I first spotted one of Bill Rapp’s photographs among the antiques at the Fitler Square Fair in our old neighborhood in Philadelphia. This was around 1980. Bill’s wife Jean dealt in prints and old documents, and in her booth she had a beautiful image of the interior of the old Philadelphia-to-Camden Ferry. The price was a little more than I wanted to pay, by my artist wife Ditta encouraged me to buy it. Bill made his living as an advertising agent, not a photographer, but he had a wonderful eye and his printing was impeccable.
At the annual spring fairs over the next several years, Ditta and I acquired additional prints of Bill’s beautiful work. My particular interest was the rare slices of Philadelphia history that Bill had captured. Ditta, the photographer-artist, had a particular appreciation for the artistry of Bill’s work. By the time Bill died in 1989 we had accumulated a nice collection of his photographs. What happened next, however, was unexpected. About a year after Bill died there was a knock at our front door — it was Jean Rapp. She held tightly in her hands a sizable batch of photographic negatives bundled together with a rubber band. They were Bill’s. She said that because we had shown so much interest in Bill’s work over the years she wanted Ditta and me to have the negatives to print whatever copies we wanted for ourselves. When we finished with them, Jean asked that we donate them to the Free Library of Philadelphia. We gratefully accepted the negatives and the responsibility that went with them. Not long after this we learned that Jean, too, had passed away.
In those days Ditta had a darkroom in our house for her own work. She hired a student to come in and make rough prints of the negatives so we would know what we had. The resulting proofs were fine, but we weren’t ready to part with the negatives because we lacked the resources then to print the images in the finished quality they deserved. Years passed with Bill’s negatives and the proof prints resting quietly in storage.
In 2011, we decided it was finally time to deal properly with Bill’s legacy. In the meantime we had become friends with Mike Froio, a photographer and instructor at Drexel University. We arranged with Mike to clean and scan all of Bill’s negatives. Ditta selected more than a hundred of them to be printed in archival form. In 2012 and 2013 we donated two large albums of these prints to the Free Library of Philadelphia along with an indexed archive housing all of Bill’s original negatives. We also gave the Library a set of disks containing the scans of the negatives and photographs along with a digital inventory.
Recently, the Free Library finished loading many of Bill’s images online; you can see them by clicking here (look for the live lambs that were once sold in the Italian market to be turned into Easter dinner). Curator Laura Stroffolino also posted a nice blog entry about the collection that you can read here. It is a privilege to participate in preserving the legacy of a fine artist whose work might otherwise have been lost.
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
Like other members of my family about whom I have written on this website, I have spent most of my working life in public service. A few years ago, the local affiliate of National Public Radio asked me to write an essay reflecting on this work for broadcast as part of its “This I Believe” series. Then, last week, the national “This I Believe” organization contacted me to say my essay will be published this fall in an anthology. I was pleased that after the passage of some time my essay is still of interest. It will be a while until the book of essays is released, but for now you can read mine below. In addition, you can hear the audio of the original broadcast archived on the WHYY website by clicking on this link.
I believe in government.
My grandmother, Josephine, was the first in my family to enter government service nearly a century ago. She was a doctor in the women’s health clinic in Kiel, Germany. As a public health physician, she improved the lives of poor young mothers and children who otherwise would have gotten no proper medical care.
My father and mother, who fled Germany to escape the Nazis, made civil service their lifelong work here in America. Each of them built a distinguished career in agencies founded on principles of social and economic justice for all Americans.
As the son and grandson of civil servants, I grew up believing in the capacity of government to ameliorate human suffering and to improve the lot of ordinary people. While I was still in college, I, too, went to work in the public sector. I was thrilled when I landed a job as a summer intern for Senator Hubert Humphrey. I was able to be in the Senate gallery when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, guaranteeing the equal rights under the law that Americans take for granted today.
After college, I got a job with the National Labor Relations Board, where we worked to protect the rights of employees who wanted to be represented by a union. I will never forget the respect I was accorded when I entered a metal factory in Wilkes Barre PA or a nursing home in Millville, New Jersey. I was the government man responsible for setting the rules of fair play between employees and their employers. I will never forget being welcomed into the small town home of a man or a woman who had been fired for union organizing, knowing that these individuals were relying on their government — on me — to save them and their families from economic disaster. It was a huge responsibility, and the long days of hard work were repaid by the conviction that my colleagues and I were making a difference.
