A Surprising Perspective on America — 1937

Rudolf and Josephine Höber, my grandparents, fled Nazi Germany for Philadelphia already in 1933, but their son Johannes and his wife Elfriede were holding on in Düsseldorf in the belief that the Nazis couldn’t last.   By 1937, my grandparents were desperate to have their children join them in America, so Rudolf and Josephine invited the young couple to come and visit them in America.  It turned into a grand trip.

Steamship Europa in Cherbourg, France. Photo by Johannes Höber, May 1937 as he and Elfriede were leaving for a month in the US.

Steamship Europa in Cherbourg, France. Photo by Johannes Höber, May 1937 as he and Elfriede were leaving for a month in the US.

Elfriede kept a travel diary capturing her impressions of the country that would later become home to her and Johannes and their little girl, Susanne.

Elfriede Höber’s diary of visit to America, May-June 1937.

Elfriede Höber’s diary of the visit to America, May-June 1937. Click image to enlarge.

Page of Elfriede's trip diary with Johannes's photos.

Page of Elfriede’s trip diary with Johannes’s photos. Click on image to enlarge.

Elfriede complained on every page about the “unbearable,” “insane” heat (Washington and Philadelphia before air conditioning) but otherwise she and Johannes found much to like in America.  They were impressed by Washington, where many of the iconic government buildings along the Mall had recently been finished, and they liked the democratic feel of the place.

Elfriede: "We drove by the White House as though it were an ordinary residence. No guards. Unfortunately Mr. Roosevelt was not at home."

Elfriede: “We drove by the White House as though it were an ordinary residence. No guards to be seen. Unfortunately Mr. Roosevelt was not at home.”

In Philadelphia, the family attended the graduation of Johannes’s sister, Ursula, from the University of Pennsylvania medical school.  They were impressed by the 1,500 graduates and the audience of 8,000 in Philadelphia’s Convention Hall, with Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull as commencement speaker.

Ursula Höber upon her graduation from medical school, University of Pennsylvania, June 9, 1937.

Ursula Höber upon her graduation from medical school, University of Pennsylvania, June 9, 1937.

Elfriede loved Connecticut:  “This is the way I always imagined New England to be, with hills and forests scattered with enchanting villages with white wooden houses and white churches on trim green lawns under high trees. The houses are mostly laid back from the street and not separated by fences.  As a result the country seems so open and gains a wonderfully elegant and fresh appearance.”  In Woodbury, Connecticut, they asked directions of a police officer.  “This guy was like a sheriff in the movies, going around in short sleeves with a big tin badge, unshaven, and stormed off in the middle of our conversation and threw himself into his car to chase another car that had exceeded the Woodbury speed limit.”  The family drove from Philadelphia to Cape Cod in two cars, a Ford and a DeSoto, where Elfriede declared the beaches to be the loveliest she had ever seen.

Höber family with their two cars, Chatham, Massachusetts, June 1937.

Höber family with their two cars at a lunch spot in Chatham, Massachusetts, June 1937.

Johannes and Elfriede traveled from Cape Cod (Fall River MA) back to New York by night boat!  Elfriede:  “Excellent cabin on the Commonwealth, a very old fashioned but very comfortable ship.  Wonderful evening ride to Long Island Sound.  Fantastic passage through the ocean of lights of the harbor of Newport.  Night’s sleep interrupted by foghorns.  Awoke at 6:15 in the East River. Reunion with the Empire State Building.  Passage under the East River bridges that cross the river in great arches, all with two levels with eight lanes each.  Generous good breakfast on board to prepare us for a day in New York.”

One of the steam boats of the Fall River Line that carried passengers between Cape Cod and New York until 1937.

One of the steam boats of the Fall River Line that carried passengers between Cape Cod and New York until 1937.

Johannes and Elfriede spent their last America day in New York, where Johannes indulged himself three times in “America’s national drink” — an ice cream soda.  Elfriede: “Lunch in an enormous restaurant.  The ladies room has 60 toilets, 30 for free and 30 for 5 cents. The noise of the streets is mind shattering.  The noise of the El is deafening, the subway hellish. The people in this city seem to have lost all sense of hearing.”

And a highlight of the whole trip, an hour before they boarded the ship to return to Europe, was to go by New York’s City Hall and catch sight of Fiorello LaGuardia, whose reputation as a dynamic, progressive mayor had reached even into the corners of Hitler’s Germany.  “We were able to watch as LaGuardia stood next to his car for a few minutes talking with advisers.  Because we were speaking German, a man appeared next to us out of nowhere, unmistakably a cop, and didn’t let us out of his sight until the mayor left.”

Fiorello H. LaGuardia, Mayor of New York.

Fiorello H. LaGuardia, Mayor of New York.

Elfriede and Johannes returned to Düsseldorf in late June 1937, but the visit to his parents bore fruit. Six months later, Johannes and Elfriede began making their own plans to leave Germany and move to the United States.  It would be nearly two more years, however, before the whole family could be reunited in Philadelphia.

Elfriede and Johannes Höber at home in Düsseldorf in 1938, a few months before leaving Germany permanently to live in the United States.

Elfriede and Johannes Höber at home in Düsseldorf in 1938, a few months before Johannes left Germany permanently to live in the United States. Elfriede and Susanne followed him a year later.

The story of how Johannes and Elfriede eventually got out of Germany and into the United States is told in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939. You can read more about that book here. Also available on Amazon.com

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2 Comments on “A Surprising Perspective on America — 1937”

  1. Patrick Hennessy says:

    A great itinerary, and a glimpse of Fiorello La Guardia–what could be better!

  2. A Fiorello sighting – how cool, and a night cruise from Cape Cod to Manhattan! Your parents had a really good preview of America. Great post, Frank.


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