The Dark Humor of a Nuremberg Prosecutor — 1945

Robert Kempner was my parents’ friend and, like them, a Social Democrat and activist against the Nazi Party before 1933.  Like them, he fled Germany for America before World War II.  At the end of the War the U.S. government recruited Kempner, a lawyer, to be one of the lead prosecutors  at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg. The fact that he was bilingual made Kempner particularly effective in cross examining the Nazi leadership.  He also was a witness against Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1960.

Robert M. W. Kempner when he was a prosecutor at the International War Crimes Tribunal, Nuremberg, 1946.

Robert M. W. Kempner when he was a prosecutor at the International War Crimes Tribunal, Nuremberg, 1946.

While my parents were able to escape Germany before the War, my mother’s mother and three brothers were trapped there for the duration.  After the war, communications between Americans and German nationals continued to be restricted for many months.  Desperate for news about her family, and unable to communicate through civilian channels, my mother wrote to Robert Kempner in Nuremberg asking him to find out if they were alright.  As a prosecutor, he had access to the American military mail system, and wrote my parents an extraordinary postcard in response. The original is preserved in my family’s papers.

Postcard from Nuremberg Prosecutor Robert M. W. Kempner to Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, December 26, 1945.

Postcard from Nuremberg Prosecutor Robert M. W. Kempner to Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, December 26, 1945.

The first surprising thing is that Kempner used a Nazi-era card with an Adolf Hitler postage stamp.  There is great irony in the inscription on the lower left: The Führer knows only war, work and care. We want to take whatever part [of that burden] off him that we can.  By the time this postcard was written, the Führer’s cares were long over, since he had killed himself more than six months earlier when the Nazis were crushed by the Allies.

The trial of Major War Criminals had begun on November 20, 1945 and would continue until the end of the next year. There was evidently a Christmas recess in the proceedings, since Kempner writes that he was on a vacation trip (!)  to places like Heidelberg and Mannheim where he and my parents had been associated in anti-Nazi activities years earlier.  Note, by the way, that Kempner wrote in English, even though his and my parents’ first language was German.  American military censors would probably not have allowed letters through if they were written in a language other than English.

Reverse of Postcard from Bob Kempner to Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, December 26, 1945.

Reverse of Postcard from Robert Kempner to Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, December 26, 1945.

Kempner did not respond directly to my mother’s questions about her family (he probably wasn’t able to contact them) but he responded to reports of widespread starvation and freezing conditions in the war-devastated country.  This was probably my mother’s biggest concern and Kempner wrote, “The Germ.[an] situation is not to [sic] bad, they need more fat and meat but they have enough bread and also enough coal for [heating] 1-2 rooms.”  Overall, though, Kempner shows little sympathy for the suffering of the Germans, far too many of whom denied any involvement in the nation’s atrocities.  Here is the full text of the postcard:

Dec 26
Dear Elfriede and Jonny:
It was very nice of Elfriede to write me.  Thanks for the letter.  At present I am travelling (5-6 days) for vacation, visiting Heidelberg, Mannheim, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt.
The Germ. situation is not to[o] bad, they need more fat and meat but have enough bread and also coal for 1-2 rooms.  Of course, they don’t like the de-nazification program.  You know they all ‘had’ to join the Party, were helpful to Jews, if not having a Jewish grandmother, or at least participants of July 20, 1944, which was, if all the allegations of participation were true, a mass movement of the first rank.  The Communist vote will be pretty low because of the happenings in the Russian area where fraternization without giving cigarettes is called rape.  There are a lot of openings for Elfr. & Jonny but I think we better stay around Philadelphia Pa.  Hope you will write me again.
Yours,
Robert MWK

“July 20, 1944” refers a failed attempt by eight military officers to assassinate Hitler.  After the war, totally unrealistic numbers of German claimed to have supported it.

The comment about the Russians is unclear, but it was well known that the occupying Soviet Army committed massive rapes of German women, including elderly women and young girls.

Kempner’s comments about “lots of openings” refers to the fact that, as exiled Germans committed to democracy, my parents would have opportunities in a new government to be installed by the Allies — but Kempner didn’t recommend it.  In any event, my parents never considered returning to the country from which they had been driven out.

It was an idiosyncrasy of Kempner’s that he addressed my father as “John” or “Jonny.” My father was adamant about not Anglicizing his name, which was Johannes. During his lifetime Robert Kempner was the only one with the temerity to address him as John.

Years later, Robert Kempner successfully sued the German government for restitution on behalf of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of victims of the Nazis, primarily in Israel and America.  My parents were among the clients for whom he secured some compensation from the German authorities for the losses they had suffered.

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 hereAlso available at Amazon.com

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Review of “Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939” from CHOICE, A Publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries

 

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I am delighted that the following review appeared on May 1, 2016, in CHOICE, a publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries.  

REVIEW 

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.

You can order the book directly from the publisher by clicking here.

Also available at Amazon.com


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


Through Books, Immigrants Become Americans. 1939 …

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:

Firmin Roz, Geschichte der Vereinigten Staaten, Leipzig, 1930.

Firmin Roz, Geschichte der Vereinigten Staaten, Leipzig, 1930.

