A Story in Some Grains of Sand

Old Delft vase acquired by Jacob Marx around 1870, Berlin.

Old Delft vase acquired by Jacob Marx around 1870, Berlin.

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.

Sand from the Baltic, Kiel 1914, Barnard 2016

Sand from the vase. Baltic Sea, Kiel 1914, Barnard, Vermont 2016

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.

Jakob Marx, 18XX-18XX

Jakob Marx, 1835-1883

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.

Rudolf and Josephine Höber with their first child, Johannes, around December 1904.

Rudolf and Josephine Höber with their first child, Johannes, around December 1904 (ten years before they inherited the Delft vases).

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.

Sue and Lloyd Rudolph's house in Barnard, Vermont, the last stop so far in the Delft vases ' journey.

Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph’s house in Barnard, Vermont, the last stop so far in the Delft vase’s journey.

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


The Dark Humor of a Nuremberg Prosecutor — 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More stories about the Hoeber family are to be found in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available hereAlso available at Amazon.com


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

 

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

REVIEW 

AGAINST TIME:  Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939,  by Francis W. Hoeber

Francis Hoeber possesses, apparently, decades’ worth of materials from his family’s history.  However, he has chosen to publish only letters from 1938 and 1939, because they are truly exceptional in foregrounding human experience in the face of obliterating fascism.  His father, Johannes, had emigrated from Germany in 1938, with the idea that Elfriede would follow with their young daughter.  Complications arose.  Eventually they united, lived in the US, and raised their family.  That is a passive, objective summary.  In contrast, these letters, written by two literate, gifted writers, construct a deeply experienced history entwined with significant world events.  Genuine, emotional, human, rational—the letters exemplify precisely why published history needs such primary material. We can read or view synthesized historical accounts in textbooks or documentaries; we can summarize and categorize, intellectually.  However, only by absorbing the personal narratives of people who recount the events they lived through can readers approximate the feelings, the vibrant presence, the individual acts that enliven historical experience.  Through self-expressed microhistory, whether routine (running a business) or epochal (Kristallnacht), readers feel the macrohistory viscerally.  Hoeber provides relevant context in footnotes and summaries to orient readers.

Summing up:  Highly recommended.

–J. B. Wolford, University of Missouri—St. Louis

More information about Against Time is available by clicking here.

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

Also available at Amazon.com


Through Books, Immigrants Become Americans. 1939 …

If you’re pretty well educated in your birth country, it’s daunting to face a new country and become a person who knows less than anyone else.  So how do you catch up?  When my parents decided it was time to flee Nazi Germany, their answer was books.  I still have some of them.  I love this beautiful history of the United States, with its funky canvas dust jacket and the stars on the spine:

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

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

My mother’s mother gave her fleeing daughter and son-in-law this old Baedeker’s guidebook to the United States, in English.  The fold-out city maps are small but quite detailed.  Years later my mother fell in love with the Rand McNally Road Atlas, but in the beginning it was this Baedeker that got her and my father started on American geography:

Karl Baedecker, United States, Leipzig, 1909

Karl Baedecker, United States, Leipzig, 1909

 

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

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

What do you give a bright eight-year-old to learn a bit about adventures in America?  The choices in Nazi Germany weren’t too great, but you could do worse than providing her with a German translation of an American classic — Huck Finn.  Susanne learned to love Mark Twain’s stories of life on the Mississippi well before she got here:

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

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

And how do you learn to raise children the American way? A couple years after arriving here, my parents were confronted with two new babies in short order — my brother and then me.  Fortunately, every American at the time followed the same child-rearing Bible, Dr. Spock.  That my mother referred to it frequently is shown by the tattered condition of this cheap paperback edition. She must have been comforted by the first eight words of the book, one of the most uplifting opening sentences of any book ever:  “You know more than you think you do.” The simplest reassurance imaginable.

