The Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, and over the next five years tightened the screws of totalitarianism on the German people. By the late 1930s, life had become intolerable for hundreds of thousands of Germans and for German Jews in particular. Although my parents weren’t Jewish, by 1938 they could no longer bear living under Hitler’s dictatorial regime and decided to leave. But getting out wasn’t easy.
Most people who left Nazi Germany wanted to get to the United States, but to do so they needed an immigration visa, the official authorization to enter America. The US, however, put a quota on the visas it would issue for the residents of each country. In 1939 the quota for Germany was 26,000, and there were over 300,000 German applicants. My father was born in Switzerland, so he came under the Swiss quota. Since almost no Swiss were trying to get American visas, my father got one very quickly and came to Philadelphia at the end of 1938. My mother and eight-year-old sister, Susanne, however, were stuck in Germany. As soon as my father arrived here he went to work to get them visas.
To get a visa, prospective immigrants had to prove to the American authorities that they would have enough money to live on once they got here. Since the Nazis made it almost impossible to take money out of Germany, most refugees arrived in this country penniless (as my parents did). This meant that visa applicants needed one or more American sponsors who would agree to support them if necessary, and prove they had the means to do so. The search for sponsors who would sign an “Affidavit of Support” was a major burden for refugees from the Nazis.
My father’s father already lived here and had a salary that enabled him to sign an Affidavit of Support, but the American immigration authorities rejected it because he was already supporting numerous other family members. The rejection initially caused my father some panic, but eventually he was fortunate in locating two additional American sponsors for my mother and sister. One was a generous American couple he met here, Walter and Mary Phillips. The other was a distant cousin from a branch of the Hoeber family that had come to America nearly a century earlier. Though this cousin, Eugene Hoeber, a businessman in New York, was really a total stranger, he nevertheless agreed to give an affidavit of support to help our family. Here is his affidavit, completed on a form provided by the steamship company that would carry passengers to the United States:
One surprising thing about this document — aside from the fact that Cousin Eugene was willing to provide it at all — was the fact that it indicates he owned $230,000 in stocks and bonds, the equivalent of several million dollars today. Without it, my mother and sister wouldn’t have gotten their visas and would never have gotten to America, and my brother and I would never have been born.
As I wrote in a previous post, my mother got the visas for herself and my sister two months after Eugene signed the Affidavit of Support. An image of the visas entered in her passport is here.