A First American Christmas, 1938

6701 Cresheim Road, Philadelphia, Christmas 1938

Hoeber House, 6701 Cresheim Road, Philadelphia, Christmas 1938

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 Hoeber, 1938

Johannes Hoeber, German Passport Photo, 1938

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.

6701 Cresheim Road, Philadelphia, Christmas 1938

Christmas 1938, Philadelphia

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.

Decoration Rudi-Sepp 1934

A German Christmas decoration brought to the United States by my grandparents more than 80 years ago.  We still hang it on our tree today.

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.

6701 Cresheim Road, Philadelphia, March 2011

The Höbers’ Cresheim Road House as it Looks Today

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

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4 Comments on “A First American Christmas, 1938”

  1. Patrick Hennessy and Alice Rand says:

    Peace at Christmas–sounds like they got it right on the first go ’round.
    Great edition, and something to meditate on for more than one reason.

  2. Barb Rose says:

    I am trying to recreate a similar story of my father and his family emigrating from germany in 1938-39. Did you have all of these original documents or did you have to retrieve them somehow? If you have any ideas abut how to get copies of the original passports or visas, I would appreciate it!
    Barb Rose

    • Frank Hoeber says:

      My family had an amazing habit of saving documents. As a result, almost everything posted in my blog comes from archived papers of Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber and Rudolf and Josephine Höber in my possession. Those papers take up about 35 linear feet of shelf space in my office. Fortunately those papers include my parents’ German passports containing the visas that allowed them to come here. I am afraid that the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service is unable to provide any records of visa applications from the period of the 1930’s.

      A respected source of immigration records is ancestry.com. From that source I was able to obtain the passenger manifest of the ship that brought my mother and sister here in late 1939. You might see what you can find there. Good luck with your search!

  3. […] 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 […]


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