Americans are schizophrenic about immigration. We have two contradictory traditions with respect to people from other countries who come here to live. On the one hand, we have the Emma Lazarus, tradition: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore … ” and so on. This welcoming tradition dates as far back as William Penn, whose 1701 Charter of Privileges welcomed people of all nationalities and religions to come and live in his Quaker colony in America. On the other hand, America has an equally strong xenophobic tradition, from the Alien Enemies and Naturalization Acts of 1798, through the nativist Know Nothing Party of the 1840s and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the restrictive Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and the proposal today of a leading candidate for president of the United States to physically deport 11 million migrants by force. For more than two centuries, persons wanting to come here from abroad to live have encountered these contradictory impulses in American culture—welcoming and exclusionary—when trying to secure permission to immigrate.
In the process of escaping Hitler and finding refuge here, my parents encountered both of these contrary American traditions. My book, Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, illustrate the realities for a family negotiating what was ultimately an arbitrary U.S. immigration process as well as the day-to-day personal impact of migration under pressure. My parents got out of Germany and into the U.S. as the result of their education, hard work and good luck. But if it had not been for generous Americans who enthusiastically supported refugees who wanted to become part of the American fabric, their story could easily have turned out differently.
On November 22, 2015, I spoke with radio producer Loraine Ballard Morrill in Philadelphia about Johannes and Elfriede’s experiences in getting into the United States as they sought to escape Germany in 1938 and 1939. The conversation led to a discussion about the parallels between anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 1930s that led to the restrictions on refugees in that period and the politics of exclusion of Syrian refugees in 2015. You can hear the interview by clicking here.
My readership spiked hugely one day recently. The platform I use for this blog gives me daily statistics on the number of readers, identifying the country in which the readers are located and the posts they hit. A two year old post, originally captioned “New Houses for Eskimos — 1966”, suddenly got more hits in one day than the whole website usually gets in a week. Then two comments popped up on that post. The first read:
“First off, we are not Eskimo. Second, your mother put our moose meat down. Third, it is not the tundra. AND YES! We have trees. So before you publish something like this, you should do your research.”
The second comment read,
“First of all, we are [not] Athabaskan Eskimos, we are Athabaskan Indians. Your article is incorrect on so many topics and disrespectful on so many levels. Before you blog about any community or tribe you should travel to that community and do your research yourself. You have no right to stand in judgement of another race or community and publicly put that race or community down to such levels of disgrace. This type of public discrimination should be banned.”
I was mortified. The post was based on a report to the federal Housing Demonstration Program that my mother wrote when she visited two housing sites in Alaska in 1966. She loved that trip and the people she met, and retold the story many times over the next 25 years. It’s true that she used the word “Eskimo,” which was the government’s designation of the people at that time; the government subsequently learned better. The Athabaskans who wrote me had reason to be angry; no one wants to be called by the wrong name. It’s also true that my mother used the word “tundra,” though when I checked I found she used that description for only one of the two towns she visited. The other was clearly in a forested area. The mistake was mine. As to derogatory comments about moose meatloaf, well, the readers got me there. Though the remark was rude, I think it’s not unusual and not the worst offense if someone doesn’t care for food they’ve never eaten before. That has been a common experience among travelers since people began to travel. The truth is, though, that I would like to try moose meatloaf.
I wrote back to the two commenters to apologize as best I could for the errors in the post. The answer I got back from Stacy made me feel a little better — and made me want more than ever to visit that town in Alaska that meant so much to my mother half a century ago. She wrote:
I’ve decided that I would respond after a long day of thinking about this entire blog. I’d like to thank you for responding to my comment. I think it is very nice of you to try and make this blog more accurate than previously written. It would take a very long time to actually explain all the details of what my father’s homeland really, truly is. However, I will say this – unless, you’ve been here in Alaska yourself and went into someone’s home and actually stayed more than a week, it’s hard to sum up our traditions, food and overall life. We are very easy-going people, who work hard on a daily basis to keep the kids and elders fed. Once that happens, if we have time for ourselves after a long day, we may start on some arts and crafts or the men may play a game of poker. Anyway, like I said – until you’ve experienced Alaska yourself, it’s hard for me to sum up what it’s actually like to visit at someone’s house over tea, eat smoked salmon strips, crackers and walking away with the endless smiles and happiness you feel in your heart after a really good visit filled with laughter and fun!
If you like the stories on this website, you may be interested in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, by Francis W. Hoeber.
Details and ordering information are available by clicking this link.
