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 here. Also available at Amazon.com.
German edition, Deutsche auf der Flucht, ein Briefwechsel zwischen Deutschland und Amerika von 1938 bis 1938, available here.
This entire blog is available in book form. Send a note to the author through the comments section below.
THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE IN GERMAN
There are about 75 million cells in a tablespoon of blood. My grandfather, Rudolf Höber, an early cellular physiologist, spent his whole life studying these microscopic entities, trying to figure out how they work. He and others knew that electric current is conducted within and between these cells. How much electric current? How does it work? How do you measure it? My grandfather figured it out. He published the method of measuring conductivity in cells in a German scientific journal, Pflüger’s Archiv für die gesamte Physiologie der Menschen und der Tiere [“Journal of General Physiology of Humans and Animals.”] In the original, it looked like this:
A couple of years ago, I was surprised to learn that my grandfather’s work on the measurement of electrical current in cells was still considered relevant, sufficiently so that it warranted publication of its own commemorative article. Ron Pethig, Professor of Bioelectronics and Dr. Ilke Schmueser, Researcher, both at the University of Edinburgh, published “Marking 100 Years Since Rudolf Höber’s Discovery of the Insulating Envelope Surrounding Cells and of the Beta-Dispersion Exhibited by Tissue” (Journal of Electrical Bioimpedence, vol. 3, pp. 74-49, 2012).
THE ARTICLE AS NEWLY TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY JAMES C. M. HWANG AND DIETER G. AST, 2020
Recently, I was unexpectedly contacted by James C. M. Hwang, a senior research professor in materials science at Cornell University. He had just completed an article on “Label-free Noninvasive Cell Characterization by Broadband Impedance Spectroscopy“, to be published next year by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in its IEEE Microwave Magazine . His article reviews work done by various scientists in the past, including that of my grandfather, and finds that the principles they explored may be adapted to promise advances in science and engineering using today’s technologies. He found the work of my grandfather sufficiently interesting and relevant today that he enlisted a German-native-speaker colleague, Prof. Dieter G. Ast, to collaborate with him on producing an English translation. And now I am very pleased to be able to present “A Method to Measure the Electrical Conductivity Inside Cells,” available for the first time in English, thanks to Profs. Hwang and Ast. In the continuing documentation of our family’s history, we are grateful to them for this work. The complete translation appears at the end of this post.
HAVING TROUBLE UNDERSTANDING THESE ARTICLES?
I have been told that my Opa Rudi, the great physiologist, had hopes that I might follow him into a career in the sciences. Alas, my life took me in different directions. As a result, I must admit that my understanding of my grandfather’s groundbreaking article is limited, even in English. Nevertheless, it is a great satisfaction that scientists who do have the necessary knowledge find his work of a century ago to be relevant for further research, discovery and invention in the twenty-first century.
NOTE: The copyright on my grandfather’s original article is arguably still owned by the successor to the original publisher. Hence the following notice: Translated by permission of Springer Nature, Rudolf Höber, Pflüger’s Archiv für die gesamte Physiologie der Menschen und der Tiere, “Eine Methode, die Leitfähigkeit im Innern von Zellen zu messen,” copyright 1910.
The National Socialists took control of the German government on January 30, 1933 and consolidated their power with great speed. Political street violence had been part of German life for a long time, but the Nazis escalated that pattern rapidly and brutally, using terrorist tactics to wipe out political opposition in a matter of weeks. My father, Johannes (1904-1977), was the first victim in our family, when he was arrested in March and imprisoned for several weeks because of his liberal politics, and my grandfather, Rudolf (1873-1953),was next when he was expelled from his professor’s position the following fall, in part because of actions he took against Nazi students. The situation with my mother’s brothers was something else entirely.
My mother had three younger brothers who, in 1933, were in their mid-twenties. All three were good looking and charming, with cheerful dispositions and a taste for evenings with friends in the taverns of Düsseldorf’s Altstadt, taverns with names like the Golden Kettle (Im Goldenen Kessel) and Fatty’s Irish Pub, which are still popular today. On the night of Tuesday, November 7, 1933, my uncles Paul Fischer (1909-1947), a recent law graduate still in training, and Herbert Fischer (1907-1992), by day in business with his father, went out for an evening of socializing. Their father Franz (1868-1937) and older brother Günter (1906-1979) were away on a business trip for several days.
