A First American Christmas, 1938Posted: December 19, 2011
Johannes Hoeber (1904-1977) arrived in Philadelphia from Nazi Germany on December 22, 1938. His parents, Rudolf and Josephine, had been in Philadelphia for five years, and had rented a large house in the Germantown section of the city in anticipation of the arrival of their adult children and their grandchildren. The plan was for seven adults and three children to live there together until everyone got settled into jobs in the new country.
Johannes had slipped across the German border into Switzerland seven weeks earlier and had succeeded in getting an American visa in Zurich. From there he traveled across Europe and in England boarded the SS Manhattan for New York. The winter crossing was stormy, and Johannes was tormented by an abscessed tooth. His first day in America was spent with dentists getting x-rayed and getting the tooth pulled.
Johannes had left his wife Elfriede and eight-year-old daughter Susanne in Germany, with a plan for them to join him later. But they were not to be reunited for many more months. Christmas eve was two days after Johannes arrived, and he joined his parents and sisters around the modest tree in the newly rented house. Money was tight and what little there was had to be saved to pay for Elfriede and Susanne’s eventual passage to the United States, so the adults agreed to forego giving each other Christmas presents. But they gathered around the Christmas tree — lit with real candles — and sang carols and recited old poems to one another, and were happy that, for a few hours, they could be at peace.
NOTE: Flash cameras were rare in 1938, so Johannes had to take the indoor pictures of the family Christmas tree in natural light with a long exposure. He probably set his camera on a table or window sill to make these pictures without blurring them. The long exposure also explains why he placed no people in the pictures.
More stories about the Hoeber family are to be found in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available here. Also available at Amazon.com