The National Socialists took control of the German government on January 30, 1933 and consolidated their power with great speed. Political street violence had been part of German life for a long time, but the Nazis escalated that pattern rapidly and brutally, using terrorist tactics to wipe out political opposition in a matter of weeks. My father, Johannes (1904-1977), was the first victim in our family, when he was arrested in March and imprisoned for several weeks because of his liberal politics, and my grandfather, Rudolf (1873-1953),was next when he was expelled from his professor’s position the following fall, in part because of actions he took against Nazi students. The situation with my mother’s brothers was something else entirely.
My mother had three younger brothers who, in 1933, were in their mid-twenties. All three were good looking and charming, with cheerful dispositions and a taste for evenings with friends in the taverns of Düsseldorf’s Altstadt, taverns with names like the Golden Kettle (Im Goldenen Kessel) and Fatty’s Irish Pub, which are still popular today. On the night of Tuesday, November 7, 1933, my uncles Paul Fischer (1909-1947), a recent law graduate still in training, and Herbert Fischer (1907-1992), by day in business with his father, went out for an evening of socializing. Their father Franz (1868-1937) and older brother Günter (1906-1979) were away on a business trip for several days.
The social evening lasted until 3 :00 in the morning, when the bars closed. Paul and Herbert, whose state after a long night of drinking can only be guessed, got into the car of a friend who drove them home. Still joking as they tumbled out of the car, Herbert spotted a poster that had been pasted on a nearby wall and was partially coming off. Tearing the poster off the wall, Herbert crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the car at his friend saying, “Here! You can use this to clean your windshield!” It seems that Herbert didn’t recognize the poster as Nazi propaganda, nor did he notice the Stormtrooper watching nearby. Although lacking legal authority, the hundreds of thousands of brown-shirted Stormtroopers of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung constituted a militia of the Nazi Party and were free to attack and bully citizens who showed any sign of dissent from the regime. Although Herbert was non-political, the waiting Stormtrooper saw his petty vandalism as a political act and took him into custody. Paul went along to be a witness in his brother’s defense, but soon found himself taken into custody as well.
As Paul and Herbert got passed on from the Stormtrooper to a bicycle policeman to an automobile police squad to the police station, the story of the incident grew from a tipsy prank to an organized conspiracy against the state. By dawn, both Herbert and Paul were arrested and imprisoned and their case turned over to the “political police,” a part of the recently formed Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo). Apparently the fact that Paul was a lawyer in training (Referendar) increased the Gestapo’s suspicions. The brothers were held for more than a week without charges and were subject to repeated beatings.
The day after the arrest, my grandmother and my father and mother began agitating with the police for the young men’s release. It took three days just to identify the official with authority over Paul and Herbert’s case. My grandmother was so desperate for her sons’ release that she forced herself to mumble “Heil Hitler!” to the police official, the only time in the entire Nazi period that she ever used that hated salutation. As my father wrote at the time, “Endless approaches, endless waiting, walking down endless corridors, daily hopes, daily disappointments, long negotiations and discussions, after the third day with the help of a lawyer.” After a week, Paul was released with no explanation either for his arrest or his beatings or his release. He left the city immediately to recuperate from the wounds he received in the beatings. Herbert continued to be held, inexplicably, because, as my father wrote, “He never at any time ever engaged in any political activity whatsoever.” Nevertheless, it took another week to negotiate his release, again without explanation, but, as my mother wrote, he came out “relatively undamaged.”
In the end, it all came to nothing and the brothers returned to their respective occupations. But the reality of being arrested and beaten and held for many days for no reason was part of the atmosphere of terror that would be part of daily life in Germany for the next 12 years.
More stories about the Hoeber and Fischer families 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
Review of “Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939” from CHOICE, A Publication of the Association of College and Research LibrariesPosted: May 2, 2016
I am delighted that the following review appeared on May 1, 2016, in CHOICE, a publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries.
AGAINST TIME: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, by Francis W. Hoeber
Francis Hoeber possesses, apparently, decades’ worth of materials from his family’s history. However, he has chosen to publish only letters from 1938 and 1939, because they are truly exceptional in foregrounding human experience in the face of obliterating fascism. His father, Johannes, had emigrated from Germany in 1938, with the idea that Elfriede would follow with their young daughter. Complications arose. Eventually they united, lived in the US, and raised their family. That is a passive, objective summary. In contrast, these letters, written by two literate, gifted writers, construct a deeply experienced history entwined with significant world events. Genuine, emotional, human, rational—the letters exemplify precisely why published history needs such primary material. We can read or view synthesized historical accounts in textbooks or documentaries; we can summarize and categorize, intellectually. However, only by absorbing the personal narratives of people who recount the events they lived through can readers approximate the feelings, the vibrant presence, the individual acts that enliven historical experience. Through self-expressed microhistory, whether routine (running a business) or epochal (Kristallnacht), readers feel the macrohistory viscerally. Hoeber provides relevant context in footnotes and summaries to orient readers.
Summing up: Highly recommended.