The social evening lasted until 3 :00 in the morning, when the bars closed. Paul and Herbert, whose state after a long night of drinking can only be guessed, got into the car of a friend who drove them home. Still joking as they tumbled out of the car, Herbert spotted a poster that had been pasted on a nearby wall and was partially coming off. Tearing the poster off the wall, Herbert crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the car at his friend saying, “Here! You can use this to clean your windshield!” It seems that Herbert didn’t recognize the poster as Nazi propaganda, nor did he notice the Stormtrooper watching nearby. Although lacking legal authority, the hundreds of thousands of brown-shirted Stormtroopers of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung constituted a militia of the Nazi Party and were free to attack and bully citizens who showed any sign of dissent from the regime. Although Herbert was non-political, the waiting Stormtrooper saw his petty vandalism as a political act and took him into custody. Paul went along to be a witness in his brother’s defense, but soon found himself taken into custody as well.
As Paul and Herbert got passed on from the Stormtrooper to a bicycle policeman to an automobile police squad to the police station, the story of the incident grew from a tipsy prank to an organized conspiracy against the state. By dawn, both Herbert and Paul were arrested and imprisoned and their case turned over to the “political police,” a part of the recently formed Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo). Apparently the fact that Paul was a lawyer in training (Referendar) increased the Gestapo’s suspicions. The brothers were held for more than a week without charges and were subject to repeated beatings.
The day after the arrest, my grandmother and my father and mother began agitating with the police for the young men’s release. It took three days just to identify the official with authority over Paul and Herbert’s case. My grandmother was so desperate for her sons’ release that she forced herself to mumble “Heil Hitler!” to the police official, the only time in the entire Nazi period that she ever used that hated salutation. As my father wrote at the time, “Endless approaches, endless waiting, walking down endless corridors, daily hopes, daily disappointments, long negotiations and discussions, after the third day with the help of a lawyer.” After a week, Paul was released with no explanation either for his arrest or his beatings or his release. He left the city immediately to recuperate from the wounds he received in the beatings. Herbert continued to be held, inexplicably, because, as my father wrote, “He never at any time ever engaged in any political activity whatsoever.” Nevertheless, it took another week to negotiate his release, again without explanation, but, as my mother wrote, he came out “relatively undamaged.”
In the end, it all came to nothing and the brothers returned to their respective occupations. But the reality of being arrested and beaten and held for many days for no reason was part of the atmosphere of terror that would be part of daily life in Germany for the next 12 years.
More stories about the Hoeber and Fischer families 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
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
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
It was said in my family that my father, Johannes Höber, had a knack for being present at historic events. I recently discovered such an incident that I had not known about before. The story is told in a couple of postcards that were found recently among the papers of my sister, Susanne. The postcards were written by my father as a child, in an old fashioned German script that even some German readers do not know today. As was usual at that time, a grownup drew lines on the card with a ruler and pencil to help the child write straight and evenly.
Johannes lived with his parents in the northern port city of Kiel, where his father was a professor and his mother a physician. Johannes’s widowed grandmother, Großmama Mimi, lived in Berlin, a five hour train trip from Kiel. In Late July 1914, Johannes and his younger sister Grilli and their mother made the trip from Kiel to Berlin to stay for a couple of weeks with Großmama Mimi. Perhaps the occasion for the trip was Johannes’s birthday: he turned ten on August 7. While the children were visiting friends in Potsdam, outside Berlin, World War I broke out with Germany’s declaration of war against Russia on August 1, followed promptly by the German invasion of Russia’s ally, France.In the postcards postmarked August 10, Johannes wrote home to his father in Kiel, thanking him for a birthday card and telling him the excitement he had seen in the city. He probably started with a single card, but his enthusiasm carried the message to a second card. Here is what he wrote:
Your card just arrived and I like it a lot. Hopefully we will see each other again soon. Yesterday there was an outdoor church service and a departure parade for the first infantry regiment. We left here already at 10 and arrived at the Lustgarten [park in front of the Imperial palace] – that’s where the parade was – just as a group of the soldiers were marching in. We then looked around and found a very nice place to watch the Kaiser arrive. We had waited barely 5 minutes when we heard “Hurrah!” in the distance and suddenly the Kaiser’s car came around the corner and drove by directly in front of us. It continued for a while that way and eventually we saw the Kaiser driving back.
