My parents, Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, arrived in Philadelphia from Nazi Germany in 1939. They were both 35. Even before they arrived, they dreamed of seeing the America they had read of for so long. As a new immigrant, my father’s income was very limited in the early years here, but he and my mother figured out that if they camped and drove when they traveled, then the only cost above normal living expenses would be for gas. Starting in 1947, when I was four and my brother Tom was five, we took a camping trip every summer for twelve years, so that by the time I was sixteen we had been to all 48 continental United States, a great many of the National Parks, a lot of Canada and a big piece of Mexico. My sister, Susanne, was a good bit older so that most summers she was working or in college or married, though she did come on two of the early trips. We drove thousands of miles on each trip, in an era when there was no such thing as Interstates and cars weren’t air conditioned.
Our first trip was from Philadelphia to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and over the years we hiked in the Rockies and the Cascades, swam in the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean, and studied the sites of the great events of American history. What sticks in my memory most, however, were the days and days of driving as we crossed the country so many times.
We would start early in the morning, with my father driving and my mother navigating from the Rand McNally road atlas. Our first errand was to find an ice house to buy a chunk of ice for our little cooler and perhaps some white gas for our Coleman stove. I will never forget the excitement of reaching the Mississippi on our third or fourth day out, or driving hour after hour across the wheat fields of Kansas, or the rolling grasslands of South Dakota or the amazing deserts of Utah and Nevada. We froze as we camped in the cold northern reaches of Alberta and roasted when we drove through Death Valley when it was 123 degrees in the shade with no air conditioning. At lunch, we would stop at some county seat because my mother figured out there was a small park in front of every county courthouse, even in Nebraska or Montana, where we could sit on a bench in a patch of shade while we made sandwiches out of the icebox. At night we would find a campground and my father and my brother and I would unpack the equipment from our car roof carrier and set up the two tents while my mother made dinner on the camp stove. Dinner was plain — perhaps hot dogs and sauerkraut and canned potatoes, with canned fruit for dessert — but they tasted wonderful in the open air of some new place. I never remember having trouble sleeping on the ground after the full days on the road. And the next morning we would start our adventures all over again.
My parents’ life as new Americans was not always easy, but I never knew them to be happier than when we were all on the road together discovering the corners of this wonderful country.
My father had an extraordinary knack for finding summer jobs for his kids. When I was 16, I had an interest in biology and medicine, and Dad managed to get me a job as a lab assistant with his friend Jack Gibbon, who headed the Department of Surgery at Jefferson Medical University in Philadelphia. Even at minimum wage (then $1 an hour), it was the most astonishing job a teenager could have.
Dr. Gibbon and his wife Maly developed the external heart-lung machine to provide a mechanism to pump and oxygenate blood outside the body so surgery could be performed on the heart. The machine was perfected by performing operations on experimental animals, mostly dogs. Dr. Gibbon performed the first successful human operation in 1953.
By the summer of 1959, when I started at Jefferson, new uses for the heart-lung machine were being developed, specifically techniques for rerouting blood to bypass blocked vessels that impeded the supply of blood to the heart muscles. The heart had to be stopped during such surgery. To do this, the chest was cut open, a tube was inserted into one of the largest veins, the blood was routed outside the body through a large external pump and then oxygenated in an artificial lung tank and pumped back into the body by another tube inserted in a major artery. Just before cutting into the heart, the blood was pumped through a coil immersed in a tank of ice. When the blood temperature got low enough, the heart stopped spontaneously and the body relied entirely on the external heart-lung machine to survive. After heart surgery was completed, the blood was pumped through the same heat exchange coil, now immersed in a tank of warm water, and when normal body temperature was reached the heart would either start spontaneously or be started by the surgeon applying the electrodes of a defibrillator directly to the walls of the heart. The human operations were performed by a team of two to six surgeons and more than 20 technicians and would last as much as 12-14 hours.
I was part of a team of four that cleaned, assembled and monitored the heart lung machine. Before an operation this meant we wheeled large carts of equipment from the surgery lab to the operating suites, assembled the complicated machinery, and read gauges and provided reports to the surgeons. After the operation, we would have to take all the equipment back to the lab and disassemble the whole apparatus. I was assigned the slightly revolting task of carefully scrubbing the residual blood out of the many meters of tubing and the complex screens and valves of the artificial lung and then wrapping the parts to be sterilized in a steam autoclave. My work was mostly manual labor that required more muscle and endurance than intelligence. But it was an extraordinary experience to observe this fantastic surgery and to have conversations with some of the most brilliant scientists and surgeons in the world.
