The National Socialists took control of the German government on January 30, 1933 and consolidated their power with great speed. Political street violence had been part of German life for a long time, but the Nazis escalated that pattern rapidly and brutally, using terrorist tactics to wipe out political opposition in a matter of weeks. My father, Johannes (1904-1977), was the first victim in our family, when he was arrested in March and imprisoned for several weeks because of his liberal politics, and my grandfather, Rudolf (1873-1953),was next when he was expelled from his professor’s position the following fall, in part because of actions he took against Nazi students. The situation with my mother’s brothers was something else entirely.
My mother had three younger brothers who, in 1933, were in their mid-twenties. All three were good looking and charming, with cheerful dispositions and a taste for evenings with friends in the taverns of Düsseldorf’s Altstadt, taverns with names like the Golden Kettle (Im Goldenen Kessel) and Fatty’s Irish Pub, which are still popular today. On the night of Tuesday, November 7, 1933, my uncles Paul Fischer (1909-1947), a recent law graduate still in training, and Herbert Fischer (1907-1992), by day in business with his father, went out for an evening of socializing. Their father Franz (1868-1937) and older brother Günter (1906-1979) were away on a business trip for several days.
The social evening lasted until 3 :00 in the morning, when the bars closed. Paul and Herbert, whose state after a long night of drinking can only be guessed, got into the car of a friend who drove them home. Still joking as they tumbled out of the car, Herbert spotted a poster that had been pasted on a nearby wall and was partially coming off. Tearing the poster off the wall, Herbert crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the car at his friend saying, “Here! You can use this to clean your windshield!” It seems that Herbert didn’t recognize the poster as Nazi propaganda, nor did he notice the Stormtrooper watching nearby. Although lacking legal authority, the hundreds of thousands of brown-shirted Stormtroopers of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung constituted a militia of the Nazi Party and were free to attack and bully citizens who showed any sign of dissent from the regime. Although Herbert was non-political, the waiting Stormtrooper saw his petty vandalism as a political act and took him into custody. Paul went along to be a witness in his brother’s defense, but soon found himself taken into custody as well.
As Paul and Herbert got passed on from the Stormtrooper to a bicycle policeman to an automobile police squad to the police station, the story of the incident grew from a tipsy prank to an organized conspiracy against the state. By dawn, both Herbert and Paul were arrested and imprisoned and their case turned over to the “political police,” a part of the recently formed Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo). Apparently the fact that Paul was a lawyer in training (Referendar) increased the Gestapo’s suspicions. The brothers were held for more than a week without charges and were subject to repeated beatings.
The day after the arrest, my grandmother and my father and mother began agitating with the police for the young men’s release. It took three days just to identify the official with authority over Paul and Herbert’s case. My grandmother was so desperate for her sons’ release that she forced herself to mumble “Heil Hitler!” to the police official, the only time in the entire Nazi period that she ever used that hated salutation. As my father wrote at the time, “Endless approaches, endless waiting, walking down endless corridors, daily hopes, daily disappointments, long negotiations and discussions, after the third day with the help of a lawyer.” After a week, Paul was released with no explanation either for his arrest or his beatings or his release. He left the city immediately to recuperate from the wounds he received in the beatings. Herbert continued to be held, inexplicably, because, as my father wrote, “He never at any time ever engaged in any political activity whatsoever.” Nevertheless, it took another week to negotiate his release, again without explanation, but, as my mother wrote, he came out “relatively undamaged.”
In the end, it all came to nothing and the brothers returned to their respective occupations. But the reality of being arrested and beaten and held for many days for no reason was part of the atmosphere of terror that would be part of daily life in Germany for the next 12 years.
More stories about the Hoeber and Fischer families 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
Regular readers of this website may know that, for me, photographs, documents and objects are bridges across time. In this case, a picture and a pearl connect me to my family as it was nearly a century ago.
A German historian contacted me recently and asked for a photograph of my grandfather, Rudolf Höber, around 1915. That’s when Rudolf became Professor and Director of the Physiological Institute at the University of Kiel. I don’t have an individual portrait of him in 1915, but I found this great family portrait taken in February 1918.
