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: