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.
You can order the book directly from the publisher by clicking 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.
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.
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.
My great grandmother’s sister, Anna Höber, married Isidor Rosenthal in 1869. He was a professor of physiology at the University of Erlangen and became the mentor to my grandfather, Rudolf Höber, who also became a professor of physiology in Kiel and Philadelphia. Anna Höber Rosenthal’s groundbreaking social reform work in maternal and child care and public health resulted in a street being named for her in Erlangen. In 1870, Isidor and Anna had a son, Werner Rosenthal, who grew up to become a professor of pathology at the University of Göttingen, as well as an activist for education reform. In 1915, Werner married Erika Deussen, daughter of the great Sanskritist and Indologist Paul Deussen. They eventually had three daughters, Ruth, Eva and Beate.
Despite the fact that Werner was a practicing Protestant all his life, the Nazis removed him from his university teaching duties in 1934 because his father was born Jewish. Erika, a government physician, also lost her job. With no means of earning a living in Germany, Werner and Erika emigrated to India with their eldest daughter (the other two followed later). Erika had connections in India because her father had studied Sanskrit and Indian religion there. Werner became a professor at the University of Mysore and Erika practiced medicine. When World War II began in 1939, the British colonial government incarcerated Werner as an “enemy alien” and he died in a prison camp in 1942.
In the 1950s, Erika and two of her daughters, Eva and Beate, moved to the United States. I met them when I was a boy. The third sister, Ruth, had moved from India to Israel in 1938 or 1939, shortly before the War. There she met and married Hubert Sommer, a Jewish refugee from Austria.
Although my parents kept in contact with Eva and Beate for many years, and although I exchanged letters with Beate until shortly before her death in 2004, I knew nothing of Ruth, other than that she lived in Israel. Then, in November 2014, I was conducting some Internet research and stumbled across a genealogical website with tons of information about her and her descendants. I discovered that Ruth had three children, nine grandchildren and a dozen great-grandchildren.
All at once I had 30 new Israeli cousins I had never heard of! I began an email exchange with several of the family and even got a phone call from one of these distant relatives. I was delighted to be able to provide them with references to biographies of Isidor Rosenthal and Paul Deussen and a book that detailed Werner Rosenthal’s work in support of adult education.
This spring, my cousin Yoel Sommer, Ruth’s son, along with his wife Gina and his son Ishay, traveled from Israel to Germany to visit the sites that had been home to their family generations ago. I was able to connect them with writers and academics who have studied and written about the family members who preceded them. My academic friends were able to tell Yoel and his family pieces of their family’s history they previously did not know. The Sommers were able to visit the well-preserved grave of Isidor Rosenthal in Erlangen, the grave and little museum dedicated to Paul Deussen in Oberdreis, and the house in Göttingen where Werner and Erika once lived. As it happened, their visit coincided with the centennial of the death of Isidor Rosenthal. Without being there myself, I was moved by the reuniting of this family with the places from which their ancestors originated — reunited over space and time, and through tragedy and history.
As I await the publication of Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, the story of my parents’ emigration to the United States, I am trying to give readers here an idea of what was involved in those tense times. There were difficulties from both sides: the Germans made it hard to get out and the United States made it hard to get in.
German policy for all practical purposes allowed taking only 10 % of cash, stocks or valuables out of Germany. Two departure taxes, the Gold Discount Bank Fee [Golddiskontobankabgabe] and the Nation Abandonment Tax [Reichfluchtsteuer] amounted, in effect, to the expropriation of up to 90% of the liquid assets of emigrants. Jewelry, silver, artworks and similar valuables were subject to the same taxes to prevent people from turning their money into objects they could export.
What was permitted was the export of household belongings and personal effects sufficient for a “modest life” [bescheidende Existenz] in the émigré’s new country. Anyone planning to move out of Germany had to file a detailed inventory of everything they owned before they could get a permit to leave. The normal method of shipping was by having a moving company pack the entire household into an enormous crate that would then be transferred by crane to a ship and transported by sea. When the crate reached the United States, the household goods would be transferred to a truck and delivered to the new residence.
My father came to the United States in December 1938 but my mother and my then nine-year-old sister were not able to leave Germany until late the following year. In August 1939, my mother prepared the household for shipping, and prepared the required inventory, a copy of which she later brought with her to America.
