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
My grandfather, Rudolf Höber, was a gentle soul. Although he was a hard-driving, extremely serious scientist, he was much beloved by his students in the Physiological Institute at the University of Kiel, in northern Germany. They admired his sweet disposition and his passion for the exquisite objects of study in the world of natural science. But my Opa Rudi could also be a fighter when someone tried to interfere with teaching or research.
In 1930, three years before Hitler took over Germany, Rudolf Höber served a term as Chancellor of the University of Kiel. In October of that year, a group of Nazi students tried to prevent liberal theologian Otto Baumgarten from lecturing at Kiel because he was a “pacifist” and “Jew-lover.” Rudolf expelled the Nazi ringleaders from the University for their interference with academic freedom. These expulsions led to nationwide demonstrations by right wing students calling for Rudolf’s ouster from from the University — but he persevered in his teaching.
A little over two years after this incident, in January 1933, the Nazis took complete control of Germany. One of Hitler’s first assaults was against thousands of the most prominent professors at the country’s vast university system on the ground that they were either Jews or political opponents of the Nazis. Rudolf was one of the early targets of Hitler’s thugs.
On April 24, 1933, Rudolf was administering examinations to a group of premedical students in the Anatomy Building at the University of Kiel. During a break, he was returning to his residence when he was accosted by a group of Nazis who threatened to kill him unless he abandoned his post as a teacher. Here is his report to the Provost of the University:
Kiel, April 24, 1933
To His Excellency the Provost of the University of Kiel.
In accordance with our discussion, I am submitting this report to you concerning the events of this morning. This morning, as chairman of the Examination Commission for the premedical examination, I was present in the Anatomy Building as proctor for a makeup examination. On my way home I was accosted on Hegewisch Street [where I live] by five SS and SA men and two civilians who told me in the coarsest possible terms that if I did not want to endanger my life I had to keep out of the classrooms and laboratories of the Institute and that I no longer had the right to administer examinations. They talked about the use of hand grenades, about the need to comply with their demands, about the use of force and things like that. When I replied that as chair [of the Examination Commission] I also had to participate in other examinations, I was forced to return to the Anatomy Building, escorted by the troops, in order to share the prohibition orally with Professor Benninghoff and the remaining four examinees in the remaining four institutes.
In the Anatomy Building the people around Professor Benninghoff realized gradually that this oral announcement was meaningless, and therefore accompanied me to the Physiological Institute and left me at my residence. In the meantime, the following had taken place in the Institute: about 30 SS people filled the corridor. They accused Assistant Professor Dr. Netter of being a Jew; the same thing happened shortly after that with Professor Mond. In addition, they issued an order that these men were no longer allowed to administer any examinations either.
I immediately notified Police Chief Count Rantzau by telephone, who promised me to pursue the matter and inform me of the result this afternoon.
There is no record of what action, if any Count Rantzau took, but Rudolf defied the threats of the SA and the SS and returned to his classroom and laboratory within a matter of days. He continued teaching for several months more, and his students loyally attended his lectures despite the threats. This situation couldn’t last, however, as the Nazis tightened their grip on the nation and the German people. In November 1933, Rudolf was permanently dismissed from his professorship. Unable to continue his research and teaching in Germany, he, like so many other brilliant scientists, emigrated, first to England and then to the United States. In 1934 he was appointed Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he continued his pioneering work in physiology until a few years before his death in 1952.
After World War II and the defeat of the Nazis, the Physiological Institute at the University of Kiel was renamed the Rudolf Höber House and a street through the University campus still bears his name.