Now, 45 years after my first government job, I am a manager for the New Jersey courts. Our Judiciary has created drug courts that save the lives of addicts who were once criminals and turn them into responsible citizens. I have worked on programs to keep kids who went wrong from being locked up in institutions that too often only increase the likelihood that they will offend again. I leave my house at seven in the morning and I don’t get home until seven at night, and in between there’s hardly a minute of down time. But I take very seriously my responsibility to do the most that can be done with the hard-earned tax dollars that pay my salary.
So I believe in government. I believe in the good that government can do. My whole life has taught me to believe in government. No one knows the flaws of government better than those of us who labor under its maddening limitations. But government is still the best institution that we have devised to address the panoply of problems that beset the human condition.
Special sets of knives and forks for eating fish became popular in Europe in the late 19th century. The steel blades used at that time in ordinary silverware would react with fish in a way that imparted an unpleasant metallic taste. Fish sets had silver-plated brass blades and tines that did not interfere with the delicate taste of fish. The set pictured here was given to my grandparents, Rudolf and Josephine Marx Höber, as a wedding present at the time of their marriage on August 10, 1901.
Rudolf and Jospehine were fortunate in being able to bring the fish set with them when they were driven out of Nazi Germany and fled to America in 1934.
After Rudolf and Josephine died, the fish set was passed on to my parents, Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber.
After my parents’ deaths, the fish set came to me and my wife, Ditta.
On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2014, our younger son Julian married Heather Rasmussen, at the Maritime Hotel in New York City. We decided that this was the time to pass the fish set on to a fourth generation. We made a new silvercloth wrapper for the forks and knives and a new box.
The silver set, newly polished after a century of use, is now with Julian and Heather in Los Angeles.
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.
My parents, Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, arrived in Philadelphia from Nazi Germany in 1939. They were both 35. Even before they arrived, they dreamed of seeing the America they had read of for so long. As a new immigrant, my father’s income was very limited in the early years here, but he and my mother figured out that if they camped and drove when they traveled, then the only cost above normal living expenses would be for gas. Starting in 1947, when I was four and my brother Tom was five, we took a camping trip every summer for twelve years, so that by the time I was sixteen we had been to all 48 continental United States, a great many of the National Parks, a lot of Canada and a big piece of Mexico. My sister, Susanne, was a good bit older so that most summers she was working or in college or married, though she did come on two of the early trips. We drove thousands of miles on each trip, in an era when there was no such thing as Interstates and cars weren’t air conditioned.
Our first trip was from Philadelphia to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and over the years we hiked in the Rockies and the Cascades, swam in the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean, and studied the sites of the great events of American history. What sticks in my memory most, however, were the days and days of driving as we crossed the country so many times.
We would start early in the morning, with my father driving and my mother navigating from the Rand McNally road atlas. Our first errand was to find an ice house to buy a chunk of ice for our little cooler and perhaps some white gas for our Coleman stove. I will never forget the excitement of reaching the Mississippi on our third or fourth day out, or driving hour after hour across the wheat fields of Kansas, or the rolling grasslands of South Dakota or the amazing deserts of Utah and Nevada. We froze as we camped in the cold northern reaches of Alberta and roasted when we drove through Death Valley when it was 123 degrees in the shade with no air conditioning. At lunch, we would stop at some county seat because my mother figured out there was a small park in front of every county courthouse, even in Nebraska or Montana, where we could sit on a bench in a patch of shade while we made sandwiches out of the icebox. At night we would find a campground and my father and my brother and I would unpack the equipment from our car roof carrier and set up the two tents while my mother made dinner on the camp stove. Dinner was plain — perhaps hot dogs and sauerkraut and canned potatoes, with canned fruit for dessert — but they tasted wonderful in the open air of some new place. I never remember having trouble sleeping on the ground after the full days on the road. And the next morning we would start our adventures all over again.
My parents’ life as new Americans was not always easy, but I never knew them to be happier than when we were all on the road together discovering the corners of this wonderful country.
My father had an extraordinary knack for finding summer jobs for his kids. When I was 16, I had an interest in biology and medicine, and Dad managed to get me a job as a lab assistant with his friend Jack Gibbon, who headed the Department of Surgery at Jefferson Medical University in Philadelphia. Even at minimum wage (then $1 an hour), it was the most astonishing job a teenager could have.
Dr. Gibbon and his wife Maly developed the external heart-lung machine to provide a mechanism to pump and oxygenate blood outside the body so surgery could be performed on the heart. The machine was perfected by performing operations on experimental animals, mostly dogs. Dr. Gibbon performed the first successful human operation in 1953.