World War II began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. My mother, Elfriede, and my 9 year old sister, Susanne, were living in Dusseldorf and getting stuck in Nazi Germany became an all-too-real possibility for them. It was imperative that they get away and join my father, who had fled to Philadelphia the previous year. The war had started just a few weeks after the American consul had granted Elfriede and Susanne immigration visas after months of struggling. Then, getting the household packed up, wrapping up their business, and saying farewell to family and friends took weeks — and suddenly it was almost too late.
The start of the war only increased the flood of emigrants racing to escape Europe. The stamps in Elfriede’s passport show that on September 14 she paid the German government 8 Reichsmarks for an exit permit. On September 19 she obtained a bank certification for the 20 Reichsmarks (about $10), the total that she was allowed to take out of Germany. Thankfully, on September 22 at 8:50 P.M. she and Susanne crossed the border at Aachen out of Germany and into Belgium. They arrived in Antwerp the same day, where they were supposed to board a ship for America. But it wasn’t that simple.
The first days of the war saw numerous naval battles between Germany and Great Britain, including the sinking a British warship with a loss of 700 lives. The fighting at sea completely disrupted civilian shipping in the English Channel and the North Atlantic. As a result, Elfriede and Susanne’s ship was delayed again and again. Day after day they trekked to the shipping office of the Holland America Line, which was besieged by hundreds of refugees desperate to escape Europe. Seventy-five years later, Susanne still remembers the grimy hotel, the chaos at the shipping office, the fear and the grinding boredom of the wait. Finally, however, after weeks of waiting, Elfriede was able to confirm their passage on the S.S. Westernland that ultimately left on October 28. She sent off a letter to her husband, Johannes, in Philadelphia, with the news. After explaining the complicated arrangements with finances and ships, she added,
How have these things been with you all these weeks? At this point I’ve heard almost nothing about you for two months, but now it seems like we’ll actually get out of here and get to you. I hope we don’t run into any disaster other than seasickness on the way, because as [my brother] Paul aptly noted, you can take Vasano for seasickness but for torpedoes you can only take a lifeboat. To tell the truth, I’m not really very worried about the torpedoes. When cautious people at home asked me whether I was really going to risk the transatlantic trip at this time, I just answered that it was pretty much the same to me whether a bomb fell on my head in Düsseldorf or a torpedo hit some other part of my body on the ocean. On the other hand, a bomb shelter is warmer than the North Atlantic in October. …
If heaven and assorted Führers don’t spit in our soup again, we’ll be with you in a couple of weeks.
Alles liebe Deine Friedel
The story of what happened next, and more about Elfriede and Johannes’ flight from Germany to the United States, is contained the book from which this story is taken: Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, available by clicking here.
Like other members of my family about whom I have written on this website, I have spent most of my working life in public service. A few years ago, the local affiliate of National Public Radio asked me to write an essay reflecting on this work for broadcast as part of its “This I Believe” series. Then, last week, the national “This I Believe” organization contacted me to say my essay will be published this fall in an anthology. I was pleased that after the passage of some time my essay is still of interest. It will be a while until the book of essays is released, but for now you can read mine below. In addition, you can hear the audio of the original broadcast archived on the WHYY website by clicking on this link.
I believe in government.
My grandmother, Josephine, was the first in my family to enter government service nearly a century ago. She was a doctor in the women’s health clinic in Kiel, Germany. As a public health physician, she improved the lives of poor young mothers and children who otherwise would have gotten no proper medical care.
My father and mother, who fled Germany to escape the Nazis, made civil service their lifelong work here in America. Each of them built a distinguished career in agencies founded on principles of social and economic justice for all Americans.
As the son and grandson of civil servants, I grew up believing in the capacity of government to ameliorate human suffering and to improve the lot of ordinary people. While I was still in college, I, too, went to work in the public sector. I was thrilled when I landed a job as a summer intern for Senator Hubert Humphrey. I was able to be in the Senate gallery when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, guaranteeing the equal rights under the law that Americans take for granted today.
After college, I got a job with the National Labor Relations Board, where we worked to protect the rights of employees who wanted to be represented by a union. I will never forget the respect I was accorded when I entered a metal factory in Wilkes Barre PA or a nursing home in Millville, New Jersey. I was the government man responsible for setting the rules of fair play between employees and their employers. I will never forget being welcomed into the small town home of a man or a woman who had been fired for union organizing, knowing that these individuals were relying on their government — on me — to save them and their families from economic disaster. It was a huge responsibility, and the long days of hard work were repaid by the conviction that my colleagues and I were making a difference.
Now, 45 years after my first government job, I am a manager for the New Jersey courts. Our Judiciary has created drug courts that save the lives of addicts who were once criminals and turn them into responsible citizens. I have worked on programs to keep kids who went wrong from being locked up in institutions that too often only increase the likelihood that they will offend again. I leave my house at seven in the morning and I don’t get home until seven at night, and in between there’s hardly a minute of down time. But I take very seriously my responsibility to do the most that can be done with the hard-earned tax dollars that pay my salary.
