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
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.
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.
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.
Special sets of knives and forks for eating fish became popular in Europe in the late 19th century. The steel blades used at that time in ordinary silverware would react with fish in a way that imparted an unpleasant metallic taste. Fish sets had silver-plated brass blades and tines that did not interfere with the delicate taste of fish. The set pictured here was given to my grandparents, Rudolf and Josephine Marx Höber, as a wedding present at the time of their marriage on August 10, 1901.
Rudolf and Jospehine were fortunate in being able to bring the fish set with them when they were driven out of Nazi Germany and fled to America in 1934.
After Rudolf and Josephine died, the fish set was passed on to my parents, Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber.
After my parents’ deaths, the fish set came to me and my wife, Ditta.
On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2014, our younger son Julian married Heather Rasmussen, at the Maritime Hotel in New York City. We decided that this was the time to pass the fish set on to a fourth generation. We made a new silvercloth wrapper for the forks and knives and a new box.
The silver set, newly polished after a century of use, is now with Julian and Heather in Los Angeles.
Although our parents were nonreligious — Konfessionslos in German — Düsseldorf was a Catholic city and our family measured life around the celebration of the holidays of the Christian calendar — Lent, Easter, Pentecost, St. Martin’s, Advent, Christmas. The Karnival season in late winter — the German equivalent of Mardi Gras — was celebrated raucously in Düsseldorf and the surrounding Rhine valley. Rosenmontag, the Monday before Ash Wednesday, was celebrated with a huge costumed parade in which children participated as well as adults. For Rosenmontag in February 1939, Susanne decided she wanted to dress as a Mexicanerin, a Mexican cowgirl. Her grandmother helped her assemble all the accessories for her costume — wide skirt, big belt, checked shirt, kercheif and a broad-brimmed hat. Elfriede tracked down the makeup Susanne wanted as well as a cap pistol (despite Elfriede’s pacifist aversion to such toys). The final charming effect was documented both in a photograph by Susanne’s Uncle Günter and in her own self-portrait drawing.
Had Johannes and Elfriede remained in Germany, Susanne would have been required to enter the Hitlerjugend, the Nazis’ corps for indoctrinating children in the fascist ideology of the Third Reich. Protecting her from such an intolerable experience was one of the many reasons our family fled Germany.
POSTSCRIPT: After I wrote the piece above, I sent it to Susanne to review. She liked it, and sent the following additional story. Note that this is a memory from 75 years ago:
The following is the unedited account by my father, Johannes U. Hoeber, of what he experienced on the night of November 9-10, 1938 in the large north German city of Düsseldorf .
Wednesday November 9, 1938. The Nazis had been celebrating that day, as every year, the anniversary of Hitler’s 1923 putsch. That night an old friend of ours had come to see us. We had been associated in the early days of the Third Reich in some underground activities, trying to build out of the remainders of the Catholic, liberal, Socialist and Communist opposition a group of resistance against the rising tide of Fascist tyranny. He had been caught in 1934 circulating illegal leaflets and sentenced to 18 months hard labor. He had served his term and now lived in a small village far remote from his former center of activities. He rarely could risk to come to see us, because no Gestapo agent would have believed either him or us that we would talk anything but politics. Only a few weeks before he and we had again been subject to a Gestapo investigation and therefore had to be more on our guard than ever before.
The conversation had centered around the recent political events, Chamberlain’s Munich surrender and its repercussions on Germany’s internal policy. Munich undoubtedly had bolstered the regime’s declining morale and everybody viewed with alarm the reviving arrogance of the Nazis after a period of relative moderation. Incidentally our friend told us that he had heard on his way to our house that Herr vom Rath, secretary of the Paris German embassy, who had been shot by a young Polish Jew, driven to despair by the treatment of his parents by the Nazis, had died that afternoon. We did not discuss the implications of this news item. Not because we did not fear them. But in the past six years of our life under the Nazi government we had developed a habit that might be called a technique of mental self defense: not to speculate on the possibilities of disaster implied in any news, before we were confronted with this disaster and could cope with the concrete emergency by concrete maneuvers. No one of our company that night was Jewish but we all had some very close Jewish friends. I myself have some Jewish ancestors, not enough to make me subject to the humiliating clauses of the infamous Nüremberg laws, yet enough to brand me as a second class citizen in the Germany of today, the Germany of the Bohemian born Hitler, the Egyptian born Hess and the Baltic born Rosenberg.
