Johannes and Elfriede’s Letters from Nazi Germany

Johannes and Elfriede Höber at the Time of their Marriage, December 1928

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.

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

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.

Letter from Johannes in Philadelphia to Elfriede 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 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.

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Discovering My Great-Great-Grandmother’s Grave

Amalia Hoeber's Grave, Schönhauserallee Cemetery, Berlin

My great-great grandfather Eudard Höber, a merchant from Karlsruhe,  married my great-great grandmother Amalie, née Oppenheim, on November 17, 1839.  It was his second marriage, her first;  he was 34, she was 22.  I did a post about their portraits a few weeks ago that you can see here.

I didn’t know much about Amalie (also spelled Amalia), but I did know that her brother, Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim,  later became a well known jurist, critic and liberal political activist.  In the 1870’s, he was a major opponent of  Heinrich von Treitschke, the notorious Antisemite.  Researching Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim’s background led to this photograph of his gravestone, and a few feet away from it the gravestone of great-great-grandmother Amalia.

The grave is located in the Schönhauserallee cemetery in the Prenzlauer Berg section of Berlin just a couple of kilometers from the Brandenburg Gate.  The photograph here is from a wonderful series showing the elaborate nineteenth-century grave markers and the tranquil beauty of the cemetery today.  Although heavily damaged, this Jewish cemetery was  not obliterated either by the Nazis nor by the Allied bombing of Berlin in 1945 and much of it has been restored since 1990.  We  stayed near here in the past, but had no idea this grave existed — another reason to return to this reborn city.

The inscription on the grave stone reads:   “Here lies our dearly loved mother and grandmother Amalie Hoeber née Oppenheim, born in Frankfurt on the Main on the 19th of November 1817, died in Berlin on the 15th of January 1895.  Her religion was that of conscientious action and of faithful trust.  Her life was true devotion.  Our gratitude is perpetual love.”  [“Hier ruht unsere heissgeliebte Mutter und Großmutter AMALIA HOEBER geb. OPPENHEIM geboren zu Frankfurt am Main am 19. November 1817 gestorben zu Berlin am 15.  Januar 1895.  Ihre Religion war die des gewissenhaften Handelns und des glaubigen Vertrauens.  Ihr Leben war treue Hingebung , unwandelbare Liebe ist unser Dank.”]


Aunt Ursula’s Portable Needle Boiler

Ursula Hober's Chrome-Plated Sterilizer (c. 1940) at Full Boil.

My father’s sister, Ursula Hober, came to the United States in 1934.  She got her medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937, and over the next 30 years developed a large general practice in West Philadelphia.  A large proportion of her patients were lower income families — both African American and white — to whom she was available for house calls day and night.  She billed her patients, of course, but only once.  If the patient did not pay, Ursula ignored the bill.  She thought that her patients should not be deprived of care just because they couldn’t afford to pay.

In those days, many general practitioners also functioned as obstetricians, and I was one of the babies Ursula delivered.  When I was a kid, she would come to our house to give me and my brother vaccine injections, in addition to coming when a member of the family had a cold or a stomach ache.

Ursula also gave injections to all the kids of the families in her practice.  At that time, needles for injections were not disposable as they are today, but would be sterilized and reused.  Sometimes Ursula would visit a patient and discover that there were kids in the family who had not gotten their immunizations.  She would then give all of them the shots they needed all at once.   If  Ursula did not have enough sterile needles with her, she would pull out this little portable boiler, sterilize her needles and continue giving the necessary shots.

This gadget folds into a small self-contained box about 2 inches by 2 1/2 inches.  At the bottom is an alcohol lamp with a screw-on cap.  At the top is a little reservoir for water.  Light the lamp, wait for the water to boil, put a couple of needles in, boil for a few minutes and back to work.