The parents and their three children all look somewhat gloomy, but serious portraits were the fashion of the day. At the time the picture was taken, scientists came from as far away as Japan to study with Rudolf at the Physiological Institute, despite the fact that it was the middle of World War I. The sailor suit my father is wearing in the picture was typical for German school boys then and later. It was particularly appropriate in Kiel, which had a huge naval installation. A few months after this picture was taken, Johannes, 14, was on his way home from his Gymnasium when he witnessed the shooting that marked the mutiny of the German naval forces, starting the German Revolution of 1918.
When the photograph was cropped to pull out the portrait of Rudolf the historian had requested, I noticed something. In the center of the knot of Rudolf’s tie is a pearl stickpin.
When Rudolf died in 1952, the pearl stickpin passed to my father, Johannes. And when Johannes died in 1977 the pearl stickpin passed to me.
Although it is not particularly fashionable today, I still try to find occasion to wear the stickpin once in a while.
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 I went to my late sister Susanne’s Vermont home recently, I spotted this familiar old family vase. I placed it on a table on the sunny porch to photograph it. Then, with relatives watching, I turned the vase over and poured out — some ordinary sea sand.
How did I know there would be sand in the vase? The answer is a story I heard from my father a long time ago.
My great-grandfather, Jacob Marx, was a banker and investor in Berlin in the mid-nineteenth century. He made some smart investments in the industrial boom before and after the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s. Some of his new wealth he invested in art, including several antique Delft vases.
After Jacob died in 1883, the vases were owned by his widow, Marie, and when she died in 1913 they were inherited by my grandparents, Rudolf Höber and Josephine Marx Höber. At that time, Rudolf and Josephine lived on Hegewischstrasse in Kiel, a university city and naval harbor on the Baltic Sea.
Josephine displayed the vases atop a tall Schrank, an antique wardrobe cabinet in the family living room. Inconveniently, however, a streetcar line traversed the street in front of the residence, and every time a trolley went past the Delft vases shook and rattled. The noise annoyed Josephine, who also feared the old pieces would be shaken off the cabinet and break. To resolve the problem, she gave her ten-year-old son Johannes a metal pail and told him to go down to the shore of the Baltic, fill the bucket with sand and bring it home. Josephine then filled each Delft vase with sand. The extra weight kept them from rattling on top of the Schrank for the next 19 years.
In 1933, the Nazis forced Rudolf out of his position in Kiel and he and Josephine emigrated to Philadelphia. They took the vases with them — and the sand went along. Josephine died in 1941 and Rudolf in 1953 and then the vases — and the sand — were inherited by my parents, Johannes and Elfriede. They moved several times and at each move the vases were carefully packed and the sand with them.
Johannes died in Washington DC in 1977 and Elfriede in Oakland, California in 1999. When we divided up Elfriede’s possessions among her three children, my sister Sue expressed a desire to have the Delft vases. We wrapped them and transported them — and the sand — to the house in Barnard, Vermont, where she and her husband Lloyd worked and wrote in the summers for many years. And there they have remained until now. The next home for the Delft vases and the sand from the Baltic Sea remains to be seen.
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
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.
It was said in my family that my father, Johannes Höber, had a knack for being present at historic events. I recently discovered such an incident that I had not known about before. The story is told in a couple of postcards that were found recently among the papers of my sister, Susanne. The postcards were written by my father as a child, in an old fashioned German script that even some German readers do not know today. As was usual at that time, a grownup drew lines on the card with a ruler and pencil to help the child write straight and evenly.
Johannes lived with his parents in the northern port city of Kiel, where his father was a professor and his mother a physician. Johannes’s widowed grandmother, Großmama Mimi, lived in Berlin, a five hour train trip from Kiel. In Late July 1914, Johannes and his younger sister Grilli and their mother made the trip from Kiel to Berlin to stay for a couple of weeks with Großmama Mimi. Perhaps the occasion for the trip was Johannes’s birthday: he turned ten on August 7. While the children were visiting friends in Potsdam, outside Berlin, World War I broke out with Germany’s declaration of war against Russia on August 1, followed promptly by the German invasion of Russia’s ally, France.In the postcards postmarked August 10, Johannes wrote home to his father in Kiel, thanking him for a birthday card and telling him the excitement he had seen in the city. He probably started with a single card, but his enthusiasm carried the message to a second card. Here is what he wrote:
Your card just arrived and I like it a lot. Hopefully we will see each other again soon. Yesterday there was an outdoor church service and a departure parade for the first infantry regiment. We left here already at 10 and arrived at the Lustgarten [park in front of the Imperial palace] – that’s where the parade was – just as a group of the soldiers were marching in. We then looked around and found a very nice place to watch the Kaiser arrive. We had waited barely 5 minutes when we heard “Hurrah!” in the distance and suddenly the Kaiser’s car came around the corner and drove by directly in front of us. It continued for a while that way and eventually we saw the Kaiser driving back.