It is wonderful here in Potsdam. Grilli went to school with [her friend] Tutti today and tidied up and then sewed a gusset and a “Nog” [?] on a shirt for a soldier’s uniform. I spent the whole morning today cutting up wood with a saw.
Your Jonny (now 10)
Thus Johannes was present to see some of the first troops to depart from Germany for the War, under the personal direction of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Four years later, as the War came to an end, Johannes would also witness the mutiny of German Navy at the Kiel naval base. He was walking home from school when he encountered sailors firing on their officers in the streets outside the warship facility. This was one of the events leading to Germany’s signing an armistice ending the War, and another in a string of historic events to which Johannes would be an eyewitness.
For more on the Hoeber family, click here.
When my mother and father were forced to leave Germany in 1939, they had to abandon everything they owned. Five years earlier, however, when my father’s parents were expelled by the Nazis, it was still possible for them to bring personal effects with them. My grandfather, Rudolf Höber and my grandmother, Jospehine Marx Höber, both came from families that were pretty well off. Some of the things they brought with them are still in use in our house today, and we enjoy them particularly around Christmas time.
At Christmas dinner we often use white napkins saved for special occasions. Linen napkins in bourgeois households in 19th century Germany were huge, nearly a meter square. When my great-grandmother, Elise Koehlau, married Anselm Höber in 1865, she brought a supply of such napkins into the marriage. As was traditional then, she embroidered the monogram of her maiden name in the corner of the napkins with red thread and each napkin was numbered.
My grandmother’s father, Jakob Marx, made money as a financier in the Franco-Prussian War. He and his wife Marie had a home at Pariserplatz 1, next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. These plates were theirs.
When my grandparents, Rudolf and Josephine, married in 1901 they got a set of silverware with an “RJH” monogram.
When my parents and grandparents came to this country over 75 years ago, they rapidly became integrated into the life of their new country, to which they were devoted. Like so many American families, however, we hang on to some of the ways our family did things generations ago, particularly at holidays. After all these years, we still roast a goose at Christmas and bring out some of the beautiful things that remind us of our history.
I love this picture. A balding man in a brown work coat lies on a wooden garden lounge chair incongruously brought into the paneled rooms of the Physiological Institute at the University of Kiel, Germany in 1927. The experimental subject is wired to an electrical apparatus on a table that is in turn wired to a morning-glory-shaped loudspeaker horn. We are standing with a group of medical students waiting intently for the sound of the subject’s heart muscles and nerves to emerge from the horn (and perhaps hoping that the 100-volt battery that powers the apparatus doesn’t do him any harm). The device emitted rhythmic notes of varying tones and intensity as the electrical impulses in the muscles and nerves varied with the heartbeat. Sometimes called the “electric stethoscope,” this instrument was adapted as a teaching tool to train doctors to diagnose the condition of the heart through sound.
One of the first persons to use the amplified sound of the heart to teach use of the stethoscope was my grandfather, Rudolf Höber (1873-1953). He was a pioneering physiologist at the Universities of Zürich, Kiel and Pennsylvania who has been remembered for discoveries in biochemistry and biophysics at the cellular level. A couple of years ago, The Journal of Electrical Bioimpedence noted the 100th anniversary of Rudolf’s discoveries related to the variability of electrical charges across cell membranes. Among other things, Rudolf was an inventor who devised instruments for measuring electrical characteristics at the cellular level; he even had a glass blower working for him to fabricate apparatus. Here is his diagram of a bioelectric device he created around 1910:
During World War I, the technology of vacuum tubes was developed that enabled the amplification of electrical waves for use in telephones. Rudolf adapted this technology to use in combination with his earlier bioelectric measurement devices — resulting in the mechanism at the top of this page.
