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
If you’re pretty well educated in your birth country, it’s daunting to face a new country and become a person who knows less than anyone else. So how do you catch up? When my parents decided it was time to flee Nazi Germany, their answer was books. I still have some of them. I love this beautiful history of the United States, with its funky canvas dust jacket and the stars on the spine:
My mother’s mother gave her fleeing daughter and son-in-law this old Baedeker’s guidebook to the United States, in English. The fold-out city maps are small but quite detailed. Years later my mother fell in love with the Rand McNally Road Atlas, but in the beginning it was this Baedeker that got her and my father started on American geography:
What do you give a bright eight-year-old to learn a bit about adventures in America? The choices in Nazi Germany weren’t too great, but you could do worse than providing her with a German translation of an American classic — Huck Finn. Susanne learned to love Mark Twain’s stories of life on the Mississippi well before she got here:
And how do you learn to raise children the American way? A couple years after arriving here, my parents were confronted with two new babies in short order — my brother and then me. Fortunately, every American at the time followed the same child-rearing Bible, Dr. Spock. That my mother referred to it frequently is shown by the tattered condition of this cheap paperback edition. She must have been comforted by the first eight words of the book, one of the most uplifting opening sentences of any book ever: “You know more than you think you do.” The simplest reassurance imaginable.
German schools didn’t teach much about the American Revolution, so even educated immigrants didn’t know much about early American history. A German friend who had arrived in America a couple of years earlier than my parents introduced them to the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts set in the American Revolution and the years of the Early Republic. Roberts was a fine historian as well as a novelist, and my parents learned more than many Americans about our early history in a short time from his books. Because of him they loved to visit historic sites in the U.S., starting with Valley Forge shortly after their arrival:
My mother, particularly, developed an interest in the history of Philadelphia. She was fascinated to learn that in the early 20th century Philadelphia was governed by a German-American progressive named Rudolph Blankenburg. At Leary’s huge used book store on 9th Street above Chestnut, she was able to by a book on Mayor Blankenburg, written by his wife, for half a dollar:
When my parents had been in the U.S. for some time, my mother acquired her great treasure, a copy of Scharf and Westcott’s magnificent three-volume History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884. Standards of historical accuracy were different when this set was published, but it is still a wonderful source of anecdotes about the city in its first 275 years:
More on the Hoeber family is in the book Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939. Click here for details and ordering information.
Americans are schizophrenic about immigration. We have two contradictory traditions with respect to people from other countries who come here to live. On the one hand, we have the Emma Lazarus, tradition: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore … ” and so on. This welcoming tradition dates as far back as William Penn, whose 1701 Charter of Privileges welcomed people of all nationalities and religions to come and live in his Quaker colony in America. On the other hand, America has an equally strong xenophobic tradition, from the Alien Enemies and Naturalization Acts of 1798, through the nativist Know Nothing Party of the 1840s and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the restrictive Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and the proposal today of a leading candidate for president of the United States to physically deport 11 million migrants by force. For more than two centuries, persons wanting to come here from abroad to live have encountered these contradictory impulses in American culture—welcoming and exclusionary—when trying to secure permission to immigrate.
In the process of escaping Hitler and finding refuge here, my parents encountered both of these contrary American traditions. My book, Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, illustrates the realities for a family negotiating what was ultimately an arbitrary U.S. immigration process as well as the day-to-day personal impact of migration under pressure. My parents got out of Germany and into the U.S. as the result of their education, hard work and good luck. But if it had not been for generous Americans who enthusiastically supported refugees who wanted to become part of the American fabric, their story could easily have turned out differently.
On November 22, 2015, I spoke with radio producer Loraine Ballard Morrill in Philadelphia about Johannes and Elfriede’s experiences in getting into the United States as they sought to escape Germany in 1938 and 1939. The conversation led to a discussion about the parallels between anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 1930s that led to the restrictions on refugees in that period and the politics of exclusion of Syrian refugees in 2015. You can hear the interview by clicking here.
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.