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.
World War II began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. My mother, Elfriede, and my 9 year old sister, Susanne, were living in Dusseldorf and getting stuck in Nazi Germany became an all-too-real possibility for them. It was imperative that they get away and join my father, who had fled to Philadelphia the previous year. The war had started just a few weeks after the American consul had granted Elfriede and Susanne immigration visas after months of struggling. Then, getting the household packed up, wrapping up their business, and saying farewell to family and friends took weeks — and suddenly it was almost too late.
The start of the war only increased the flood of emigrants racing to escape Europe. The stamps in Elfriede’s passport show that on September 14 she paid the German government 8 Reichsmarks for an exit permit. On September 19 she obtained a bank certification for the 20 Reichsmarks (about $10), the total that she was allowed to take out of Germany. Thankfully, on September 22 at 8:50 P.M. she and Susanne crossed the border at Aachen out of Germany and into Belgium. They arrived in Antwerp the same day, where they were supposed to board a ship for America. But it wasn’t that simple.
The first days of the war saw numerous naval battles between Germany and Great Britain, including the sinking a British warship with a loss of 700 lives. The fighting at sea completely disrupted civilian shipping in the English Channel and the North Atlantic. As a result, Elfriede and Susanne’s ship was delayed again and again. Day after day they trekked to the shipping office of the Holland America Line, which was besieged by hundreds of refugees desperate to escape Europe. Seventy-five years later, Susanne still remembers the grimy hotel, the chaos at the shipping office, the fear and the grinding boredom of the wait. Finally, however, after weeks of waiting, Elfriede was able to confirm their passage on the S.S. Westernland that ultimately left on October 28. She sent off a letter to her husband, Johannes, in Philadelphia, with the news. After explaining the complicated arrangements with finances and ships, she added,
How have these things been with you all these weeks? At this point I’ve heard almost nothing about you for two months, but now it seems like we’ll actually get out of here and get to you. I hope we don’t run into any disaster other than seasickness on the way, because as [my brother] Paul aptly noted, you can take Vasano for seasickness but for torpedoes you can only take a lifeboat. To tell the truth, I’m not really very worried about the torpedoes. When cautious people at home asked me whether I was really going to risk the transatlantic trip at this time, I just answered that it was pretty much the same to me whether a bomb fell on my head in Düsseldorf or a torpedo hit some other part of my body on the ocean. On the other hand, a bomb shelter is warmer than the North Atlantic in October. …
If heaven and assorted Führers don’t spit in our soup again, we’ll be with you in a couple of weeks.
Alles liebe Deine Friedel
The story of what happened next, and more about Elfriede and Johannes’ flight from Germany to the United States, is contained the book from which this story is taken: Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, available by clicking here.
Growing up, my father had no reason to think of himself as Jewish. He was baptized and confirmed in a Protestant church, his father was baptized and confirmed in a Protestant church and his father’s parents were married in a Protestant church in 1865. My father’s mother had been born into a Jewish family but converted to Protestant when she was a teenager. By the time my father was grown, his family lived an entirely secular life. They rarely if ever attended church, though they celebrated the holidays of the Christian calendar.
Several years ago, I found a newspaper clipping pertaining to the antisemitic Nuremberg laws among the papers of my grandfather, Rudolf Höber. Rudolf came to Philadelphia from Nazi Germany in 1933 as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Two years later, my father, Johannes, sent Rudolf this clipping from Germany. The article, captioned “Who is a Citizen?” was clipped from the Kölnische Zeitung (Cologne Daily) of November 15, 1935. The article is the first publication of the implementing regulations for the Nuremberg laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship. When Rudolf and his wife Josephine had left Germany, Johannes had stayed behind in Düsseldorf with my mother and sister. In the letter my father asked his father, Rudolf, for information about Rudolf’s father, Anselm. Was there any possibility that Grandfather Anselm, who died before Johannes was born, had Jewish origins that could have an impact on Johannes?