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

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

German schools didn’t teach much about the American Revolution, so even educated immigrants didn’t know much about early American history.  A German friend who had arrived in America a couple of years earlier than my parents introduced them to the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts set in the American Revolution and the years of the Early Republic.  Roberts was a fine historian as well as a novelist, and my parents learned more than many Americans about our early history in a short time from his books.  Because of him they loved to visit historic sites in the U.S., starting with Valley Forge shortly after their arrival:

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

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

My mother, particularly, developed an interest in the history of Philadelphia.  She was fascinated to learn that in the early 20th century Philadelphia was governed by a German-American progressive named Rudolph Blankenburg.  At Leary’s huge used book store on 9th Street above Chestnut, she was able to by a book on Mayor Blankenburg, written by his wife, for half a dollar:

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

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

When my parents had been in the U.S. for some time, my mother acquired her great treasure, a copy of Scharf and Westcott’s magnificent three-volume History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884.  Standards of historical accuracy were different when this set was published, but it is still a wonderful source of anecdotes about the city in its first 275 years:

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

Americans are schizophrenic about immigration.  We have two contradictory traditions with respect to people from other countries who come here  to live.  On the one hand, we have the Emma Lazarus, tradition:  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore … ” and so on.  This welcoming tradition dates as far back as William Penn, whose 1701 Charter of Privileges welcomed people of all nationalities and religions to come and live in his Quaker colony in America.  On the other hand, America has an equally strong xenophobic tradition, from the Alien Enemies and Naturalization Acts of 1798, through the nativist Know Nothing Party of the 1840s and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the restrictive Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and the proposal today of a leading candidate for president of the United States to physically deport 11 million migrants by force.  For more than two centuries, persons wanting to come here from abroad to live have encountered these contradictory impulses in American culture—welcoming and exclusionary—when trying to secure permission to immigrate.

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

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

In the process of escaping Hitler and finding refuge here, my parents encountered both of these contrary American traditions.  My book, Against Time:  Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, illustrates the realities for a family negotiating what was ultimately an arbitrary U.S. immigration process as well as the day-to-day personal impact of migration under pressure.  My parents got out of Germany and into the U.S. as the result of their education, hard work and good luck.  But if it had not been for generous Americans who enthusiastically supported refugees who wanted to become part of the American fabric, their story could easily have turned out differently.

On November 22, 2015, I spoke with radio producer Loraine Ballard Morrill in Philadelphia about Johannes and Elfriede’s experiences in getting into the United States as they sought to escape Germany in 1938 and 1939.  The conversation led to a discussion about the parallels between anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 1930s that led to the restrictions on refugees in that period and the politics of exclusion of Syrian refugees in 2015.  You can hear the interview by clicking here.

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

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

 

 

 

 


AGAINST TIME: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks so much for your interest.


A Fastidious European Becomes an American Do-It-Yourselfer — 1939

The working mechanism inside an American toilet tank, ca. 1939.

The working mechanism inside an American toilet tank, ca. 1939.

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.”

Ten members of the Hoeber family shared this house in 1939 before most of them had jobs in the new country. The house at 6701 Cresheim Road is in better condition today than it was then.

Ten members of the Hoeber family shared this house in 1939 before most of them had jobs in the new country. The house at 6701 Cresheim Road is in better condition today than it was then.

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.

Bellet's Hardware closed years ago, but it probably looked a lot like Bruskin's, an ancient hardware store still operating today in South Philadelphia.

Bellet’s Hardware closed years ago, but it probably looked a lot like Bruskin’s, an ancient hardware store still operating in South Philadelphia.

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.

Johannes U. Hoeber, when he wasn't repairing a toilet.

Johannes U. Hoeber, when he wasn’t repairing a toilet, 1939.

Johannes and his son Tom repair a door at the family's house at 612 West Cliveden St., Philadelphia, 1953

Johannes and his son Tom repair a door at the family’s house at 612 West Cliveden St., Philadelphia, 1953