It is wonderful here in Potsdam. Grilli went to school with [her friend] Tutti today and tidied up and then sewed a gusset and a “Nog” [?] on a shirt for a soldier’s uniform. I spent the whole morning today cutting up wood with a saw.
Your Jonny (now 10)
Thus Johannes was present to see some of the first troops to depart from Germany for the War, under the personal direction of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Four years later, as the War came to an end, Johannes would also witness the mutiny of German Navy at the Kiel naval base. He was walking home from school when he encountered sailors firing on their officers in the streets outside the warship facility. This was one of the events leading to Germany’s signing an armistice ending the War, and another in a string of historic events to which Johannes would be an eyewitness.
For more on the Hoeber family, click here.
When my mother and father were forced to leave Germany in 1939, they had to abandon everything they owned. Five years earlier, however, when my father’s parents were expelled by the Nazis, it was still possible for them to bring personal effects with them. My grandfather, Rudolf Höber and my grandmother, Jospehine Marx Höber, both came from families that were pretty well off. Some of the things they brought with them are still in use in our house today, and we enjoy them particularly around Christmas time.
At Christmas dinner we often use white napkins saved for special occasions. Linen napkins in bourgeois households in 19th century Germany were huge, nearly a meter square. When my great-grandmother, Elise Koehlau, married Anselm Höber in 1865, she brought a supply of such napkins into the marriage. As was traditional then, she embroidered the monogram of her maiden name in the corner of the napkins with red thread and each napkin was numbered.
My grandmother’s father, Jakob Marx, made money as a financier in the Franco-Prussian War. He and his wife Marie had a home at Pariserplatz 1, next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. These plates were theirs.
When my grandparents, Rudolf and Josephine, married in 1901 they got a set of silverware with an “RJH” monogram.
When my parents and grandparents came to this country over 75 years ago, they rapidly became integrated into the life of their new country, to which they were devoted. Like so many American families, however, we hang on to some of the ways our family did things generations ago, particularly at holidays. After all these years, we still roast a goose at Christmas and bring out some of the beautiful things that remind us of our history.
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.
When my father got to America at the age of 35, he had never so much as held a hammer in his hand. In Germany, educated people like him hired someone to do household repairs. In Philadelphia, Johannes shared a big old rented house with relatives and money was very tight, so it was a disaster when the toilet in the house developed a leak. Johannes asked one of his new American friends to recommend a plumber who could do the repair cheaply. The friend told him not to call a plumber. “Go to the hardware store first,” the friend said, “and see if they can help you.”
Bellet’s hardware store, around the corner on Germantown Avenue, was packed with tools and screws and nails and parts and housewares in great array. Johannes asked Mr. Bellet if he could possibly help him with a leaky toilet. Mr. Bellet walked him to a counter where there was a toilet with the tank partially cut away to show the flush valves and float mechanism and other innards that made the thing work. Mr. Bellet asked Johannes to show him where the water was leaking, and Johannes pointed to the connection between two brass and copper parts. “Here’s how you fix it,” said Mr. Bellet, and started unscrewing nuts and disassembling the parts of the mechanism. After a few moves, Mr. Bellet was able to pull out a small black rubber washer from a connecting joint. Holding it up triumphantly, he said cheerfully, “Here’s what you need!” Out of the chaos of a cabinet with dozens of small wooden drawers Mr. Bellet pulled a matching washer and handed it to Johannes. “Do you now know how to put it back together?” he asked. When Johannes responded with a dubious grimace, Mr. Bellet led him back to the mysterious toilet mechanism on the counter. Deftly but deliberately, Mr. Bellet re-installed the little black washer and patiently instructed Johannes at each step of the way. “Understand now?” asked Mr. Bellet. “I think so,” said Johannes. “How much do I owe you?” “Five cents,” said Mr. Bellet, beaming. Johannes was not the first immigrant he had taught to repair a toilet.