My father’s status as a Christian or as a nonbeliever was irrelevant to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists. The Nazis considered Jewishness a “race,” an inheritable genetic trait separate and apart from the religion. Their laws defined a person as “Jewish” if he or she had three grandparents who came from Jewish families. Under that definition, hundreds of thousands of Germans who regarded themselves as Christians or nonbelievers were brutally persecuted by the Nazis as “Jews.” Individuals of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry were sometimes subject to less harsh treatment, but the administration of this purported legal structure was capricious– a bureaucrat’s guess at interpreting the code could mean the difference between life and death. Many scholars of the Nazi period today put the term “Jewish” in quotation marks when writing about individuals subject to these codes in order to distinguish between those defined as Jewish by the Nazis and those who used other criteria to identify themselves.
I became aware of all this only years after my father died. My parents were refugees from Hitler’s Germany and I understood them to have left because it was impossible for them, as Social Democrats, to live under Hitler’s inhuman regime. This letter and newspaper clipping show, however, that my father had also faced danger from the Nazis because of his grandfather’s Jewish ancestry. In my father’s letter to his father, he asked for information about Anselm. Under the crazy calculus of the Nuremberg laws, the birth certificate of the grandfather my father never knew might have been of crucial significance for his own future.
My grandfather’s response to my father was not among the papers that my family was able to preserve. My father probably left it behind in Germany when he came to the United States three years later. Suffice it to say that my father continued to live the secular life he always had and managed to avoid any situation in which the question of his grandfather’s Jewish birth might arise. He was thus able to evade the brutal consequences of being deemed a Jew in Nazi Germany. Readers of the posts on this website may recognize that I have subsequently discovered a great deal about my family’s Jewish origins. Much of that would have come as a complete surprise to my father.
Many readers of this blog know that I have been working for a long time to translate and edit nearly a hundred long letters that my parents exchanged as they were fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938-1939. I am very pleased to tell you that my manuscript has been accepted for publication by the American Philosophical Society and will be available as a book by mid-2015.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the American Philosophical Society, it is an international honorary membership organization of scientists, scholars, artists and public officials. Its elected members include numerous heads of state and Nobel prize winners. APS was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743. Its headquarters building, Philosophical Hall, has been located next to Independence Hall since 1789. The Society has maintained a small but important publishing program since its founding, and my book will now join its list of publications.
About Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939
My mother, Elfriede Höber, had to stay behind in Germany when my father left for Philadelphia on November 12, 1938. She and my nine year old sister Susanne were unable to get out of Europe until a year later. It was a scary time. During the months they were separated, my mother and father exchanged long letters, with Elfriede describing the worsening situation under the Nazis and my father, Johannes, describing his flight from Europe and his exhilarating entry into American life. These letters form the basis of Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939.
Johannes died in Washington, DC in 1977 at the age of 73. I found the letters among his papers some years after his death but didn’t grasp their significance for some time. My knowledge of German was sketchy then. Having turned away from Germany in 1939, my parents rarely spoke the language at home; most of the German I knew I learned in high school. Working with a German-English dictionary, I could only make out a few parts of the letters that were typed; the handwritten letters entirely eluded my comprehension. In addition, the letters were full of unintelligible terms that appeared in no dictionary – Abo, Wobla, Staka, Affi – and perplexing names – Onkel Karl, Onkel Paul, Felix, Nepomuk – that didn’t belong to anyone I had ever hear my parents mention. I felt that I would never figure these letters out and that I would be defeated by the handwriting, the foreign language, the mysterious terms and the unidentifiable names. But there was something about the letters – their secrecy, their mystery, and the dark times in which they were written – that kept calling me back.
Over a period of years I tried to figure out what the letters meant. I returned to evening German classes to be better able to deal with the language. I struggled to decipher the words and their significance. It eventually became apparent, from the context, that many words were a code that Johannes and Elfriede understood but others could not. I then realized that the letters were written with the assumption that they might be opened by the Nazi authorities. If that were to happen, Johannes and Elfriede wanted to ensure that their own words would not endanger them or their friends or family. Eventually, from context and research, and from repeated readings, I was able to decode most of the content of the letters.
Working with the letters has shown me that my parents’ story during this dangerous period was not so dark as I had imagined. Indeed, the letters are full of cleverness, good fortune and a persistent optimism in the face of frightening difficulties. At the same time, there is a tension, a sense of strain I feel each time I pick them up. I sensed in these letters how emotionally challenging the events of 1938-1939 were. I often found the anxiety transmitted through their words to me. There were periods when I gave up all work on the letters for a year or two at a time.