This year the University of Kiel is marking its 350th anniversary with a series of events, including the medical school’s exhibition on prominent scientists who worked there. You can get information about the overall exhibition by clicking here and about Rudolf in particular here.
By all accounts, my grandfather, Rudolf Höber, was a man with a sweet disposition. He had lived through tragedy in his own life, including the suicide of his father and the death of his brother in a mountaineering accident. Rudolf’s best friend, Albrecht Bethe, believed these experiences endowed him with a deep sympathy for the troubles of others. Although he was a brilliant scientist who explored the biochemistry of cells, he retained a sensitive appreciation for the beauty of the natural world as a whole. At a time when German professors held enormous social status and were known for their imperiousness, Rudolf was valued by his students and colleagues for his accessibility and camaraderie.
Among other things, Rudolf was a committed feminist. In an era when educational opportunities for women in science and the professions were limited, Rudolf mentored his new wife, Josephine, through medical school and into her practice as a physician. In addition, during his eleven years as an instructor [Privatdozent] at the University of Zürich (1898-1909) he supervised the dissertations of 24 medical students, two-thirds of whom were women.
Rudolf was named Associate Professor of physiology in the medical school at the University of Kiel in 1909 Then, exactly 100 years ago, Rudolf was appointed to the position of full professor and Director of the Physiological Institute. The title of Professor was then so exalted in Germany that it could only be bestowed by the Emperor himself. And so it was that Kaiser Wilhelm signed Rudolf’s appointment certificate on February 11, 1915.
By 1930, Rudolf had become internationally known for his scientific work and for the work of the Physiological Institute he led. In recognition, the University faculty elected him to the position of Rektor, or Chancellor, of the University. Still, he retained his charm and good nature. In May, Professor Hugo Prinz sent Rudolf a memo requesting that the Rektor issue an order directing that students were not permitted to congregate on the steps of the classroom buildings during the interval between classes. Rudolf responded the next day:
Your request that a notice be posted directing students that they are forbidden to stand on the steps during the interval between classes has been placed before me today. I should like to recommend to you kindly that you not insist upon this. It is surely not practical to ensure compliance with the prohibition. Furthermore, the steps are so particularly alluring as a place to linger in the sunshine that your proposal strikes me as rather cruel. I hope that your discomfort will not be too great, and that you will understand that I cannot put the requested directive into effect.
With best wishes,
In 1933, Rudolf emigrated to Philadelphia, where he received an appointment at the University of Pennsylvania. He continued to be popular among his students and continued to mentor women students in particular until his retirement in 1947.
Special sets of knives and forks for eating fish became popular in Europe in the late 19th century. The steel blades used at that time in ordinary silverware would react with fish in a way that imparted an unpleasant metallic taste. Fish sets had silver-plated brass blades and tines that did not interfere with the delicate taste of fish. The set pictured here was given to my grandparents, Rudolf and Josephine Marx Höber, as a wedding present at the time of their marriage on August 10, 1901.
Rudolf and Jospehine were fortunate in being able to bring the fish set with them when they were driven out of Nazi Germany and fled to America in 1934.
After Rudolf and Josephine died, the fish set was passed on to my parents, Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber.
After my parents’ deaths, the fish set came to me and my wife, Ditta.
On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2014, our younger son Julian married Heather Rasmussen, at the Maritime Hotel in New York City. We decided that this was the time to pass the fish set on to a fourth generation. We made a new silvercloth wrapper for the forks and knives and a new box.
The silver set, newly polished after a century of use, is now with Julian and Heather in Los Angeles.
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.
Since I started this website two years ago, I have published 41 stories here. To my astonishment, they have been read by hundreds of people in more than 50 countries. I have had just under 10,000 hits, far more than I anticipated when I started. I also did not anticipate that I would become friends with readers previously unknown to me who discovered the stories here: ocarina players in Indonesia who connected to the story of my grandfather Rudolf’s ocarina; a Swiss historian writing about the descendants of Moses Mendelssohn, one of whom was the wife of my great uncle Eduard; members of the medical faculty at the University of Erlangen in Bavaria, who were excited to find the portraits of Isidor Rosenthal and Anna Hoeber Rosenthal, who left their mark on that city; and my now-good-friend Phil White of Olathe, Kansas, who is writing a book about the Truman campaign my father worked on.
