True Friends — 1939Posted: June 5, 2014 In the spring of 1939, the American Consul in Stuttgart turned down my mother’s application for an Immigration Visa. At that moment, hundreds of thousands of Germans were trying to escape the Nazi terror and the war that everyone knew was coming. In one of the shameful episodes in America’s history, our immigration policy — held captive by southern congressman, xenophobes and antisemites — excluded all but a trickle of the terrified refugees. In just one year, 325,000 Germans asked for asylum in America, but a statutory quota allowed fewer than 28,000 to immigrate. In addition, any applicant was excluded if he or she might become a “charge on the government,” that is, if the applicants might not be able to support themselves here. In the 1930s, when unemployment was at a high point, that meant that most applicants from abroad had to have a sponsor who could support them.
My mother, Elfriede Höber, and my father, Johannes Höber, were counting on Johannes’ father Rudolf to support Elfriede and my sister, Susanne, then nine. Rudolf had fled Germany five years earlier, in 1933, and was a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. His stipend from Penn was small, however, and by 1939 he was already supporting six relatives who were unemployed refugees. Johannes had arrived in Philadelphia a couple of months earlier, so it was Elfriede who had to file the visa application with the U.S. Consul in Stuttgart. After weeks of delay, the Consul rejected her application because Rudolf’s income was insufficient to support her on top of the people he was already carrying.
Johannes was crushed when he received Elfriede’s letter with the bad news. In the few weeks he had been in America, however, he had made a friend at the office where he worked. This friend, Walter Phillips, sensed right away that something serious had happened. He asked Johannes what was wrong. When Johannes explained, Walter too was distressed that his new friend’s wife and daughter were trapped and might be unable to escape from Germany.
The next day, Walter did something totally unexpected. Although he was a young recent law school graduate with a limited income, both he and his wife Mary had inherited some money from their respective families. Without my father even asking, Walter and Mary volunteered to be guarantors for the support of my mother and sister, whom they had never met. Within days, Walter got an affidavit from his bank confirming his and Mary’s deposits and secured endorsements from leading lawyers in Philadelphia. He wrote his own extraordinary letter of support to the American Consul in Stuttgart:
I am informed that Mrs. Elfriede Höber, a Ph.D. of Heidelberg University, and Susanne Höber, Düsseldorf (Germany), Pempelforterstr. 11, have applied at your consulate for permanent residence. Mrs. Elfriede Höber and her daughter wish to come to Philadelphia to join their husband and father and his family who were admitted to the United States for permanent residence some time ago. Dr. Johannes Höber, the husband, also a Ph.D. of Heidelberg, has been working for me for about three months as a research assistant. He has proved himself to be an extraordinarily bright, intellectually honest, public spirited and able person. I am so much interested in keeping him in Philadelphia that I am willing to give my personal guarantee that his wife, after being admitted to the United States, will never become a public charge.
For my own identification you may be interested in the following facts: My family on all branches have lived in the United States since before the Revolutionary War. I am a graduate of Princeton University and also the Harvard Law School. … At present I am volunteering my time to the Philadelphia City Charter Committee in the interest of good local government. … As shown by a separate affidavit the financial responsibility of my wife and me together – we are giving a joint affidavit – should be sufficient to give the necessary guarantee required by law.
May I say again that Dr. Johannes Höber has in my opinion the makings of a fine American citizen and that to have his wife here would help him to be even more of an asset. She too, I have every reason to believe, would contribute much to America. …
Very sincerely yours,
Walter M. Phillips
The impressive stack of documents did the trick. Although it took several more weeks, the Consul in Stuttgart accepted Walter and Mary’s assurances and granted the Elfriede and Susanne visas on July 12, 1939. Without Walter and Mary’s selfless generosity, my mother and sister would never have gotten out of Germany and I would probably not be alive today. When I was born three years later my parents gave me “Walter” as a middle name. It is a name I carry with great pride and gratitude.