They Saved My Family

A couple of years ago, I wrote about The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, which paid my grandfather’s salary at the university of Pennsylvania in 1934, making it possible for him to escape Nazi Germany. That Committee was a project of the Institute for international Education Scholar Rescue Fund. This year, the IIE-SRF celebrates its centenary, marking a hundred years of aiding international scholars threatened by conditions in their home countries. As part of the observance, the IIE is publishing stories of some of the scholars they helped over the years. They asked me to write an article about my grandfather. Here is the result.

From the IIE scholar rescue archives: Renowned physiologist Rudolf Höber

For the past 100 years, IIE has led special efforts to rescue academics who face threats to their lives and scholarly work. One of IIE’s most notable efforts was the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, which from 1933-1945 offered temporary academic homes in colleges and universities in the United States to more than 300 European scholars facing Nazi persecution. One such scholar was Dr. Rudolf Höber, a celebrated physiologist and human rights defender. In the below article, guest author Francis W. Hoeber tells us more about his grandfather’s remarkable life and work.

“My grandfather, Rudolf Höber (1873-1953), was a celebrity in the world of physiology. His pioneering work in biochemistry and biophysics won him worldwide recognition and two nominations for the Nobel prize. From 1911 to 1933, Höber was a professor at the University of Kiel in Germany and head of the prestigious Physiological Institute there.

Höber was more than a brilliant scientist; he was a humanist and social progressive as well. An early feminist, he focused on bringing women into the field of medicine, including his wife, Dr. Josephine M. Höber; 22 of the 24 doctoral dissertations he supervised at the University of Zürich early in his career were prepared by women scholars. When women got the right to vote in 1920, his wife quickly became a leading political activist, especially in public health and women’s rights. In the 1920s, Höber joined with other leading scientists and writers calling for the decriminalization of consensual same-sex relations. From 1930-1931, Höber served a term as Chancellor of the University of Kiel. Twice he had to discipline right wing students who disrupted speakers who were liberal or Jewish. In 1931 he expelled several Nazi students and banned the Nazi student group from the campus.

When Adolf Hitler took power in January 1933, Höber’s anti-Nazi record, plus the fact that one of his grandfathers was Jewish, made him an immediate target. That April, men in uniforms of Hitler’s Stormtroopers and the SS charged into Höber’s classroom. The Nazis threatened to kill him and throw grenades into his classrooms unless he quit his teaching. Höber laid low for a couple of days, but then returned to teaching his students despite the risk.

In the summer of 1933, however, the Nazi Education Ministry fired him from his professor position and expelled him from the university. Desperate to continue his scientific research, Höber applied to IIE’s Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars for help. In a fairly short time, the Committee’s director, Edward R. Murrow, wrote Höber and arranged a teaching position and small lab at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. At UPenn, he continued his research on the molecular structure of cell membranes, with his wife as his laboratory collaborator. They co-authored numerous scientific articles and a new edition of Höber’s celebrated monograph, The Physical Chemistry of Cells and Tissues. This was in addition to lecturing and mentoring graduate students in advanced medical research. Höber’s adult children and their families were eventually able to follow him and his wife to the U.S. His descendants contributed much to their new country as academics, scientists, public servants, and artists.

The work of IIE’s Emergency Committee meant, literally, the survival of our family. In the midst of our current dark times, IIE helps us remember that the world has recovered from dreadful situations before.”

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

German edition, Deutsche auf der Flucht, ein Briefwechsel zwischen Deutschland und Amerika von 1938 bis 1938, available here.

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