes Höber arrived there from Nazi Germany.

Germany was in an uproar on Saturday, November 12, 1938.  The nation was reeling from the events of November 9-10, events that Americans know as Kristallnacht, the Nazis’ broadest attack on the country’s Jews up to that time.  During the night, storm troopers attacked and destroyed tens of thousands of Jewish homes and businesses.  Thousands of Jews were “arrested” without charges and placed in prison camps.  Most of the synagogues in Germany were burned in that one night.   My parents, Johannes and Elfriede Höber, spent most of the night seeking out their Jewish friends and helping where they could.  My father’s account of that night has already been published here in a prior post.

Weeks before Kristallnacht, Johannes and Elfriede had already decided that Hitler’s Germany had become intolerable and that they would leave if they could. Life was becoming increasingly dangerous for them.  Years earlier, the Nazis had imprisoned Johannes because of his Social Democratic politics and more recently the Gestapo had interrogated him about his socialist friends.  In addition, his mother’s parents were Jewish, exposing him to additional danger. Johannes and Elfriede’s original plan was for Johannes to leave in late November with Elfriede and their daughter Susanne to follow later.  The events of Kristallnacht, however, caused them to change their plans and for him to leave immediately.

Johannes and Elfriede Höber on a road outside Düsseldorf, Germany, where they lived for several years before they fled to America.

Johannes and Elfriede Höber on a road trip outside Düsseldorf, a couple of years before they fled to America. (He’s wearing knickers and long stockings under that coat.)

On Saturday morning, November 12, carrying a single suitcase, Johannes boarded a train in Düsseldorf and headed for Switzerland.  He avoided talking to anyone during the nine-hour train trip, and approached the German-Swiss border toward evening. The station just inside the border, the Basel Badischer Bahnhof, has a peculiar status.  Although the station is several miles inside Switzerland, a 19th century treaty provides that the tracks and arrival platforms are legally German territory.  The train platforms are connected to the station by an underground pedestrian tunnel, and the German-Swiss border is in the tunnel.

The German passport that Johannes Höber used to cross the border from Germany into Switzerland on November 12, 1938.

The German passport that Johannes Höber used to cross the border from Germany into Switzerland on November 12, 1938.

Years later, Johannes described his arrival at the station and his fear as he approached the German exit checkpoint.  Would he be stopped?  Would the Gestapo be looking for him after they interrogated him the previous day?  Would the border authorities check whether he had paid the emigration tax?  Might someone have informed the border authorities about his past activities as a Social Democrat or about his Jewish grandparents?  Would he be arrested as so many were on Kristallnacht two days earlier?  With his anxiety built up, it almost seemed like a trick when he was allowed to pass through the German exit control without a single question.  But the Swiss passport control was some 50 meters away at the opposite end of the tunnel – a kind of no man’s land separated the checkpoints.  Carrying his suitcase, with his head up but with his heart pounding, he walked straight ahead, trying to look confident.  Johannes told his children years later that those 50 meters were the longest walk of his life.  To his immense relief, he quickly swept through the second checkpoint, out of Nazi Germany and into the security of Switzerland.  He got away from the Badischer Bahnhof as quickly as he could, and took a fifteen minute tram ride to the Schweizer Bahnhof, the station for Swiss trains.  There he got the train to Zürich.  He was free.

 


Recognized for Aiding the Refugees of a Bad War — 1967 – 1972

Johannes U. Hoeber:  writeup in the newspaper of the Agency of International Development, U.S. Department of State,  September 28, 1972

Johannes U. Hoeber: writeup in the newspaper of the Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of State, September 28, 1972

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.

Senator Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy, Chair, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 1968

Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, Chair, Senate Subcommittee on Refugees, 1968

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.

United States Congressional Record, June 28, 1977.  Remarks of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts

United States Congressional Record, June 28, 1977. Remarks of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts

 


True Friends — 1939

A peaceful picnic in the country a few days after Elfriede and Susanne reached America, November, 1939.  Walter Phillips; Francis Phillips, Walter's brother; Susanne Hoeber; Johannes Hoeber; Elfriede Hoeber.  The photograph was probably taken by Mary Phillips.

A peaceful picnic in the country a few days after Elfriede and Susanne reached America, November, 1939. Walter Phillips; Francis Phillips, Walter’s brother; Susanne Hoeber; Johannes Hoeber; Elfriede Hoeber. The photograph was probably taken by Mary Phillips. [Click on image for enlarged view.]

In the spring of 1939, the American Consul in Stuttgart turned down my mother’s application for an Immigration Visa.  At that moment, hundreds of thousands of Germans were trying to escape the Nazi terror and the war that everyone knew was coming.  In one of the shameful episodes in America’s history, our immigration policy — held captive by southern congressman, xenophobes and antisemites —  excluded all but a trickle of the terrified refugees.  In just one year, 325,000 Germans asked for asylum in America, but a statutory quota allowed fewer than 28,000 to immigrate.  In addition, any applicant was excluded if he or she might become a “charge on the government,” that is, if the applicants might not be able to support themselves here.  In the 1930s, when unemployment was at a high point, that meant that most applicants from abroad had to have a sponsor who could support them.