I worked at the surgical research lab for two summers. In the first year, all the operations were performed on dogs and, sadly, none of them survived. Just one year later, the procedures had been perfected to the point where I assisted as a machine technician during the operations on ten human patients, all of whom would have died without this surgery, which was then brand new and cutting edge. The procedure is now known as coronary bypass surgery or triple bypass surgery and over the last 50 years has saved the lives of millions of victims of heart disease around the world.
Johannes Höber left Nazi Germany for Philadelphia on November 12, 1938. His wife Elfriede and their nine year old daughter Susanne were unable to leave until a year later. During the months they were separated, Johannes and Elfriede exchanged long letters, with Elfriede describing the worsening situation in Germany and Johannes describing his flight from Europe and his exhilarating entry into American life. Their exchange recounts, in a very personal way, how the Nazis drove decent, talented Germans out of their country and how one refugee family made its way through frightening circumstances to a safe haven. For the last year I have been preparing these letters for publication. The work has involved deciphering and transcribing the letters and writing an introduction, extensive footnotes and an epilogue.
Johannes was my father; he died in Washington, DC in 1977 at the age of 73. A year later, Elfriede, my mother, came to live with me and my wife, Ditta, in Philadelphia. Along with her other furniture, Elfriede brought several file cabinets filled with papers she and Johannes had accumulated over their lifetime.
In the 1980’s, I would take care of Elfriede’s bills and correspondence when she was traveling. One day I began to explore the file cabinets. And in one cabinet, jammed in at the back of a particularly tight and over-filled drawer, was a thick folder stuffed with yellowed, tattered pages. It was not an American manila folder like all the others, but a kind of black pasteboard, old and foreign-looking. The folder looked as though no one had opened it in many, many years. When I cautiously turned back the cover and began to read, I found that the papers in the folder were a long set of letters written by Johannes and Elfriede. They were all in German; many were typed and many others were written with a fountain pen in my mother’s distinctive, regular but nearly indecipherable hand. The earliest letters and postcards at the back of the folder were dated in November 1938 and the latest at the front of the folder were dated in October 1939. They were the letters my parents exchanged during the year they were apart.
When I first found the letters, my knowledge of German was sketchy. Having turned away from Germany in 1939, my parents rarely spoke the language at home and most of the German I knew I had 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 defeated my attempts at 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 worked on the letters, laboring to find their meaning. I returned to evening German classes to be better able to deal with the language. I struggled again and again 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. It dawned on me 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. From context and research, however, and from repeated readings, I believe that I have been able to decode most of the content of the letters.
Working with the letters has shown me that my parents’ story is 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 for my parents. I often found the same 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 huge reward for me in reading, 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 my then-nine-year-old sister, 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, concerned, 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 are sometimes slightly chaotic, but they 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 funny as she is in these letters.
The transcribed letters come to 300-400 pages; they will make an engaging book. I am working on this project with a historian friend in Dresden to prepare an edition in German and I am now translating the letters for an English edition. My expectation is that the manuscripts in both languages will be finished before the end of 2012. I am looking forward to the day when I can share these letters with all of you.
My mother, Elfriede, and my sister, Susanne, age 9, were still in Nazi Germany in the spring of 1939. My father, Johannes, had come to Philadelphia a few months earlier to prepare the way for them. In the intervening period, the Nazis continued to tighten the screws on the German population and threatened to plunge Europe into war. The pressure was getting extreme on the hundreds of thousands who wanted to leave the country. On June 22, Elfriede succeeded in getting a new passport that covered both her and Susanne.
The hardest part, however, was to get a visa allowing them to enter the United States. American law at that time permitted only 25,000 Germans to obtain immigration visas. In 1938 alone, over 300,000 Germans applied for visas, meaning that hundreds of thousands of people desperate to leave the country were denied admission to the United States. Liberal legislative efforts to expand the number of German refugees allowed into the United States were stymied by a coalition of Southern congressmen, anti-immigration groups, isolationists and antisemites (since many of those seeking admission to the country were Jews). The denial of entry to the U.S.doomed thousands who might otherwise have survived the Nazis.
