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.
Special sets of knives and forks for eating fish became popular in Europe in the late 19th century. The steel blades used at that time in ordinary silverware would react with fish in a way that imparted an unpleasant metallic taste. Fish sets had silver-plated brass blades and tines that did not interfere with the delicate taste of fish. The set pictured here was given to my grandparents, Rudolf and Josephine Marx Höber, as a wedding present at the time of their marriage on August 10, 1901.
Rudolf and Jospehine were fortunate in being able to bring the fish set with them when they were driven out of Nazi Germany and fled to America in 1934.
After Rudolf and Josephine died, the fish set was passed on to my parents, Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber.
After my parents’ deaths, the fish set came to me and my wife, Ditta.
On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2014, our younger son Julian married Heather Rasmussen, at the Maritime Hotel in New York City. We decided that this was the time to pass the fish set on to a fourth generation. We made a new silvercloth wrapper for the forks and knives and a new box.
The silver set, newly polished after a century of use, is now with Julian and Heather in Los Angeles.
I don’t know what happened to my grandfather’s scientific papers. I have tons of family papers, but for some reason they don’t include most of Rudolf Höber’s professional writings beyond his books. A posthumous article says he published over 200 articles in his lifetime, but for a long time I only had a few of them.
Rudolf, a physiologist, published his first article in 1898 arising out of his doctoral dissertation, Observations on Experimental Shock through Stimulation of Serous Membranes. Thereafter, he would go on to publish three to six articles a year for the next 50 years. Whenever Rudolf published a new article, he would get a good number of extra copies, or “offprints,” that he would mail to colleagues around the world with whom he wished to share his research.
For years, Rudolf sent copies of his articles to his friend Max Cremer, professor of physiology at the Royal Veterinary Technical Institute in Berlin. He wrote greetings on the cover, such as, “Sent with the sincere thanks of the author,” or, “With best wishes from R.H.” By 1913, Cremer had received 25 articles from Rudolf, making quite a nice stack, and he decided to have them bound by a local stationer and bookbinder, Adolf Liese. Herr Liese and Prof. Cremer selected boards with green and black marbling for the front and back covers, and dark green buckram for the spine. On Cremer’s instructions, Liese added gold lettering to the spine reading R. Höber, Separat-Abdrücke [Offprints], 1904-1913.
When Cremer got the newly bound volume home, he stamped his own identification on the flyleaf: Dr. med. Max Cremer, Professor für Physiologie an der Kgl. Tierartzlichen Hochschule, Berlin.
After Prof. Cremer’s death in a Nazi-dominated Germany in 1935, the volume made its way into the library of the Institute for Veterinary Physiology at Humboldt University in Berlin. A librarian dutifully added the library’s stamp to the flyleaf . A library label was glued to the spine and it was shelved with the other scientific books in the library. And there it stayed for another 50 years.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Humboldt University, in previously-Communist East Berlin, experienced a crash modernization effort, as the government of a reunited Germany moved the locus of the nation to the historic capitol of Berlin. As modern text books and research materials flooded into Humboldt’s library, tens of thousands of outdated and obsolete volumes were deaccessioned. One of the books deaccessioned was Cremer’s volume of Rudolf Höber’s articles. The University library added an additional stamp, “ausgeschieden”, or “deaccessioned,” and sent the book off to a huge outlet in Leipzig that had been the Communist government’s principal depository for used books for decades before the fall of the Wall. There it would sit until someone, anyone, showed an interest in buying it.
I am in the habit of checking out used book websites to see what’s around. One night, I typed in Rudolf’s name. As I had come to expect, dozens of copies of his two books, in several languages, popped up on the site. But at the end of the very long list, this item caught my eye: R. Höber, Konvolut von 25 Sonderabdr. z. Physiologie, Zentralantiquariat Leipzig [“A Collection of 25 Offprint Copies on the Subject of Physiology,” Central Used Book Depository, Leipzig]. A few keystrokes, a credit card number, and 36 Euros later, and the book was on its way to me, perhaps the one person in the entire world who wanted it most.
It was a revelation to open the package from Leipzig, the see the stamps inside the cover, and then to see my grandfather’s distinctive handwriting on each article, bold but delicate, that has become so familiar to me as I have worked with his papers. And when I read Mit den besten Grüssen vom Verfasser – “With the best wishes of the author” – I fancied for a brief moment that he had addressed those words to me, and that it was he who had sent me this volume from across the Atlantic and over a century in time.