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.
My great grandmother’s sister, Anna Höber, married Isidor Rosenthal in 1869. He was a professor of physiology at the University of Erlangen and became the mentor to my grandfather, Rudolf Höber, who also became a professor of physiology in Kiel and Philadelphia. Anna Höber Rosenthal’s groundbreaking social reform work in maternal and child care and public health resulted in a street being named for her in Erlangen. In 1870, Isidor and Anna had a son, Werner Rosenthal, who grew up to become a professor of pathology at the University of Göttingen, as well as an activist for education reform. In 1915, Werner married Erika Deussen, daughter of the great Sanskritist and Indologist Paul Deussen. They eventually had three daughters, Ruth, Eva and Beate.
Despite the fact that Werner was a practicing Protestant all his life, the Nazis removed him from his university teaching duties in 1934 because his father was born Jewish. Erika, a government physician, also lost her job. With no means of earning a living in Germany, Werner and Erika emigrated to India with their eldest daughter (the other two followed later). Erika had connections in India because her father had studied Sanskrit and Indian religion there. Werner became a professor at the University of Mysore and Erika practiced medicine. When World War II began in 1939, the British colonial government incarcerated Werner as an “enemy alien” and he died in a prison camp in 1942.
In the 1950s, Erika and two of her daughters, Eva and Beate, moved to the United States. I met them when I was a boy. The third sister, Ruth, had moved from India to Israel in 1938 or 1939, shortly before the War. There she met and married Hubert Sommer, a Jewish refugee from Austria.
Although my parents kept in contact with Eva and Beate for many years, and although I exchanged letters with Beate until shortly before her death in 2004, I knew nothing of Ruth, other than that she lived in Israel. Then, in November 2014, I was conducting some Internet research and stumbled across a genealogical website with tons of information about her and her descendants. I discovered that Ruth had three children, nine grandchildren and a dozen great-grandchildren.
All at once I had 30 new Israeli cousins I had never heard of! I began an email exchange with several of the family and even got a phone call from one of these distant relatives. I was delighted to be able to provide them with references to biographies of Isidor Rosenthal and Paul Deussen and a book that detailed Werner Rosenthal’s work in support of adult education.
This spring, my cousin Yoel Sommer, Ruth’s son, along with his wife Gina and his son Ishay, traveled from Israel to Germany to visit the sites that had been home to their family generations ago. I was able to connect them with writers and academics who have studied and written about the family members who preceded them. My academic friends were able to tell Yoel and his family pieces of their family’s history they previously did not know. The Sommers were able to visit the well-preserved grave of Isidor Rosenthal in Erlangen, the grave and little museum dedicated to Paul Deussen in Oberdreis, and the house in Göttingen where Werner and Erika once lived. As it happened, their visit coincided with the centennial of the death of Isidor Rosenthal. Without being there myself, I was moved by the reuniting of this family with the places from which their ancestors originated — reunited over space and time, and through tragedy and history.
As I await the publication of Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, the story of my parents’ emigration to the United States, I am trying to give readers here an idea of what was involved in those tense times. There were difficulties from both sides: the Germans made it hard to get out and the United States made it hard to get in.
German policy for all practical purposes allowed taking only 10 % of cash, stocks or valuables out of Germany. Two departure taxes, the Gold Discount Bank Fee [Golddiskontobankabgabe] and the Nation Abandonment Tax [Reichfluchtsteuer] amounted, in effect, to the expropriation of up to 90% of the liquid assets of emigrants. Jewelry, silver, artworks and similar valuables were subject to the same taxes to prevent people from turning their money into objects they could export.
What was permitted was the export of household belongings and personal effects sufficient for a “modest life” [bescheidende Existenz] in the émigré’s new country. Anyone planning to move out of Germany had to file a detailed inventory of everything they owned before they could get a permit to leave. The normal method of shipping was by having a moving company pack the entire household into an enormous crate that would then be transferred by crane to a ship and transported by sea. When the crate reached the United States, the household goods would be transferred to a truck and delivered to the new residence.