Johannes nearly ran back to the house on Cresheim Road to try out his newly-learned skills and his newly-bought washer on the recalcitrant toilet. Remembering Mr. Bellet’s instructions pretty accurately, he carefully dismantled the mechanism, located the worn, slimy old washer, replaced it with the sturdy new one and put the thing back together. He turned the water back on — no leak! He flushed — it worked!
That evening, with the rest of his relatives gathered around the dinner table, Johannes regaled them with his adventure with Mr. Bellet and the black washer. “This is a wonderful country,” he said. “Five cents for a washer and five dollars worth of free advice!” And he later taught his kids that in America you don’t call the plumber, you do it yourself.
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.
During the Vietnam War, the battles between American and Vietcong forces had the collateral effect of destroying the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians. To help alleviate the suffering of these innocent victims, the United States initiated a massive program of foreign aid and refugee relief. The program was administered through the Vietnam Desk of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in the State Department. My father, Johannes U. Hoeber, was appointed to head that effort in 1967 and continued in that position until 1972. It was the last job he held in his life and, despite the difficulties, the most rewarding.
During the time he was heading the refugee program in Vietnam, Johannes met frequently with members of Congress on matters of funding and policy. He developed a close relationship with Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Kennedy was an increasingly forceful opponent of the American war policy, and Johannes was able to provide him with off-the-record information that Kennedy used in the debates over bringing the war to a conclusion.
Johannes retired in 1972 and died in 1977. Two days after his death, Senator Kennedy rose on the floor of the United States Senate and spoke:
Mr. President, I was deeply saddened this week to learn of the death of Johannes Hoeber, a distinguished civil servant and humanitarian, who capped a long life of service in behalf of his fellow man as director of U.S. programs for refugees in Vietnam. Dr. Hoeber was himself a refugee—a refugee from Hitler’s Germany. In 1933 he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis for several weeks, and subsequently spent 5 years working with the anti-Nazi underground until 1938, when he was faced with questioning by the Gestapo. Dr. Hoeber fled to the United States where he began a long career in social service programs to help people in need both here at home and abroad.
From 1951 until 1962, Dr. Hoeber served as Philadelphia’s deputy commissioner of welfare. In 1962, Dr. Hoeber became Assistant Administrator of the Area Redevelopment Administration of the Commerce Department.
However, a few years later Dr. Hoeber joined the Agency for International Development – AID – to direct its programs for refugees and social welfare activities in Vietnam.
It was in this capacity, Mr. President, that I came to know of Dr. Hoeber’s dedicated service. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Refugees I came to know of his constant effort to upgrade AID’s programs for refugees and millions of other victims of that tragic war. He often fought against the insensitivities of his own superiors in AID, who were more interested in commodity import programs to help Saigon’s ailing economy than in efforts to help Saigon’s orphans or the maimed or the crippled.
Dr. Hoeber never lost sight of the urgent humanitarian needs in war-torn Vietnam, nor of America’s great humanitarian responsibility to help meet those needs. His humanitarian service during the Vietnam conflict, like that of so many others both here in Washington and in the field, often went unnoticed and unseen. But they are the unsung heroes of America’s effort to meet its humanitarian obligations to millions of innocent men, women and children caught up in one of the most tragic wars the United States has ever been involved in.
To his wife, Elfriede, and his three children, I want to offer my deepest sympathy for their loss, and to recognize the dedicated humanitarian service of their husband and father.
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.
Julius Streicher was hanged on October 16, 1946 following his conviction by the international war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg. Streicher’s headquarters were in Nuremberg, where Hitler held rallies to whip up fervor for his dictatorship. Streicher’s particular charge was was to stoke Germans’ hatred of Jews. To this end, Streicher published a weekly magazine, Der Stürmer, a pornographically vicious hate sheet directed at Jews. He was also famous as a speaker given to lengthy antisemitic harangues.