The inventory was insanely detailed, down to “one wash line and clothes pins,” a trash can, a honey jar, a cookie box, six dust cloths, and a box of cloth remnants for patching holes in worn clothing. My parents were both then age 35 and had been married for ten years. The inventory illuminates the lifestyle of a middle-class European family of the 1930s. Thus, the inventory includes furniture, beds and bed linens, china and silverware, kitchen utensils and other items of daily life, but also a dozen each of wine glasses, champagne glasses, beer glasses, punch glasses and liqueur glasses. My parents’ leisure activity is shown in the listing of two pairs of skis and two pairs of ski boots as well as two pairs of hobnailed climbing shoes, a rucksack and a pair of mountaineering pants — and a picnic basket and its contents. Most revealing to me was the inclusion on the list of 800 books — mostly on economics, art history and fine arts — as well as 100 children’s books, a pretty good personal library for a nine year old.
You can read the full 5-page inventory here: Inventory August 9 1939 — English translation . One of many ironies of my parents’ life is that none of these carefully cataloged belongings ever got out of Germany. My mother was still in Düsseldorf when Hitler started World War II by invading Poland on September 1, 1939. As a result, no ships were available to transport the crate of household belongings to the United States. With no other choice available, my mother had everything put in storage and fled. Everything, from furniture to books to dust cloths, was destroyed during the Allied bombing of Düsseldorf on June 12, 1943.
Today, November 5, 2014, marks the 75th anniversary of the day my mother, Elfriede Fischer Höber, and my sister Susanne Höber, arrived safely in the United States from Nazi Germany. They had made a narrow escape weeks after World War II had begun.
In the spring of 1939, Elfriede and Susanne, then age 9, had found themselves stranded in the north German city of Düsseldorf. My father, Johannes, had come to Philadelphia a few months earlier to prepare the way for them. In the intervening period, the Nazis continued to tighten the screws on the German population and threatened to plunge Europe into war. The pressure was getting extreme for the hundreds of thousands who wanted to leave the country. On June 22, Elfriede succeeded in getting a new passport for both her and Susanne.
The greater difficulty, however, was to get a visa allowing them to enter the United States. American law at that time permitted only 27,000 Germans to obtain immigration visas annually. In 1938 alone, over 300,000 Germans applied for visas, meaning that hundreds of thousands of people desperate to leave the country were denied admission to the United States. Liberal legislative efforts to expand the number of German refugees allowed into the United States were stymied by a coalition of Southern congressmen, anti-immigration groups, isolationists and antisemites (since a majority of those seeking admission were Jews). The denial of entry to the U.S. doomed thousands who might otherwise have survived the Nazis.
Elfriede and Susanne were among the lucky ones. After months of struggling with visa applications and mind-numbing paperwork both in Germany and the United States, they were summoned to the office of the U.S. Consul General in Stuttgart on July 12, 1939. The last step in the application process was a physical examination, which both of them fortunately passed. When the examination was done, a clerk used a rubber stamp to imprint two immigration visa approvals on a page of the passport, using quota numbers 608 and 609. Vice Consul Boies C. Hart, Jr.’s signature and the embossed consular seal on each imprint made them official. Elfriede and Susanne now had had the wherewithal to escape to safety and freedom, a chance denied to countless others.
Logistical issues made it impossible for Elfriede and Susanne to cross the German border into Belgium until September 19, by which time Germany had attacked Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Hitler. It took another six anxious weeks in Antwerp before they were finally able to board a ship for America. It is hard to imagine their joy and relief when they were reunited with Johannes on a pier in New York harbor on that day three-quarters of a century ago.
The full story of Elfriede and Susanne’s escape is told in the book Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939 published by the American Philosophical Society. Click here to learn more about the book.
My parents, Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, were fortunate in escaping Nazi Germany. The story of how they got out in 1938-1939 is the subject of the book Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939 to be published next year. Not all of their friends were as fortunate as they. When I was working on the book, I found a letter among my parents’ papers that told the astonishing story of a close friend of theirs. The letter was written to my father in 1960, during the time when Adolf Eichmann was on trial in Jerusalem.
