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.
My sister Susanne met her husband, Lloyd Rudolph, at Harvard and they embarked on a unique joint career as political scientists. They wrote and taught together, specializing in political development in the then newly-independent India. They were 32 and 35, respectively when they took their second research trip to India in 1962-63. On this occasion they settled in the capital, and shortly after their arrival asked with intrepid directness for an appointment to interview Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. They were pleased and somewhat amazed when their request was granted. The invitation, in an oversize parchment envelope and typed on impressive stationery, was hand delivered by a uniformed messenger in an elegant car to the Rudolphs’ house at 44 Lucknow Road. The interview was scheduled for Tuesday, February 13, 1963.
Recognizing that this was a rare opportunity, Sue and Lloyd devised a singular scheme for making the most of their time with Nehru: they decided they would take no notes, so that neither he nor they would be distracted by their writing. Sue and Lloyd prepared for days. They read articles and newspapers and began drafting a set of questions for the Prime Minister. These they revised again and again to make them simple and direct, with the intention of being both respectful and provocative. When they were finally satisfied with the questions they had formulated — they memorized them. Their determination was to be with Nehru with no paper or writing instrument visible.
On the appointed day, Sue and Lloyd drove their little green Fiat to the imposing Prime Minister’s Secretariat in New Delhi. There they were ushered into Nehru’s private office, where they were able to question him intently for more than an hour. He was cordial and frank, though guarded on certain issues as Sue and Lloyd had anticipated. In an amusing aside, Sue took out a cigarette at one point (everyone smoked then) and Lloyd and the Prime Minister both lit a match for her at the same time. Sue looked at Lloyd but turned and accepted a light from the handsome Nehru.
Already while driving home, Sue and Lloyd talked rapidly as Sue furiously scribbled down notes of what the Prime Minister had told them As soon as they returned to the house on Lucknow Road, they hastened into their study and closed the door. With the prepared list of questions before them as an aid, they spoke into the microphone of their little tape recorder and dictated Nehru’s responses. Each reminded the other of what they had heard, using their collective memory to recall with precision what Prime Minister Nehru had said during the interview. Sometimes during the dictation, one of them would start a sentence and the other would finish it, a rhetorical characteristic that would become one of their habits in subsequent years. They turned the tape over to their secretary to transcribe and later edited the typed transcript before having it typed into a final version with an original and five carbon copies.
The transcribed interview came to a dozen legal-size pages. The candid responses they had been able to elicit from Nehru were a testament to their methodological inventiveness and unique teamwork. Sue and Lloyd used the information they gleaned in numerous articles and books over the ensuing years, and made the transcript available to other scholars. It was cited as recently as last year in a history of the Indian Army since Independence.
I know the details of this story because I was the secretary who typed the notes of the interview along with many others they conducted with government and political officials that year. In 1962-1963 I took a year off between my second and third years as an undergraduate at Columbia University to work for them in India. It was quite an adventure.
Sue and Lloyd were unique scholarly collaborators. Through decades of writing and teaching they made an indelible imprint on the field of political science and enriched the lives of countless students and scholars around the world. Their emotional, personal, intellectual and professional bonds made them inseparable life partners for 63 thrillingly adventurous years. Susanne died in her sleep on December 23, 2015. Lloyd slipped away equally peacefully on January 16, 2016, just 24 days after Susanne.
For more on the Hoeber Family go to http://againsttimebook.com/.
When my mother and father were forced to leave Germany in 1939, they had to abandon everything they owned. Five years earlier, however, when my father’s parents were expelled by the Nazis, it was still possible for them to bring personal effects with them. My grandfather, Rudolf Höber and my grandmother, Jospehine Marx Höber, both came from families that were pretty well off. Some of the things they brought with them are still in use in our house today, and we enjoy them particularly around Christmas time.