My father came to the United States in December 1938 but my mother and my then nine-year-old sister were not able to leave Germany until late the following year. In August 1939, my mother prepared the household for shipping, and prepared the required inventory, a copy of which she later brought with her to America.
The inventory was insanely detailed, down to “one wash line and clothes pins,” a trash can, a honey jar, a cookie box, six dust cloths, and a box of cloth remnants for patching holes in worn clothing. My parents were both then age 35 and had been married for ten years. The inventory illuminates the lifestyle of a middle-class European family of the 1930s. Thus, the inventory includes furniture, beds and bed linens, china and silverware, kitchen utensils and other items of daily life, but also a dozen each of wine glasses, champagne glasses, beer glasses, punch glasses and liqueur glasses. My parents’ leisure activity is shown in the listing of two pairs of skis and two pairs of ski boots as well as two pairs of hobnailed climbing shoes, a rucksack and a pair of mountaineering pants — and a picnic basket and its contents. Most revealing to me was the inclusion on the list of 800 books — mostly on economics, art history and fine arts — as well as 100 children’s books, a pretty good personal library for a nine year old.
You can read the full 5-page inventory here: Inventory August 9 1939 — English translation . One of many ironies of my parents’ life is that none of these carefully cataloged belongings ever got out of Germany. My mother was still in Düsseldorf when Hitler started World War II by invading Poland on September 1, 1939. As a result, no ships were available to transport the crate of household belongings to the United States. With no other choice available, my mother had everything put in storage and fled. Everything, from furniture to books to dust cloths, was destroyed during the Allied bombing of Düsseldorf on June 12, 1943.
By all accounts, my grandfather, Rudolf Höber, was a man with a sweet disposition. He had lived through tragedy in his own life, including the suicide of his father and the death of his brother in a mountaineering accident. Rudolf’s best friend, Albrecht Bethe, believed these experiences endowed him with a deep sympathy for the troubles of others. Although he was a brilliant scientist who explored the biochemistry of cells, he retained a sensitive appreciation for the beauty of the natural world as a whole. At a time when German professors held enormous social status and were known for their imperiousness, Rudolf was valued by his students and colleagues for his accessibility and camaraderie.
Among other things, Rudolf was a committed feminist. In an era when educational opportunities for women in science and the professions were limited, Rudolf mentored his new wife, Josephine, through medical school and into her practice as a physician. In addition, during his eleven years as an instructor [Privatdozent] at the University of Zürich (1898-1909) he supervised the dissertations of 24 medical students, two-thirds of whom were women.
Rudolf was named Associate Professor of physiology in the medical school at the University of Kiel in 1909 Then, exactly 100 years ago, Rudolf was appointed to the position of full professor and Director of the Physiological Institute. The title of Professor was then so exalted in Germany that it could only be bestowed by the Emperor himself. And so it was that Kaiser Wilhelm signed Rudolf’s appointment certificate on February 11, 1915.
By 1930, Rudolf had become internationally known for his scientific work and for the work of the Physiological Institute he led. In recognition, the University faculty elected him to the position of Rektor, or Chancellor, of the University. Still, he retained his charm and good nature. In May, Professor Hugo Prinz sent Rudolf a memo requesting that the Rektor issue an order directing that students were not permitted to congregate on the steps of the classroom buildings during the interval between classes. Rudolf responded the next day:
Your request that a notice be posted directing students that they are forbidden to stand on the steps during the interval between classes has been placed before me today. I should like to recommend to you kindly that you not insist upon this. It is surely not practical to ensure compliance with the prohibition. Furthermore, the steps are so particularly alluring as a place to linger in the sunshine that your proposal strikes me as rather cruel. I hope that your discomfort will not be too great, and that you will understand that I cannot put the requested directive into effect.
With best wishes,
In 1933, Rudolf emigrated to Philadelphia, where he received an appointment at the University of Pennsylvania. He continued to be popular among his students and continued to mentor women students in particular until his retirement in 1947.