But I did go back, and eventually there was a great reward for me in deciphering and understanding the letters in this book. Although Johannes died in 1977 and Elfriede in 1999, through the letters I got to meet and know them as two new people. As a father, Johannes could be difficult, but in the letters he is charming, caring, clever, ambitious and loving and concerned for the welfare of Elfriede and Susanne. He helped and encouraged Elfriede to do what she had to do to escape from Germany and bring Susanne to him. As a mother, Elfriede could be reserved, even stolid, but in these letters I discovered an affectionate, engaged and loving wife and mother.
In deciphering these letters I also discovered two fine, passionate, but very different writers. My father’s letters are carefully organized and precise, self-conscious and at the same time full of colorful detail and rich accounts of people, places and events that convey his deep interest in the world he observed. My mother’s letters, even when slightly chaotic, convey a full sense of her strong feelings about what she was experiencing. Her letters are often laced with a breezy wit, though the humor is mostly ironic and often witheringly sarcastic. I never knew my mother was as darkly funny as she is in these letters.
Writing a book and getting it published is no sport for the short-winded. I have been working on this project for a long time and it will be more months until the book sees the light of day. But it is thrilling work and I am very much looking forward to the day when I can share all of this with all of you.
Between 1934 and 1938, my father and mother, Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber, lived in Düsseldorf, Germany and my father’s parents lived in Philadelphia. Because my parents and grandparents were part of a close family, they communicated frequently by mail. It was common for each of them to write a 4 to 6 page letter once or twice a week sharing the news of their lives. There was no transatlantic telephone connection and telegrams were outrageously expensive — it cost the equivalent of $50 in today’s money to send a one-line message that way. As a result, sea mail was the primary means of communication.
The mechanics of transatlantic mail were complicated. All mail went by ship, most often passenger liners that made the fastest trips between European ports — Hamburg, Bremen, Cherbourg, etc. — and New York. People who wrote frequently would buy a copy of the monthly European shipping schedule (above) that showed the various ships, the days they were scheduled to leave a particular port and the date of arrival in New York, as well as schedules from New York to European ports. A person sending a letter would look up the next ship departing from a nearby port and note on the envelope not just the address of the recipient but also the ship that should take it. Thus, in the upper left corner of the envelope, a writer might note “via Staatendam from Amsterdam.” The postal service would pick up the envelope from the mailbox and deliver the envelope to that ship, usually in one day. If you were in a hurry, you could send the letter from Düsseldorf to the ship in the port city by plane. Mail would be sorted on the ship and when the ship arrived in New York it would be put on a train to the right city or town. A letter mailed from Düsseldorf could thus be delivered in Philadelphia in nine or ten days. The Postal Service delivered mail twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon except on Sunday.
In late 1935, a great new method for rapid communications was announced: overseas airmail. While the fastest ocean liners took six days to cross the Atlantic, the huge new dirigibles, named Zeppelins after their inventor, could travel at speeds up to 85 miles an hour and took mail across the ocean in only two and a half days. While air mail was more expensive, it was worth it to speed up the delivery of important messages.
Unfortunately this wonderful new high-tech service lasted only a year and a half. On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg was destroyed when it exploded as it was landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Although there were other Zeppelin dirigibles, they were never again used for transporting mail. There was no air mail service between Europe and the United States for another two years, when Pan American Airways began carrying mail on its transatlantic Clipper planes in March 1939.
Johannes Höber left Nazi Germany for Philadelphia on November 12, 1938. His wife Elfriede and their nine year old daughter Susanne were unable to leave until a year later. During the months they were separated, Johannes and Elfriede exchanged long letters, with Elfriede describing the worsening situation in Germany and Johannes describing his flight from Europe and his exhilarating entry into American life. Their exchange recounts, in a very personal way, how the Nazis drove decent, talented Germans out of their country and how one refugee family made its way through frightening circumstances to a safe haven. For the last year I have been preparing these letters for publication. The work has involved deciphering and transcribing the letters and writing an introduction, extensive footnotes and an epilogue.