At Christmas dinner we often use white napkins saved for special occasions. Linen napkins in bourgeois households in 19th century Germany were huge, nearly a meter square. When my great-grandmother, Elise Koehlau, married Anselm Höber in 1865, she brought a supply of such napkins into the marriage. As was traditional then, she embroidered the monogram of her maiden name in the corner of the napkins with red thread and each napkin was numbered.
My grandmother’s father, Jakob Marx, made money as a financier in the Franco-Prussian War. He and his wife Marie had a home at Pariserplatz 1, next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. These plates were theirs.
When my grandparents, Rudolf and Josephine, married in 1901 they got a set of silverware with an “RJH” monogram.
When my parents and grandparents came to this country over 75 years ago, they rapidly became integrated into the life of their new country, to which they were devoted. Like so many American families, however, we hang on to some of the ways our family did things generations ago, particularly at holidays. After all these years, we still roast a goose at Christmas and bring out some of the beautiful things that remind us of our history.
Americans are schizophrenic about immigration. We have two contradictory traditions with respect to people from other countries who come here to live. On the one hand, we have the Emma Lazarus, tradition: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore … ” and so on. This welcoming tradition dates as far back as William Penn, whose 1701 Charter of Privileges welcomed people of all nationalities and religions to come and live in his Quaker colony in America. On the other hand, America has an equally strong xenophobic tradition, from the Alien Enemies and Naturalization Acts of 1798, through the nativist Know Nothing Party of the 1840s and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the restrictive Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and the proposal today of a leading candidate for president of the United States to physically deport 11 million migrants by force. For more than two centuries, persons wanting to come here from abroad to live have encountered these contradictory impulses in American culture—welcoming and exclusionary—when trying to secure permission to immigrate.
In the process of escaping Hitler and finding refuge here, my parents encountered both of these contrary American traditions. My book, Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, illustrates the realities for a family negotiating what was ultimately an arbitrary U.S. immigration process as well as the day-to-day personal impact of migration under pressure. My parents got out of Germany and into the U.S. as the result of their education, hard work and good luck. But if it had not been for generous Americans who enthusiastically supported refugees who wanted to become part of the American fabric, their story could easily have turned out differently.
On November 22, 2015, I spoke with radio producer Loraine Ballard Morrill in Philadelphia about Johannes and Elfriede’s experiences in getting into the United States as they sought to escape Germany in 1938 and 1939. The conversation led to a discussion about the parallels between anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 1930s that led to the restrictions on refugees in that period and the politics of exclusion of Syrian refugees in 2015. You can hear the interview by clicking here.
My readership spiked hugely one day recently. The platform I use for this blog gives me daily statistics on the number of readers, identifying the country in which the readers are located and the posts they hit. A two year old post, originally captioned “New Houses for Eskimos — 1966”, suddenly got more hits in one day than the whole website usually gets in a week. Then two comments popped up on that post. The first read:
“First off, we are not Eskimo. Second, your mother put our moose meat down. Third, it is not the tundra. AND YES! We have trees. So before you publish something like this, you should do your research.”
The second comment read,
“First of all, we are [not] Athabaskan Eskimos, we are Athabaskan Indians. Your article is incorrect on so many topics and disrespectful on so many levels. Before you blog about any community or tribe you should travel to that community and do your research yourself. You have no right to stand in judgement of another race or community and publicly put that race or community down to such levels of disgrace. This type of public discrimination should be banned.”
I was mortified. The post was based on a report to the federal Housing Demonstration Program that my mother wrote when she visited two housing sites in Alaska in 1966. She loved that trip and the people she met, and retold the story many times over the next 25 years. It’s true that she used the word “Eskimo,” which was the government’s designation of the people at that time; the government subsequently learned better. The Athabaskans who wrote me had reason to be angry; no one wants to be called by the wrong name. It’s also true that my mother used the word “tundra,” though when I checked I found she used that description for only one of the two towns she visited. The other was clearly in a forested area. The mistake was mine. As to derogatory comments about moose meatloaf, well, the readers got me there. Though the remark was rude, I think it’s not unusual and not the worst offense if someone doesn’t care for food they’ve never eaten before. That has been a common experience among travelers since people began to travel. The truth is, though, that I would like to try moose meatloaf.