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:

Karl Baedecker, United States, Leipzig, 1909

Karl Baedecker, United States, Leipzig, 1909

 

Baedecker's United States, one of 50 maps in the book.

Baedecker’s United States.  This fold-out map of Washington D.C. is one of 50 maps in the book. Click for larger image.

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:

Mark Twain, Huck Finns Fahrten und Abenteuer, Berlin, 1938

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finns Fahrten und Abenteuer, Berlin, 1938

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.

Benjamin Spock, M.D., Baby and Child Care, New York, 1946

Benjamin Spock, M.D., Baby and Child Care, New York, 1946

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:

Oliver Wiswell (19 ), Rabble in Arms (19 ), Lydia Bailey (19 ) by Kenneth Roberts. My parents learned a lot of American history from these novels.

Oliver Wiswell (1940 ), Rabble in Arms (1933 ), Lydia Bailey (1947 ) by Kenneth Roberts. My parents learned a lot of American history from these novels.

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:

The Blankenburgs of Philadelphia (1928), by Lucretia Blankenburg. Mayor Blankenburg was called "Old Dutch Cleanser" because of his work cleaning up ocrruption in Philadelphia.

The Blankenburgs of Philadelphia (1928), by Lucretia Blankenburg. Mayor Blankenburg was called “Old Dutch Cleanser” because of his work cleaning up ocrruption in Philadelphia.

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:

History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 by J. Thomas Scharff and Thompson Westcott, 1884. My mother bought this set at Leary's used books on 9th Street for $25 around 1955.

History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 by J. Thomas Scharff and Thompson Westcott, 1884. My mother also bought this set at Leary’s Used Books on 9th Street for $25 around 1955.

History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 by J. Thomas Scharff and Thompson Westcott, 1884. Click on image to view more clearly.

History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 by J. Thomas Scharff and Thompson Westcott, 1884. Click on image to view more clearly.

More on the Hoeber family is in the book Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939. Click here for details and ordering information. 

 


A Conversation — Finding Refuge in America: Germans 1939, Syrians 2015

Johannes Hoeber and Elfriede Hoeber shortly before their departure from Germany for America, 1938

Johannes Höber and Elfriede Höber shortly before their departure from Germany for America, 1938

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.

Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, by Francis W. Hoeber. Published by the American Philosophical Society Press, September 2015.

Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, by Francis W. Hoeber. Published by the American Philosophical Society Press, September 2015.

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.

American Immigration Visas that saved Elfriede and Susanne Höber's lives, 11 July 1939.

American Immigration Visas that saved Elfriede and Susanne Höber’s lives, 11 July 1939.

 

 

 

 


Stymied in Antwerp – October 1939

Elfriede Höber and Susanne Höber on the balcony of their apartment at Pempelforterstrasse 42, Düsseldorf , December 1938.

Elfriede Höber and Susanne Höber on the balcony of their apartment at Pempelforterstrasse 42, Düsseldorf, December 1938.

 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.

German Passport issued to Elfriede Fischer Höber and Susanne Höber, Düsseldorf, June 22, 1939.

German Passport issued to Elfriede Fischer Höber and Susanne Höber, Düsseldorf, June 22, 1939.

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.

Nazi regime stamps in Elfriede and Susanne's passport show their exit permit, fiscal authorization and crossing of the border into Belgium, September 1939.

Stamps in Elfriede and Susanne’s passport show their exit permit, fiscal authorization and crossing of the border into Belgium, September 1939.

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

 

Letter from Elfriede Höber in Antwerp to Johannes Höber in Philadelphia, October 16, 1939.

Letter from Elfriede Höber in Antwerp to Johannes Höber in Philadelphia, October 16, 1939.

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, 1938-1939available by clicking here.


AGAINST TIME: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939

Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, by Francis W. Hoeber. Published by the American Philosophical Society Press, September 2015.

To all of you who are readers of this website, and who mean so much to me:

I am pleased to let you know that my book, Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, about my parents’ flight from Germany to America just before World War II, will be published by the American Philosophical Society Press on September 1, 2015.

You are invited to join me for a reading and reception at the historic building of the American Philosophical Society adjacent to Independence Hall at 104 South 5th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, September 9, 2015 at 5:30 P.M.

In a nutshell, here’s the story of Against Time: My father, Johannes Höber, left Nazi Germany for America in November 1938. My mother, Elfriede, and my nine year old sister, Susanne, were unable to leave until nearly a year later. Fifty years later, I found an old folder containing the long letters Johannes and Elfriede exchanged during the anxious months they were separated. In these letters, Elfriede describes the worsening situation in daily life under Hitler’s regime and Johannes describes his rapid entry into American political life in Philadelphia. Against Time collects those letters with an introduction, notes and an epilogue that set the letters in the context of their time. Johannes and Elfriede were both political scientists and activist Social Democrats, so their letters are of more than just personal interest. Together, the letters tell the intense story of a remarkable couple in one of the most tumultuous periods in world history. You can learn more about the book and read excerpts and view the illustrations at www.againsttimebook.com .

Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939 is available for ordering at a pre-publication discount from the American Philosophical Society Press by clicking here . Copies are set to be shipped on September 1.

Thanks so much for your interest.