Natalie Freyberger was a bright young woman who lived in Düsseldorf when my parents did. She worked part time for Johannes and Elfriede as a secretary in their small newspaper distribution business (the Nazis having expelled my father from his government post years earlier). Because she was completely reliable, Johannes and Elfriede could leave Frau Freyberger in charge of the business for a couple of weeks when they had to be away. Like many of Johannes and Elfriede’s friends, Frau Freyberger was Jewish. Early in 1939, her non-Jewish husband divorced her under the Nuremberg laws, which made marriages between Jews and non-Jews illegal. Frau Freyberger desperately wanted to leave Germany but was unable to do so because she couldn’t find a country that would let her in. Some time after my parents left Germany, Frau Freyberger was arrested and transported to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. The story of how she managed to survive is told in the letter she wrote my father many years later:
May 25, 1960
Dear Dr. Hoeber,
* * * * *
Eichmann’s arrest has aroused all sorts of memories. He was the most feared visitor to Theresienstadt. Every time there was an announcement of his visit it set off a panic; his presence meant the same thing as transports to Auschwitz. He then carried out the selections himself in Auschwitz. Only one of them took place in Theresienstadt: for the spouses of mixed marriages. He found me suitable for removal to Auschwitz too.
It was in October 1944 that the last transport ever went from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. All through October there were transports of 2500 people to Auschwitz every second day. In this desolate confusion someone dispatched me from the main office to the telephone center, which had just been completely “cleansed” by Eichmann. While I was using the nearest steps to the telephone center, Eichmann was coming down the main stairway to “cleanse” the main office. They forgot about me in the telephone center. Everyone who was in the main office was gassed in Auschwitz, so that I alone remained as the result of “forgetfulness.”
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:
My mother, Elfriede Höber, and my father, Johannes Höber, were counting on Johannes’ father Rudolf to support Elfriede and my sister, Susanne, then nine. Rudolf had fled Germany five years earlier, in 1933, and was a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. His stipend from Penn was small, however, and by 1939 he was already supporting six relatives who were unemployed refugees. Johannes had arrived in Philadelphia a couple of months earlier, so it was Elfriede who had to file the visa application with the U.S. Consul in Stuttgart. After weeks of delay, the Consul rejected her application because Rudolf’s income was insufficient to support her on top of the people he was already carrying.
Johannes was crushed when he received Elfriede’s letter with the bad news. In the few weeks he had been in America, however, he had made a friend at the office where he worked. This friend, Walter Phillips, sensed right away that something serious had happened. He asked Johannes what was wrong. When Johannes explained, Walter too was distressed that his new friend’s wife and daughter were trapped and might be unable to escape from Germany.
The next day, Walter did something totally unexpected. Although he was a young recent law school graduate with a limited income, both he and his wife Mary had inherited some money from their respective families. Without my father even asking, Walter and Mary volunteered to be guarantors for the support of my mother and sister, whom they had never met. Within days, Walter got an affidavit from his bank confirming his and Mary’s deposits and secured endorsements from leading lawyers in Philadelphia. He wrote his own extraordinary letter of support to the American Consul in Stuttgart:
I am informed that Mrs. Elfriede Höber, a Ph.D. of Heidelberg University, and Susanne Höber, Düsseldorf (Germany), Pempelforterstr. 11, have applied at your consulate for permanent residence. Mrs. Elfriede Höber and her daughter wish to come to Philadelphia to join their husband and father and his family who were admitted to the United States for permanent residence some time ago. Dr. Johannes Höber, the husband, also a Ph.D. of Heidelberg, has been working for me for about three months as a research assistant. He has proved himself to be an extraordinarily bright, intellectually honest, public spirited and able person. I am so much interested in keeping him in Philadelphia that I am willing to give my personal guarantee that his wife, after being admitted to the United States, will never become a public charge.
For my own identification you may be interested in the following facts: My family on all branches have lived in the United States since before the Revolutionary War. I am a graduate of Princeton University and also the Harvard Law School. … At present I am volunteering my time to the Philadelphia City Charter Committee in the interest of good local government. … As shown by a separate affidavit the financial responsibility of my wife and me together – we are giving a joint affidavit – should be sufficient to give the necessary guarantee required by law.
May I say again that Dr. Johannes Höber has in my opinion the makings of a fine American citizen and that to have his wife here would help him to be even more of an asset. She too, I have every reason to believe, would contribute much to America. …
Very sincerely yours,
Walter M. Phillips
The impressive stack of documents did the trick. Although it took several more weeks, the Consul in Stuttgart accepted Walter and Mary’s assurances and granted the Elfriede and Susanne visas on July 12, 1939. Without Walter and Mary’s selfless generosity, my mother and sister would never have gotten out of Germany and I would probably not be alive today. When I was born three years later my parents gave me “Walter” as a middle name. It is a name I carry with great pride and gratitude.