The possible consequences of vom Rath’s death were uppermost in my mind, when I drove to the station at about 11 p.m. to mail some letters. [Illegible] in the streets I noticed an unusually large number of brownshirts. First I thought they were on their way home from some of the day’s celebrations. Then I noticed that they did not go in the direction of the residential quarters but hurried towards the center of the city. So, on my way home, I drove through some of the main thoroughfares of the downtown business section and found on two different places brownshirts gathering quietly in front of Jewish business establishments. I went home and without telling my wife what I had seen offered our friend who had to leave at midnight to drive him to the station and asked my brother in law to accompany us. After having dropped our friend at the station we hastily drove downtown. We had not to drive very far to find what we had anticipated. In front of a large shoe-store, owned by a Jewish woman whose husband had been killed in action in the world war and who therefore, despite of six years of Nazi boycott, had still one of the largest businesses in the field, a detachment of brown shirts had assembled. We just came in time to see two of them starting – on a given signal – to break the shop windows. This done they forced the entrance and the whole group rushed into the store. It was one of those modern outfits with plenty of glass, attractive wood paneling on the walls, every shelf full of shoe-boxes. Twenty minutes later it was so completely devastated that no bombshell could have done a more thorough job. No piece of glass, no piece of wood was unbroken. The carpets were cut up, the lamps torn from ceiling and walls, shelves, tables, chairs smashed to pieces. The problem to destroy thousands of shoes in a hurry otherwise than by fire had been solved in an ingenious way: they had been strewn all over the place and then oil paint had been poured over and into them. When they had finished their job the wrecking crew on the blow of a whistle assembled in front of the store, in a line two deep, stood at attention in perfect military discipline, drilled into them by endless training, and marched off.
We got into our car and drove on. A few blocks away we encountered another group of stormtroopers looting a fashionable lady’s outfit store. This was on our city’s “Fifth Avenue” and the wrecking crew corresponded to the distinction of the district. Our city is the seat of a higher district leader of the Nazi party. Every such district leader has a staff of his own and a body guard of his own whose members are easily recognized by red squares on the lapels of their brown uniform coats. The squad that wrecked this store was composed almost entirely out of members of the district leader’s staff and body guard under the personal command of a well known Nazi-Lawyer and S.A. officer. A few yards away a police car with two higher police officers was parked at the curb. The two officers watched with apparent interest the work of destruction carried out under the leadership of the chief aide of their superior.
The next time we stopped in front of a tailor’s workshop. Here a particular problem presented itself to the wrecking crew: how to destroy the stock of bolts of cloth. It was solved no less efficiently than the shoe problem had been solved: one man unrolled the bale and another poured ink over it from one end to the other. Then they left it lying in the street.
After an hour of driving around town we were convinced that not one single Jewish business in [Düsseldorf ] would survive that night and that more than a hundred thousand people would have to pay for one man’s act of despair with the destruction of their lives’ work and their basis of existence.
What happened during the next hour, however, outgrew the wildest anticipations any one of us, trained by six years’ lessons of terror and used to incredible brutalities, had ever entertained. At 1.30 A.M. we stopped in front of an apartment house, because we noticed two SA sentries guarding the house-door. On the opposite pavement stood a small group of civilians looking at a brightly lighted apartment on the fourth floor. We joined them and asked one of them what were going on. “They are revenging von Rath” he said. “Which firm has its offices up there?” I asked. “That is no office, that is a private apartment occupied by a Jewish tenant.” Before we could continue our conversation one of the S.A. sentries came across the street and ordered us to move on. A few seconds later the windows of the apartment came down in splinters and one after the other the lights went out in the apartment, the last one being a large crystal lamp that we saw wildly swinging up and down before we heard it crashing to the ground.
Then panic gripped us. …
The account ends here. Johannes and my mother, Elfriede, spent the rest of the night and the next day helping rescue friends and neighbors whose homes had been attacked. Then, three days later, Johannes fled to Switzerland and from there to America.
November 9th this year  marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when the Nazis launched the most vicious attacks to that point against Germany’s Jews and their businesses, homes and synagogues. This account, written in English in a tiny, painstaking script on small sheets of tablet paper, was discovered among Johannes’ papers in May 1989, 22 years after he died and some 50 years after he wrote it.
NOTE ON THE TERM “KRISTALLNACHT”: In Germany, the events described here are known as Reichspogromnacht, or the night of the pogrom of the Third Reich. The term Kristallnacht suggested the breaking of crystal, implying that the Jewish victims that night were wealthy. The current usage in Germany avoids that derogatory stereotype. I have nevertheless used the term “Kristallnacht” in this English version because the events are still known by that term in the United States.
More stories about the Hoeber family 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