–J. B. Wolford, University of Missouri—St. Louis
More information about Against Time is available by clicking here.
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Also available at Amazon.com
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
If you’re pretty well educated in your birth country, it’s daunting to face a new country and become a person who knows less than anyone else. So how do you catch up? When my parents decided it was time to flee Nazi Germany, their answer was books. I still have some of them. I love this beautiful history of the United States, with its funky canvas dust jacket and the stars on the spine:
My mother’s mother gave her fleeing daughter and son-in-law this old Baedeker’s guidebook to the United States, in English. The fold-out city maps are small but quite detailed. Years later my mother fell in love with the Rand McNally Road Atlas, but in the beginning it was this Baedeker that got her and my father started on American geography:
What do you give a bright eight-year-old to learn a bit about adventures in America? The choices in Nazi Germany weren’t too great, but you could do worse than providing her with a German translation of an American classic — Huck Finn. Susanne learned to love Mark Twain’s stories of life on the Mississippi well before she got here:
And how do you learn to raise children the American way? A couple years after arriving here, my parents were confronted with two new babies in short order — my brother and then me. Fortunately, every American at the time followed the same child-rearing Bible, Dr. Spock. That my mother referred to it frequently is shown by the tattered condition of this cheap paperback edition. She must have been comforted by the first eight words of the book, one of the most uplifting opening sentences of any book ever: “You know more than you think you do.” The simplest reassurance imaginable.
German schools didn’t teach much about the American Revolution, so even educated immigrants didn’t know much about early American history. A German friend who had arrived in America a couple of years earlier than my parents introduced them to the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts set in the American Revolution and the years of the Early Republic. Roberts was a fine historian as well as a novelist, and my parents learned more than many Americans about our early history in a short time from his books. Because of him they loved to visit historic sites in the U.S., starting with Valley Forge shortly after their arrival:
My mother, particularly, developed an interest in the history of Philadelphia. She was fascinated to learn that in the early 20th century Philadelphia was governed by a German-American progressive named Rudolph Blankenburg. At Leary’s huge used book store on 9th Street above Chestnut, she was able to by a book on Mayor Blankenburg, written by his wife, for half a dollar:
When my parents had been in the U.S. for some time, my mother acquired her great treasure, a copy of Scharf and Westcott’s magnificent three-volume History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884. Standards of historical accuracy were different when this set was published, but it is still a wonderful source of anecdotes about the city in its first 275 years:
More on the Hoeber family is in the book Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939. Click here for details and ordering information.
It was said in my family that my father, Johannes Höber, had a knack for being present at historic events. I recently discovered such an incident that I had not known about before. The story is told in a couple of postcards that were found recently among the papers of my sister, Susanne. The postcards were written by my father as a child, in an old fashioned German script that even some German readers do not know today. As was usual at that time, a grownup drew lines on the card with a ruler and pencil to help the child write straight and evenly.
Johannes lived with his parents in the northern port city of Kiel, where his father was a professor and his mother a physician. Johannes’s widowed grandmother, Großmama Mimi, lived in Berlin, a five hour train trip from Kiel. In Late July 1914, Johannes and his younger sister Grilli and their mother made the trip from Kiel to Berlin to stay for a couple of weeks with Großmama Mimi. Perhaps the occasion for the trip was Johannes’s birthday: he turned ten on August 7. While the children were visiting friends in Potsdam, outside Berlin, World War I broke out with Germany’s declaration of war against Russia on August 1, followed promptly by the German invasion of Russia’s ally, France.In the postcards postmarked August 10, Johannes wrote home to his father in Kiel, thanking him for a birthday card and telling him the excitement he had seen in the city. He probably started with a single card, but his enthusiasm carried the message to a second card. Here is what he wrote:
Your card just arrived and I like it a lot. Hopefully we will see each other again soon. Yesterday there was an outdoor church service and a departure parade for the first infantry regiment. We left here already at 10 and arrived at the Lustgarten [park in front of the Imperial palace] – that’s where the parade was – just as a group of the soldiers were marching in. We then looked around and found a very nice place to watch the Kaiser arrive. We had waited barely 5 minutes when we heard “Hurrah!” in the distance and suddenly the Kaiser’s car came around the corner and drove by directly in front of us. It continued for a while that way and eventually we saw the Kaiser driving back.
It is wonderful here in Potsdam. Grilli went to school with [her friend] Tutti today and tidied up and then sewed a gusset and a “Nog” [?] on a shirt for a soldier’s uniform. I spent the whole morning today cutting up wood with a saw.
Your Jonny (now 10)
Thus Johannes was present to see some of the first troops to depart from Germany for the War, under the personal direction of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Four years later, as the War came to an end, Johannes would also witness the mutiny of German Navy at the Kiel naval base. He was walking home from school when he encountered sailors firing on their officers in the streets outside the warship facility. This was one of the events leading to Germany’s signing an armistice ending the War, and another in a string of historic events to which Johannes would be an eyewitness.
For more on the Hoeber family, click here.