Perversely, while overseeing propaganda against Jews Streicher acquired a large and valuable library of Judaica. From the earliest years of Nazi rule party officials routinely stole property from Jews and others out of favor with the regime. Streicher pursued manuscripts and books relating to Jewish religion, history and culture. By the time the Nazis fell in 1945, Streicher had accumulated more than 30,000 volumes. At the end of the war, the Allies seized Streicher’s library and turned about 10,000 of the books over to the remnants of the Jewish community of Nuremberg, called the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, or IKG. Decades later, lacking the facilities to care properly for their collection, the IKG negotiated a loan arrangement to have the Nuremberg City Library house it. The IKG remains the legal owner and has a designated librarian to oversee the collection on its behalf. The IKG considers itself the trustee for the original owners and has lovingly cared for and preserved the books. Over the years some of the books were claimed by the descendants of the original owners, most of whom had been killed or forced to flee. Beginning in the 1990s, more aggressive efforts were made to find identifying marks in the books that might give some clue as to the original owners. With the advent of the Internet, the IKG posted the first of a number of search lists online with identifying information about the books and their possible previous owners.
Readers of this blog know that I have been researching my family’s history for the last several years. In the course of this work last fall I was trying to track the sister of my great-great grandmother. The sister was born Bernhardine Oppenheim and married a Berlin jeweler named Heinrich Friedeberg. I had no reason to think that Heinrich and Bernhardine had done anything that would cause them to be in some historic record, but I nevertheless Googled their names. The result was astonishing. The first hit was the lost books list of the IKG in Nuremberg. It seems that two volumes of the Collected Writings of Abraham Geiger were stolen by the Nazis from a descendant of Heinrich and Bernhardine Friedeberg. Geiger was one of the founders of Reform Judaism and a close friend of Bernhardine’s brother. The stolen books ended up in Julius Streicher’s hoard of Judaica and after his execution went to the IKG.
I wrote to the IKG and asked for a further description of the books and their history, and received a gracious email in return from Leibl Rosenberg, the erudite curator of the IKG collection. Herr Rosenberg sent scans of the Friedebergs’ bookplate and Bernhardine’s signature taken from one of the volumes of Geiger’s work in the IKG collection. Herr Rosenberg’s email concluded with the unanticipated observation that I might well be the closest living relative of the Friedebergs. He invited me to confirm that fact and to start the restitution process to have the books returned — to me.
It did not take me long to respond to Herr Rosenberg. I expressed my gratitude and sent him a copy of a genealogy chart handwritten by my grandfather in 1928 showing our family’s relationship to the Friedebergs along with other documents from my family’s archive. In response, Herr Rosenberg sent me an agreement acknowledging my receipt of the books. I signed it and returned it to him and a few weeks later received the package pictured at the top of this page. I am now the custodian of these books and of their poignant history. I am entrusted with caring for them and preserving them as the Jewish Community of Nuremberg and the Nuremberg City Library have done for all these years.
Of all the adventures I have had in researching and writing about the Hoeber Family, this is perhaps the most moving and unexpected.
Every family has its dark corners, its sad secrets.
My great-grandfather, Anselm Höber, was born in 1832 in the south German city of Karlsruhe, the son of a wealthy Jewish merchant. He was sufficiently well off that in his twenties he could afford to have his portrait painted wearing a handsome coat with a fur collar.
At some point, Anselm moved to the city of Stettin in Pomerania, then a province of the Kingdom of Prussia. (Much of Pomerania was annexed to Poland after World War II and the city is now known as Szczecin.) In 1865, Anselm married the beautiful Elise Köhlau, and at that time converted to his new wife’s Protestant faith.
In Stettin, Anselm was a successful businessman, and soon owned a controlling interest in a large moving and storage firm. The couple had three children, Eduard, Rudolf (my grandfather) and Lili. Eduard later went on to become a respected journalist and literary critic in Berlin and Rudolf became a renowned physiologist. Lili, however, suffered from multiple sclerosis and died when she was just in her twenties.