By the summer of 1959, when I started at Jefferson, new uses for the heart-lung machine were being developed, specifically techniques for rerouting blood to bypass blocked vessels that impeded the supply of blood to the heart muscles. The heart had to be stopped during such surgery. To do this, the chest was cut open, a tube was inserted into one of the largest veins, the blood was routed outside the body through a large external pump and then oxygenated in an artificial lung tank and pumped back into the body by another tube inserted in a major artery. Just before cutting into the heart, the blood was pumped through a coil immersed in a tank of ice. When the blood temperature got low enough, the heart stopped spontaneously and the body relied entirely on the external heart-lung machine to survive. After heart surgery was completed, the blood was pumped through the same heat exchange coil, now immersed in a tank of warm water, and when normal body temperature was reached the heart would either start spontaneously or be started by the surgeon applying the electrodes of a defibrillator directly to the walls of the heart. The human operations were performed by a team of two to six surgeons and more than 20 technicians and would last as much as 12-14 hours.
I was part of a team of four that cleaned, assembled and monitored the heart lung machine. Before an operation this meant we wheeled large carts of equipment from the surgery lab to the operating suites, assembled the complicated machinery, and read gauges and provided reports to the surgeons. After the operation, we would have to take all the equipment back to the lab and disassemble the whole apparatus. I was assigned the slightly revolting task of carefully scrubbing the residual blood out of the many meters of tubing and the complex screens and valves of the artificial lung and then wrapping the parts to be sterilized in a steam autoclave. My work was mostly manual labor that required more muscle and endurance than intelligence. But it was an extraordinary experience to observe this fantastic surgery and to have conversations with some of the most brilliant scientists and surgeons in the world.
I worked at the surgical research lab for two summers. In the first year, all the operations were performed on dogs and, sadly, none of them survived. Just one year later, the procedures had been perfected to the point where I assisted as a machine technician during the operations on ten human patients, all of whom would have died without this surgery, which was then brand new and cutting edge. The procedure is now known as coronary bypass surgery or triple bypass surgery and over the last 50 years has saved the lives of millions of victims of heart disease around the world.
Johannes Höber left Nazi Germany for Philadelphia on November 12, 1938. His wife Elfriede and their nine year old daughter Susanne were unable to leave until a year later. During the months they were separated, Johannes and Elfriede exchanged long letters, with Elfriede describing the worsening situation in Germany and Johannes describing his flight from Europe and his exhilarating entry into American life. Their exchange recounts, in a very personal way, how the Nazis drove decent, talented Germans out of their country and how one refugee family made its way through frightening circumstances to a safe haven. For the last year I have been preparing these letters for publication. The work has involved deciphering and transcribing the letters and writing an introduction, extensive footnotes and an epilogue.
Johannes was my father; he died in Washington, DC in 1977 at the age of 73. A year later, Elfriede, my mother, came to live with me and my wife, Ditta, in Philadelphia. Along with her other furniture, Elfriede brought several file cabinets filled with papers she and Johannes had accumulated over their lifetime.
In the 1980’s, I would take care of Elfriede’s bills and correspondence when she was traveling. One day I began to explore the file cabinets. And in one cabinet, jammed in at the back of a particularly tight and over-filled drawer, was a thick folder stuffed with yellowed, tattered pages. It was not an American manila folder like all the others, but a kind of black pasteboard, old and foreign-looking. The folder looked as though no one had opened it in many, many years. When I cautiously turned back the cover and began to read, I found that the papers in the folder were a long set of letters written by Johannes and Elfriede. They were all in German; many were typed and many others were written with a fountain pen in my mother’s distinctive, regular but nearly indecipherable hand. The earliest letters and postcards at the back of the folder were dated in November 1938 and the latest at the front of the folder were dated in October 1939. They were the letters my parents exchanged during the year they were apart.
When I first found the letters, my knowledge of German was sketchy. Having turned away from Germany in 1939, my parents rarely spoke the language at home and most of the German I knew I had 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 defeated my attempts at 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 worked on the letters, laboring to find their meaning. I returned to evening German classes to be better able to deal with the language. I struggled again and again 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. It dawned on me 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. From context and research, however, and from repeated readings, I believe that I have been able to decode most of the content of the letters.
Working with the letters has shown me that my parents’ story is 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 for my parents. I often found the same 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 huge reward for me in reading, 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 my then-nine-year-old sister, 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, concerned, 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 are sometimes slightly chaotic, but they 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 funny as she is in these letters.
The transcribed letters come to 300-400 pages; they will make an engaging book. I am working on this project with a historian friend in Dresden to prepare an edition in German and I am now translating the letters for an English edition. My expectation is that the manuscripts in both languages will be finished before the end of 2012. I am looking forward to the day when I can share these letters with all of you.