Elfriede and Susanne were among the lucky ones. After months of struggling with visa applications and mind-numbing paperwork both in Germany and the United States, they were summoned to the office of the U.S. Consul General in Stuttgart on July 12, 1939. The last step in the application process was a physical examination, which both of them fortunately passed. When it was done, a clerk used a rubber stamp to imprint two immigration visa approvals on a page of the passport, using quota numbers 608 and 609. Vice Consul Boies C. Hart, Jr.’s signature and the embossed consular seal on each imprint made them official. Elfriede and Susanne now had had the chance to escape to safety and freedom, a chance denied to countless others.
The spot hasn’t changed in 74 years. (See prior post.)
Why do I write about my family and why, in particular, do I write about Hoebers in Germany and their passage to America?
Albert Camus’s The Plague, published two years after the end of World War II, is, among other things, an allegory of the world’s experience of the Nazis. I have always found it moving. In the last pages of the book, as the survivors of the plague celebrate the resurrection of their city, the protagonist, Dr. Rieux, reflects on living through the plague. He recognizes that he needs to tell the story of the horrors of the plague and those who died and those who survived it. Camus’s words beautifully articulate the impulse to record history:
“From the dark harbor soared the first rocket of the firework display organized by the municipality, and the town acclaimed it with a long-drawn sigh of delight. Cottard, Tarrou, the men and the woman Rieux had loved and lost — all alike, dead or guilty, were forgotten. Yes, the old fellow had been right; these people were ‘just the same as ever.’ But this was at once their strength and their innocence, and it was on this level, beyond all grief, that Rieux could feel himself at one with them. And it was in the midst of shouts rolling against the terrace wall in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, while cataracts of colored fire fell thicker through the darkness, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people, so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.
“Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and it relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.
“And indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-closets; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
(Translation 1948 by Stuart Gilbert.)
Although Johannes and Elfriede Höber succeeded in escaping from Germany with their nine-year-old daughter Susanne before War War II, Elfriede’s mother, Clara Fischer, and her three brothers remained behind. In 1943, Düsseldorf, where Clara lived, was heavily bombed by United States and allied forces. This photograph was taken from the ruins of Clara’s apartment, showing the destruction of the city. Having lost everything, Clara fled with her two grandchildren to the comparative safety of a small town in the Alps, where she lived out the rest of the War.
Susanne Höber (1930- ) was a very bright little girl. In this photograph taken in November 1932, at the age of 2 ½, she tells her father a story. The caption on the back of this picture (in her mother’s handwriting) says: “Susanne erzählt dem Papi vom Rotkäppchen: ‘Nu das Rotkäppchen brachte der Oma eine guhde Supp.’ Nov 1932.” [ “ … well and Little Red Riding Hood brought her Granny some gooood soop.”} There is also a photo of Susanne with her mother. The pictures were taken in a garden in Mannheim, where Johannes (1904-1977) and Elfriede (1904-1999) lived with Susanne. This was a few months before German voters handed their country over to the Nazis.
In the 1790s, Kaiser Franz II, the last of the Holy Roman Emperors, granted Jacob Hirsch the authority to change his name. For reasons unknown, Jacob Hirsch chose the name Höber (in English, Hoeber). His son, Heinrich, used the name Höber from birth. Jacob had come from Pfortzheim to Karlsruhe, where he served in the court of the Markgraf of Baden, but he also served Kaiser Franz in Vienna. During the Napoleonic wars, Hirsch found ways to provide supplies to the Kaiser and in exchange was granted the right to travel anywhere within the Empire. He was designated Königlichen und Kaiserlichen Hoffaktor, or Imperial and Royal Court Agent.
Jacob Hirsch’s appointment and authority were recorded in large calligraphy on a parchment certificate, complete with the Kaiser’s 5″ diameter wax seal. The certificate served as a passport whenever Jacob traveled. It was destroyed in a bombing raid on Duesseldorf in 1943.
Kaiser Franz II, last of the Holy Roman Emperors and First Emperor of Austria.