They Saved My Family

A couple of years ago, I wrote about The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, which paid my grandfather’s salary at the university of Pennsylvania in 1934, making it possible for him to escape Nazi Germany. That Committee was a project of the Institute for international Education Scholar Rescue Fund. This year, the IIE-SRF celebrates its centenary, marking a hundred years of aiding international scholars threatened by conditions in their home countries. As part of the observance, the IIE is publishing stories of some of the scholars they helped over the years. They asked me to write an article about my grandfather. Here is the result.

From the IIE scholar rescue archives: Renowned physiologist Rudolf Höber

For the past 100 years, IIE has led special efforts to rescue academics who face threats to their lives and scholarly work. One of IIE’s most notable efforts was the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, which from 1933-1945 offered temporary academic homes in colleges and universities in the United States to more than 300 European scholars facing Nazi persecution. One such scholar was Dr. Rudolf Höber, a celebrated physiologist and human rights defender. In the below article, guest author Francis W. Hoeber tells us more about his grandfather’s remarkable life and work.


“My grandfather, Rudolf Höber (1873-1953), was a celebrity in the world of physiology. His pioneering work in biochemistry and biophysics won him worldwide recognition and two nominations for the Nobel prize. From 1911 to 1933, Höber was a professor at the University of Kiel in Germany and head of the prestigious Physiological Institute there.

Höber was more than a brilliant scientist; he was a humanist and social progressive as well. An early feminist, he focused on bringing women into the field of medicine, including his wife, Dr. Josephine M. Höber; 22 of the 24 doctoral dissertations he supervised at the University of Zürich early in his career were prepared by women scholars. When women got the right to vote in 1920, his wife quickly became a leading political activist, especially in public health and women’s rights. In the 1920s, Höber joined with other leading scientists and writers calling for the decriminalization of consensual same-sex relations. From 1930-1931, Höber served a term as Chancellor of the University of Kiel. Twice he had to discipline right wing students who disrupted speakers who were liberal or Jewish. In 1931 he expelled several Nazi students and banned the Nazi student group from the campus.

When Adolf Hitler took power in January 1933, Höber’s anti-Nazi record, plus the fact that one of his grandfathers was Jewish, made him an immediate target. That April, men in uniforms of Hitler’s Stormtroopers and the SS charged into Höber’s classroom. The Nazis threatened to kill him and throw grenades into his classrooms unless he quit his teaching. Höber laid low for a couple of days, but then returned to teaching his students despite the risk.


In the summer of 1933, however, the Nazi Education Ministry fired him from his professor position and expelled him from the university. Desperate to continue his scientific research, Höber applied to IIE’s Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars for help. In a fairly short time, the Committee’s director, Edward R. Murrow, wrote Höber and arranged a teaching position and small lab at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. At UPenn, he continued his research on the molecular structure of cell membranes, with his wife as his laboratory collaborator. They co-authored numerous scientific articles and a new edition of Höber’s celebrated monograph, The Physical Chemistry of Cells and Tissues. This was in addition to lecturing and mentoring graduate students in advanced medical research. Höber’s adult children and their families were eventually able to follow him and his wife to the U.S. His descendants contributed much to their new country as academics, scientists, public servants, and artists.

The work of IIE’s Emergency Committee meant, literally, the survival of our family. In the midst of our current dark times, IIE helps us remember that the world has recovered from dreadful situations before.”

More stories about the Höber  family are in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available hereAlso available at Amazon.com.

German edition, Deutsche auf der Flucht, ein Briefwechsel zwischen Deutschland und Amerika von 1938 bis 1938, available here.

This entire blog is available in book form. Send a note to the author through the comments section below.


1933: The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars

When the Nazis took over Germany in 1933, one of their first acts was to fire thousands of the nation’s most brilliant scientists and academics from their university positions, either because they were Jewish or because they were deemed “politically unreliable.”   Those expelled included Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Edward Teller and countless others.   My grandfather, Rudolf Höber, a professor of physiology at the University of Kiel, was also one of them.  I previously wrote about his last months at Kiel  here.  All of these fired individuals faced the difficult problem of finding a new place to teach and continue their research.

Rudolf Höber, Professor of Physiology, University of Kiel, around the time of his expulsion in 1934.

Rudolf Höber, Professor of Physiology, University of Kiel, around the time of his expulsion in 1934.

Some American educators quickly recognized that Germany’s loss might well be America’s gain.  The Institute of International Education, a foundation established in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I, quickly decided to establish a program to place exiled German academics in American universities.  To head the new Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, the IIE hired a recent graduate of Columbia University, a young man named Edward R. Murrow.  A few years later, Murrow would become America’s most famous broadcast journalist, but in 1933 he led the effort to provide new careers for scientists and other scholars victimized by Hitler.  His job was particularly difficult because the United States was in the depths of the Depression and money was tight everywhere. The Emergency Committee’s method was to match up a scientist with an appropriate university and have the university provide the scientist with a position.  Then, using funds provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Emergency Committee would reimburse the university for all or part of the new faculty member’s salary.  Once the word got around the scientific community that Rudolf Höber was interested in coming to the United States, a bit of competition arose to get him because of his prominence in cutting edge cellular biochemistry and biophysics.  The Emergency Committee received offers from the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Tennessee and the University of Pennsylvania to create a visiting professorship for Rudolf.  Ultimately the University of Pennsylvania won out in obtaining Rudolf for its medical faculty.  The following is the offer extended to Rudolf by the University’s Vice president in charge of the School of Medicine:

University of Pennsylvania's   appointment of Rudolf Höber as Visiting Professor, december 12, 1933. click for larger image.

University of Pennsylvania’s appointment of Rudolf Höber as Visiting Professor, December 12, 1933.

Upon his arrival in the United States, Rudolf wrote to Murrow and expressed his appreciation for the work of the Emergency Committee in finding a place for him to continue his work in America.  Murrow responded cordially.

Edward R. Murrow around the time he ran the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, 1933-35.

Edward R. Murrow around the time he ran the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, 1933-35.

Edward R. Murrow's letter acknowledging Rudolf Höber's placement at the University of Pennsylvania, May 12, 1934. 9click for larger image)

Edward R. Murrow’s letter acknowledging Rudolf Höber’s placement at the University of Pennsylvania, May 12, 1934.

Within a few months of receiving the offer from the University of Pennsylvania, Rudolf and his wife, Josephine, were on their way to America.  They had escaped the Nazis and would live and work in Philadelphia for the rest of their lives.

Rudolf and Josephine Höber  on the boat to the United States.  Both were workaholics, so their relaxation in this picutre is uncharacteristic for both of them.

Rudolf and Josephine Höber on the boat to the United States, May 1934. Both were workaholics, so their relaxed pose in this picture is totally uncharacteristic .