Many readers of this blog know that I have been working for a long time to translate and edit nearly a hundred long letters that my parents exchanged as they were fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938-1939. I am very pleased to tell you that my manuscript has been accepted for publication by the American Philosophical Society and will be available as a book by mid-2015.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the American Philosophical Society, it is an international honorary membership organization of scientists, scholars, artists and public officials. Its elected members include numerous heads of state and Nobel prize winners. APS was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743. Its headquarters building, Philosophical Hall, has been located next to Independence Hall since 1789. The Society has maintained a small but important publishing program since its founding, and my book will now join its list of publications.
About Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939
My mother, Elfriede Höber, had to stay behind in Germany when my father left for Philadelphia on November 12, 1938. She and my nine year old sister Susanne were unable to get out of Europe until a year later. It was a scary time. During the months they were separated, my mother and father exchanged long letters, with Elfriede describing the worsening situation under the Nazis and my father, Johannes, describing his flight from Europe and his exhilarating entry into American life. These letters form the basis of Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939.
Johannes died in Washington, DC in 1977 at the age of 73. I found the letters among his papers some years after his death but didn’t grasp their significance for some time. My knowledge of German was sketchy then. Having turned away from Germany in 1939, my parents rarely spoke the language at home; most of the German I knew I learned in high school. Working with a German-English dictionary, I could only make out a few parts of the letters that were typed; the handwritten letters entirely eluded my comprehension. In addition, the letters were full of unintelligible terms that appeared in no dictionary – Abo, Wobla, Staka, Affi – and perplexing names – Onkel Karl, Onkel Paul, Felix, Nepomuk – that didn’t belong to anyone I had ever hear my parents mention. I felt that I would never figure these letters out and that I would be defeated by the handwriting, the foreign language, the mysterious terms and the unidentifiable names. But there was something about the letters – their secrecy, their mystery, and the dark times in which they were written – that kept calling me back.
Over a period of years I tried to figure out what the letters meant. I returned to evening German classes to be better able to deal with the language. I struggled to decipher the words and their significance. It eventually became apparent, from the context, that many words were a code that Johannes and Elfriede understood but others could not. I then realized that the letters were written with the assumption that they might be opened by the Nazi authorities. If that were to happen, Johannes and Elfriede wanted to ensure that their own words would not endanger them or their friends or family. Eventually, from context and research, and from repeated readings, I was able to decode most of the content of the letters.
Working with the letters has shown me that my parents’ story during this dangerous period was not so dark as I had imagined. Indeed, the letters are full of cleverness, good fortune and a persistent optimism in the face of frightening difficulties. At the same time, there is a tension, a sense of strain I feel each time I pick them up. I sensed in these letters how emotionally challenging the events of 1938-1939 were. I often found the anxiety transmitted through their words to me. There were periods when I gave up all work on the letters for a year or two at a time.
But I did go back, and eventually there was a great reward for me in deciphering and understanding the letters in this book. Although Johannes died in 1977 and Elfriede in 1999, through the letters I got to meet and know them as two new people. As a father, Johannes could be difficult, but in the letters he is charming, caring, clever, ambitious and loving and concerned for the welfare of Elfriede and Susanne. He helped and encouraged Elfriede to do what she had to do to escape from Germany and bring Susanne to him. As a mother, Elfriede could be reserved, even stolid, but in these letters I discovered an affectionate, engaged and loving wife and mother.
In deciphering these letters I also discovered two fine, passionate, but very different writers. My father’s letters are carefully organized and precise, self-conscious and at the same time full of colorful detail and rich accounts of people, places and events that convey his deep interest in the world he observed. My mother’s letters, even when slightly chaotic, convey a full sense of her strong feelings about what she was experiencing. Her letters are often laced with a breezy wit, though the humor is mostly ironic and often witheringly sarcastic. I never knew my mother was as darkly funny as she is in these letters.
Writing a book and getting it published is no sport for the short-winded. I have been working on this project for a long time and it will be more months until the book sees the light of day. But it is thrilling work and I am very much looking forward to the day when I can share all of this with all of you.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.