By the 1890s, Anselm’s sons were on their way to being well established in the world, but something went awry in Anselm’s business. At one point his income dropped so precipitously that Rudolf had to withdraw from the University of Erlangen where he was studying medicine. Rudolf was later able to return to school, but problems continue to plague Anselm’s business.
In 1899, at the age of 67, Anselm killed himself.
Who knows why a person commits suicide? When I look at the old pictures of Anselm, I imagine that I sense some deep sadness in his dark eyes, some loneliness that haunts him even in good times. Am I just projecting that because I know what happened to him? Perhaps. Like many family tragedies, Anselm’s death was rarely discussed, and what I have written here is almost all that anyone today knows about him.
His widow, Elise, lived quietly for another 15 years, dying just before the start of World War I.
The American housewife seems a thing of the past. Women who stay at home to cook, clean and take care of children while their husbands go out to work are a rarity today, but in the 1940s they were the norm. My mother, Elfriede, wasn’t one of them. She always worked outside the home, even though her salary as a woman professional in a nonprofit was very modest.
My father and mother escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 and 1939, respectively, and Elfriede arrived on one of the last ships to get out of Europe before World War II. My sister was born in Germany and my brother and I were born here. In 1945, when I was two, my mother realized the War was coming to an end, and that would mean the return of millions of GIs to the job market. Elfriede’s Heidelberg Ph.D. in economics enabled her to become Research Director for the Philadelphia Housing Association, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, but she had to face the same problems of balancing work and home life that parents still face today. She even discovered the concept of “quality time” with children long before that term was part of the American vocabulary.
Elfriede’s earnings barely covered the cost of child care. Her salary of $30 per week would come to about $300 per week in today’s dollars — what a job at Walmart pays, and she only got to take 18% of that home. Most of what Elfriede netted from her work went into savings to pay for the eventual college expenses for my brother and me (my sister was already in college on a full scholarship), so we were able to graduate without any debt.
After Elfriede died in 1999, I found among her papers an old draft in pencil on yellowed cheap tablet paper. Written in her uniquely difficult script, it is titled “Contest for Career Mothers,” but as far as I know, it was never published anywhere. It is remarkable how similar her thoughts in 1947 were to the considerations of working parents today. Her essay follows.
Contest for Career Mothers (1947)
Elfriede Fischer Hoeber, 4349 N. 9th Street, Phila 40, PA
We have three children, ages 17, 6 and 5 (age 17 is off to college). We live in a 6 room row house, adjacent to a large city park, 30 minutes from the center of the city.
I am director of Research for a private social agency. This is a full time job, 5 days, from 9 to 5 o’clock. I started working again after a pause of several years when my youngest child was 2 years old. I felt that I would be better satisfied working on a job for which my training qualified me than to be tied down 24 hours a day at housework. Satisfactory arrangements for the children are of course the principal condition to maintain peace of mind and to avoid a feeling of guilt when working outside the house. I have a housekeeper who comes in a few minutes before I leave in the morning and who leaves shortly after I get home at night. It is generally possible to find qualified persons if the hours and the pay for the housekeeper compare favorably with the standard rates. I found that the cost of a good private nursery school (there was no public nursery school anywhere near) for two children and the cost of at least some household help would have been more than I could afford. Maybe I was just lucky with the housekeepers I had, but the arrangement was quite satisfactory. The children are now in the first grade and in the kindergarten of the nearby public school.
I prepare the breakfast myself and allow plenty of time for it so that the whole family can have an unhurried breakfast together. The housekeeper prepares lunch for the children and the dinner. The big laundry is sent out and the housekeeper takes care of the smaller children’s washing and some other personal things. Generally speaking this arrangement has proved quite satisfactory. The standards of housekeeping vary somewhat from time to time. Sometimes the cleaning is not quite as thorough as I might wish, sometimes the cooking could be better, but as long as the children are well taken care of, I am willing to put up with what I consider minor shortcomings.