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:

Honorable Sir,

            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

Draft of a letter from Walter Phillips to the American Consul in Stuttgart, Germany, urging that he grant immigration visas to Elfriede Höber and her daughter Susanne, May 8, 1939.

Draft of a letter from Walter Phillips to the American Consul in Stuttgart, Germany, urging that he grant immigration visas to Elfriede Höber and her daughter Susanne, May 8, 1939.

Making copies wasn't easy in 1939.  This is a "photostat" of a letter from Walter and Mary Phillips' bank establishing that they had the wherewithal to support Elfriede and Susanne. May 5, 1939.

This is a “photostat” of a letter from Walter and Mary Phillips’ bank establishing that they had the wherewithal to support Elfriede and Susanne. May 5, 1939.

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.

 

 

 


Under the Nazis, a Vital Question with Arbitrary Answers

"Who is a Citizen?"  Article 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 depriving German "Jews" of their citizenship.

“Who is a Citizen?” Article 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. On the lower right is an ad for razor blades.    (Click on image for a high resolution view.)

 

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?

Letter from Johannes Höber in Düsseldorf to his father, Rudolf, in Philadelphia, November 18, 1935.  Johannes asks his father about his grandfather Anselm's Jewish origins.

Letter from Johannes Höber in Düsseldorf to his father, Rudolf, in Philadelphia, November 18, 1935. Johannes asks his father about his grandfather Anselm’s Jewish origins.

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.

Anselm Hoeber (1832-1899) and Elise Koehlau Hoeber (1843-1920) around the time of their marriage in 1865.  A century after he was born, the question of whether Anselm's parents were Jewish would have major implications for his grandchildren and great grandchildren.

My great grandparents, Anselm Höber (1832-1899) and Elise Köhlau Höber (1843-1920), around the time of their marriage in 1865. A century after Anselm was born, the question of whether his parents were Jewish would have major implications for his grandchildren and great grandchildren.

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.


A Wonderful Publisher for AGAINST TIME: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939

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.

Philosophical Hall, headquarters of the American Philosophical Society, Independence Square, Philadelphia

Philosophical Hall, headquarters of the American Philosophical Society, Independence Square, Philadelphia

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About Against Time:  Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939

Johannes and Elfriede Höber at the time of their marriage, December 1928

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.

Letter from Elfriede Höber  in Düsseldorf to Johannes Höber  in Philadelphia, 2 January 1939

Letter from Elfriede Höber in Düsseldorf to Johannes Höber in Philadelphia, 2 January 1939

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.

Carbon copy of a letter from Johannes Höber  in Philadelphia to Elfriede Höber in Düsseldorf , 24 January 1939

Carbon copy of a letter from Johannes Höber in Philadelphia to Elfriede Höber in Düsseldorf , 24 January 1939

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.


Family Books Recovered from the Library of a War Criminal

Package from the Collection of the Jewish Community of Nuremberg, housed at the Nuremberg City Library, received February 2014.

Package from the Collection of the Jewish Community of Nuremberg, housed at the Nuremberg City Library, received February 2014.

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.

Protective boxes in which the Friedebergs' books were preserved in the Jewish Community Collection at the Nuremberg City Library

Protective boxes in which the Friedebergs’ books were preserved in the Jewish Community (IKG) Collection at the Nuremberg City Library

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.

Heinrich and Bernhardine Friedeberg's bookplate from a volume of Geiger's Collected Writings.

Heinrich and Bernhardine Friedeberg’s bookplate from a volume of the Collected Writings of Abraham Geiger.

Bernhardine Friedeberg's signature from the title page of the Collected Writings of Abraham Geiger.

Bernhardine Friedeberg’s signature from the title page of the Collected Writings of Abraham Geiger.

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.

The Collected Writings of Abraham Geiger preserved by the Jewish Community of Nuremberg and returned to me on behalf of the original owners, Heinrich and Bernhardine Friedeberg.

The Collected Writings of Abraham Geiger preserved by the Jewish Community (IKG) of Nuremberg and returned to me on behalf of their original owners, Heinrich and Bernhardine Friedeberg.

Of all the adventures I have had in researching and writing about the Hoeber Family, this is perhaps the most moving and unexpected.

 


Two Centuries of Women’s Equality in the Family

Copy of the Will of Sophie Gumpel dated February 12, 1844.  Click on image to enlarge.

Copy of the Will of Sophie Gumpel dated February 12, 1844. Click on image to enlarge.

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 .

Modern grave marker of Lazarus Gumpel (1770-1843), husband of Sophie Gumpel, in the Jewish cemetery in Hamburg.

Modern grave marker of Lazarus Gumpel (1770-1843), husband of Sophie Gumpel, in the Jewish cemetery in Hamburg.

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.