I wrote back to the two commenters to apologize as best I could for the errors in the post. The answer I got back from Stacy made me feel a little better — and made me want more than ever to visit that town in Alaska that meant so much to my mother half a century ago. She wrote:
I’ve decided that I would respond after a long day of thinking about this entire blog. I’d like to thank you for responding to my comment. I think it is very nice of you to try and make this blog more accurate than previously written. It would take a very long time to actually explain all the details of what my father’s homeland really, truly is. However, I will say this – unless, you’ve been here in Alaska yourself and went into someone’s home and actually stayed more than a week, it’s hard to sum up our traditions, food and overall life. We are very easy-going people, who work hard on a daily basis to keep the kids and elders fed. Once that happens, if we have time for ourselves after a long day, we may start on some arts and crafts or the men may play a game of poker. Anyway, like I said – until you’ve experienced Alaska yourself, it’s hard for me to sum up what it’s actually like to visit at someone’s house over tea, eat smoked salmon strips, crackers and walking away with the endless smiles and happiness you feel in your heart after a really good visit filled with laughter and fun!
If you like the stories on this website, you may be interested in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, by Francis W. Hoeber.
Details and ordering information are available by clicking this link.
World War II began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. My mother, Elfriede, and my 9 year old sister, Susanne, were living in Dusseldorf and getting stuck in Nazi Germany became an all-too-real possibility for them. It was imperative that they get away and join my father, who had fled to Philadelphia the previous year. The war had started just a few weeks after the American consul had granted Elfriede and Susanne immigration visas after months of struggling. Then, getting the household packed up, wrapping up their business, and saying farewell to family and friends took weeks — and suddenly it was almost too late.
The start of the war only increased the flood of emigrants racing to escape Europe. The stamps in Elfriede’s passport show that on September 14 she paid the German government 8 Reichsmarks for an exit permit. On September 19 she obtained a bank certification for the 20 Reichsmarks (about $10), the total that she was allowed to take out of Germany. Thankfully, on September 22 at 8:50 P.M. she and Susanne crossed the border at Aachen out of Germany and into Belgium. They arrived in Antwerp the same day, where they were supposed to board a ship for America. But it wasn’t that simple.
The first days of the war saw numerous naval battles between Germany and Great Britain, including the sinking a British warship with a loss of 700 lives. The fighting at sea completely disrupted civilian shipping in the English Channel and the North Atlantic. As a result, Elfriede and Susanne’s ship was delayed again and again. Day after day they trekked to the shipping office of the Holland America Line, which was besieged by hundreds of refugees desperate to escape Europe. Seventy-five years later, Susanne still remembers the grimy hotel, the chaos at the shipping office, the fear and the grinding boredom of the wait. Finally, however, after weeks of waiting, Elfriede was able to confirm their passage on the S.S. Westernland that ultimately left on October 28. She sent off a letter to her husband, Johannes, in Philadelphia, with the news. After explaining the complicated arrangements with finances and ships, she added,
How have these things been with you all these weeks? At this point I’ve heard almost nothing about you for two months, but now it seems like we’ll actually get out of here and get to you. I hope we don’t run into any disaster other than seasickness on the way, because as [my brother] Paul aptly noted, you can take Vasano for seasickness but for torpedoes you can only take a lifeboat. To tell the truth, I’m not really very worried about the torpedoes. When cautious people at home asked me whether I was really going to risk the transatlantic trip at this time, I just answered that it was pretty much the same to me whether a bomb fell on my head in Düsseldorf or a torpedo hit some other part of my body on the ocean. On the other hand, a bomb shelter is warmer than the North Atlantic in October. …
If heaven and assorted Führers don’t spit in our soup again, we’ll be with you in a couple of weeks.
Alles liebe Deine Friedel
The story of what happened next, and more about Elfriede and Johannes’ flight from Germany to the United States, is contained the book from which this story is taken: Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, available by clicking here.