Johannes was my father; he died in Washington, DC in 1977 at the age of 73. A year later, Elfriede, my mother, came to live with me and my wife, Ditta, in Philadelphia. Along with her other furniture, Elfriede brought several file cabinets filled with papers she and Johannes had accumulated over their lifetime.
In the 1980’s, I would take care of Elfriede’s bills and correspondence when she was traveling. One day I began to explore the file cabinets. And in one cabinet, jammed in at the back of a particularly tight and over-filled drawer, was a thick folder stuffed with yellowed, tattered pages. It was not an American manila folder like all the others, but a kind of black pasteboard, old and foreign-looking. The folder looked as though no one had opened it in many, many years. When I cautiously turned back the cover and began to read, I found that the papers in the folder were a long set of letters written by Johannes and Elfriede. They were all in German; many were typed and many others were written with a fountain pen in my mother’s distinctive, regular but nearly indecipherable hand. The earliest letters and postcards at the back of the folder were dated in November 1938 and the latest at the front of the folder were dated in October 1939. They were the letters my parents exchanged during the year they were apart.
When I first found the letters, my knowledge of German was sketchy. Having turned away from Germany in 1939, my parents rarely spoke the language at home and most of the German I knew I had learned in high school. Working with a German-English dictionary, I could only make out a few parts of the letters that were typed; the handwritten letters entirely defeated my attempts at comprehension. In addition, the letters were full of unintelligible terms that appeared in no dictionary – Abo, Wobla, Staka, Affi – and perplexing names – Onkel Karl, Onkel Paul, Felix, Nepomuk – that didn’t belong to anyone I had ever hear my parents mention. I felt that I would never figure these letters out and that I would be defeated by the handwriting, the foreign language, the mysterious terms and the unidentifiable names. But there was something about the letters – their secrecy, their mystery, and the dark times in which they were written – that kept calling me back.
Over a period of years I worked on the letters, laboring to find their meaning. I returned to evening German classes to be better able to deal with the language. I struggled again and again to decipher the words and their significance. It eventually became apparent, from the context, that many words were a code that Johannes and Elfriede understood but others could not. It dawned on me that the letters were written with the assumption that they might be opened by the Nazi authorities. If that were to happen, Johannes and Elfriede wanted to ensure that their own words would not endanger them or their friends or family. From context and research, however, and from repeated readings, I believe that I have been able to decode most of the content of the letters.
Working with the letters has shown me that my parents’ story is not so dark as I had imagined. Indeed, the letters are full of cleverness, good fortune and a persistent optimism in the face of frightening difficulties. At the same time, there is a tension, a sense of strain I feel each time I pick them up. I sensed in these letters how emotionally challenging the events of 1938-1939 were for my parents. I often found the same anxiety transmitted through their words to me. There were periods when I gave up all work on the letters for a year or two at a time.
But I did go back, and eventually there was a huge reward for me in reading, deciphering and understanding the letters in this book. Although Johannes died in 1977 and Elfriede in 1999, through the letters I got to meet and know them as two new people. As a father, Johannes could be difficult, but in the letters he is charming, caring, clever, ambitious and loving and concerned for the welfare of Elfriede and my then-nine-year-old sister, Susanne. He helped and encouraged Elfriede to do what she had to do to escape from Germany and bring Susanne to him. As a mother, Elfriede could be reserved, even stolid, but in these letters I discovered an affectionate, concerned, engaged and loving wife and mother.
In deciphering these letters I also discovered two fine, passionate, but very different writers. My father’s letters are carefully organized and precise, self-conscious and at the same time full of colorful detail and rich accounts of people, places and events that convey his deep interest in the world he observed. My mother’s letters are sometimes slightly chaotic, but they convey a full sense of her strong feelings about what she was experiencing. Her letters are often laced with a breezy wit, though the humor is mostly ironic and often witheringly sarcastic. I never knew my mother was as funny as she is in these letters.
The transcribed letters come to 300-400 pages; they will make an engaging book. I am working on this project with a historian friend in Dresden to prepare an edition in German and I am now translating the letters for an English edition. My expectation is that the manuscripts in both languages will be finished before the end of 2012. I am looking forward to the day when I can share these letters with all of you.