No, it is not all gravy. Actually, the financial surplus after deducting expenses would hardly make it worthwhile if it were not for other satisfactions. My weekly earnings and expenses are as follows:
My husband was raised by a mother who was a physician and who worked full time during most of her life. So he is willing and, as a matter of fact, anxious to see his wife work outside the home even when he occasionally feels he is not getting quite the service to which he feels accustomed and entitled. I have always tried (not always successfully) not to load any more household work on him than he would undertake if I were not working. He tends the furnace and makes Sunday breakfast. But even if he does not have to help much with children or house work, his generally positive attitude is one of the basic conditions without which I could not and would not want to work. His contribution is mainly putting up with the service he is not getting and he complains loudly about buttons off his shirt and socks not yet mended.
I certainly do prefer to go out to work. The work I am doing is highly interesting and satisfactory. I am not tied down as I would be if I took care of the children and the household without help (and we could not afford help on my husband’s salary). Staying at home, I would have less chance to participate in civic affairs than I have now.
I would not complain of mental strain; on the contrary, it seems lots of fun to put trained brains to work, rather than vegetate on the somewhat meager mental diet that is the housewife’s lot. I find my work mentally stimulating rather than a strain. Emotional strain – well, that is there but it can be minimized, if the arrangements for the children are satisfactory, if the husband is cooperative and if the aims one wants to achieve in a job are not overstated.
You ask the most important question at the end. After all, if the children were to suffer physically, mentally or emotionally, the price for my satisfaction from working would be entirely too high. I chose a job with pretty well fixed hours and no work Saturdays. I keep evening engagements to a minimum. I stick to a rigid schedule for 5 days. We have a leisurely breakfast together, and leave the house at the same time. I am home shortly before 6 o’clock. That leaves one hour after dinner for the children when we read or play together. I bathe them myself and put them to bed around 8 o’clock. The children know this and look forward to it. Saturdays and Sundays belong to the children altogether, except for rare social engagements. We do the necessary household chores together and plan something special almost every weekend. Under this plan the children are well adjusted and happy. I find that a few hours that belong to the children and on which they can depend compensate quite adequately for the scattered minutes of half-hearted attention.
The Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, and over the next five years tightened the screws of totalitarianism on the German people. By the late 1930s, life had become intolerable for hundreds of thousands of Germans and for German Jews in particular. Although my parents weren’t Jewish, by 1938 they could no longer bear living under Hitler’s dictatorial regime and decided to leave. But getting out wasn’t easy.
Most people who left Nazi Germany wanted to get to the United States, but to do so they needed an immigration visa, the official authorization to enter America. The US, however, put a quota on the visas it would issue for the residents of each country. In 1939 the quota for Germany was 26,000, and there were over 300,000 German applicants. My father was born in Switzerland, so he came under the Swiss quota. Since almost no Swiss were trying to get American visas, my father got one very quickly and came to Philadelphia at the end of 1938. My mother and eight-year-old sister, Susanne, however, were stuck in Germany. As soon as my father arrived here he went to work to get them visas.
To get a visa, prospective immigrants had to prove to the American authorities that they would have enough money to live on once they got here. Since the Nazis made it almost impossible to take money out of Germany, most refugees arrived in this country penniless (as my parents did). This meant that visa applicants needed one or more American sponsors who would agree to support them if necessary, and prove they had the means to do so. The search for sponsors who would sign an “Affidavit of Support” was a major burden for refugees from the Nazis.
My father’s father already lived here and had a salary that enabled him to sign an Affidavit of Support, but the American immigration authorities rejected it because he was already supporting numerous other family members. The rejection initially caused my father some panic, but eventually he was fortunate in locating two additional American sponsors for my mother and sister. One was a generous American couple he met here, Walter and Mary Phillips. The other was a distant cousin from a branch of the Hoeber family that had come to America nearly a century earlier. Though this cousin, Eugene Hoeber, a businessman in New York, was really a total stranger, he nevertheless agreed to give an affidavit of support to help our family. Here is his affidavit, completed on a form provided by the steamship company that would carry passengers to the United States:
One surprising thing about this document — aside from the fact that Cousin Eugene was willing to provide it at all — was the fact that it indicates he owned $230,000 in stocks and bonds, the equivalent of several million dollars today. Without it, my mother and sister wouldn’t have gotten their visas and would never have gotten to America, and my brother and I would never have been born.
As I wrote in a previous post, my mother got the visas for herself and my sister two months after Eugene signed the Affidavit of Support. An image of the visas entered in her passport is here.