So I believe in government. I believe in the good that government can do. My whole life has taught me to believe in government. No one knows the flaws of government better than those of us who labor under its maddening limitations. But government is still the best institution that we have devised to address the panoply of problems that beset the human condition.
I love this picture. A balding man in a brown work coat lies on a wooden garden lounge chair incongruously brought into the paneled rooms of the Physiological Institute at the University of Kiel, Germany in 1927. The experimental subject is wired to an electrical apparatus on a table that is in turn wired to a morning-glory-shaped loudspeaker horn. We are standing with a group of medical students waiting intently for the sound of the subject’s heart muscles and nerves to emerge from the horn (and perhaps hoping that the 100-volt battery that powers the apparatus doesn’t do him any harm). The device emitted rhythmic notes of varying tones and intensity as the electrical impulses in the muscles and nerves varied with the heartbeat. Sometimes called the “electric stethoscope,” this instrument was adapted as a teaching tool to train doctors to diagnose the condition of the heart through sound.
One of the first persons to use the amplified sound of the heart to teach use of the stethoscope was my grandfather, Rudolf Höber (1873-1953). He was a pioneering physiologist at the Universities of Zürich, Kiel and Pennsylvania who has been remembered for discoveries in biochemistry and biophysics at the cellular level. A couple of years ago, The Journal of Electrical Bioimpedence noted the 100th anniversary of Rudolf’s discoveries related to the variability of electrical charges across cell membranes. Among other things, Rudolf was an inventor who devised instruments for measuring electrical characteristics at the cellular level; he even had a glass blower working for him to fabricate apparatus. Here is his diagram of a bioelectric device he created around 1910:
During World War I, the technology of vacuum tubes was developed that enabled the amplification of electrical waves for use in telephones. Rudolf adapted this technology to use in combination with his earlier bioelectric measurement devices — resulting in the mechanism at the top of this page.
This year the University of Kiel is marking its 350th anniversary with a series of events, including the medical school’s exhibition on prominent scientists who worked there. You can get information about the overall exhibition by clicking here and about Rudolf in particular here.
When my father got to America at the age of 35, he had never so much as held a hammer in his hand. In Germany, educated people like him hired someone to do household repairs. In Philadelphia, Johannes shared a big old rented house with relatives and money was very tight, so it was a disaster when the toilet in the house developed a leak. Johannes asked one of his new American friends to recommend a plumber who could do the repair cheaply. The friend told him not to call a plumber. “Go to the hardware store first,” the friend said, “and see if they can help you.”
Bellet’s hardware store, around the corner on Germantown Avenue, was packed with tools and screws and nails and parts and housewares in great array. Johannes asked Mr. Bellet if he could possibly help him with a leaky toilet. Mr. Bellet walked him to a counter where there was a toilet with the tank partially cut away to show the flush valves and float mechanism and other innards that made the thing work. Mr. Bellet asked Johannes to show him where the water was leaking, and Johannes pointed to the connection between two brass and copper parts. “Here’s how you fix it,” said Mr. Bellet, and started unscrewing nuts and disassembling the parts of the mechanism. After a few moves, Mr. Bellet was able to pull out a small black rubber washer from a connecting joint. Holding it up triumphantly, he said cheerfully, “Here’s what you need!” Out of the chaos of a cabinet with dozens of small wooden drawers Mr. Bellet pulled a matching washer and handed it to Johannes. “Do you now know how to put it back together?” he asked. When Johannes responded with a dubious grimace, Mr. Bellet led him back to the mysterious toilet mechanism on the counter. Deftly but deliberately, Mr. Bellet re-installed the little black washer and patiently instructed Johannes at each step of the way. “Understand now?” asked Mr. Bellet. “I think so,” said Johannes. “How much do I owe you?” “Five cents,” said Mr. Bellet, beaming. Johannes was not the first immigrant he had taught to repair a toilet.
Johannes nearly ran back to the house on Cresheim Road to try out his newly-learned skills and his newly-bought washer on the recalcitrant toilet. Remembering Mr. Bellet’s instructions pretty accurately, he carefully dismantled the mechanism, located the worn, slimy old washer, replaced it with the sturdy new one and put the thing back together. He turned the water back on — no leak! He flushed — it worked!
That evening, with the rest of his relatives gathered around the dinner table, Johannes regaled them with his adventure with Mr. Bellet and the black washer. “This is a wonderful country,” he said. “Five cents for a washer and five dollars worth of free advice!” And he later taught his kids that in America you don’t call the plumber, you do it yourself.