All of the stories on this website are made possible because of the Höber/Hoeber family’s mania over several generations for saving letters and other paper records. The earliest letter in the collection was written 174 years ago by Heinrich and August Oppenheim, my great-great grandmother’s brothers, who were congratulating their parents on their sister’s engagement to my great-great grandfather. The collection also includes love letters my great-grandparents exchanged daily in Berlin in the 1860s. The collection includes every income tax return my parents filed from 1939 to 1999. There are my grandparents’ photograph albums from the early 20th century in Zürich and professional papers my parents wrote from 1940 to 1980. The variety of material is dizzying. Together, this archive tells the story of a family that made a mark in business, science and progressive politics in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and then started all over again in the United States.
Organizing and preserving these family papers has taken years. I had to study German to be able to read some of the complex papers, and I have translated many documents into English so they are accessible to readers here. Physically arranging the papers so things could be found was a substantial task. They are now housed in archival manuscript boxes and filed in acid-free folders so they will be preserved for the future. The papers have been partially indexed, but I still have work to do in this area.
Eventually I will place the collection of these papers with a large historical manuscript archive here in Philadelphia. In the meantime, I will continue to write stories based on these letters for you, my kind readers.
When the Nazis took over Germany in 1933, one of their first acts was to fire thousands of the nation’s most brilliant scientists and academics from their university positions, either because they were Jewish or because they were deemed “politically unreliable.” Those expelled included Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Edward Teller and countless others. My grandfather, Rudolf Höber, a professor of physiology at the University of Kiel, was also one of them. I previously wrote about his last months at Kiel here. All of these fired individuals faced the difficult problem of finding a new place to teach and continue their research.
Some American educators quickly recognized that Germany’s loss might well be America’s gain. The Institute of International Education, a foundation established in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I, quickly decided to establish a program to place exiled German academics in American universities. To head the new Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, the IIE hired a recent graduate of Columbia University, a young man named Edward R. Murrow. A few years later, Murrow would become America’s most famous broadcast journalist, but in 1933 he led the effort to provide new careers for scientists and other scholars victimized by Hitler. His job was particularly difficult because the United States was in the depths of the Depression and money was tight everywhere. The Emergency Committee’s method was to match up a scientist with an appropriate university and have the university provide the scientist with a position. Then, using funds provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Emergency Committee would reimburse the university for all or part of the new faculty member’s salary. Once the word got around the scientific community that Rudolf Höber was interested in coming to the United States, a bit of competition arose to get him because of his prominence in cutting edge cellular biochemistry and biophysics. The Emergency Committee received offers from the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Tennessee and the University of Pennsylvania to create a visiting professorship for Rudolf. Ultimately the University of Pennsylvania won out in obtaining Rudolf for its medical faculty. The following is the offer extended to Rudolf by the University’s Vice president in charge of the School of Medicine:
Upon his arrival in the United States, Rudolf wrote to Murrow and expressed his appreciation for the work of the Emergency Committee in finding a place for him to continue his work in America. Murrow responded cordially.
Within a few months of receiving the offer from the University of Pennsylvania, Rudolf and his wife, Josephine, were on their way to America. They had escaped the Nazis and would live and work in Philadelphia for the rest of their lives.
Every family has its dark corners, its sad secrets.
My great-grandfather, Anselm Höber, was born in 1832 in the south German city of Karlsruhe, the son of a wealthy Jewish merchant. He was sufficiently well off that in his twenties he could afford to have his portrait painted wearing a handsome coat with a fur collar.
At some point, Anselm moved to the city of Stettin in Pomerania, then a province of the Kingdom of Prussia. (Much of Pomerania was annexed to Poland after World War II and the city is now known as Szczecin.) In 1865, Anselm married the beautiful Elise Köhlau, and at that time converted to his new wife’s Protestant faith.
In Stettin, Anselm was a successful businessman, and soon owned a controlling interest in a large moving and storage firm. The couple had three children, Eduard, Rudolf (my grandfather) and Lili. Eduard later went on to become a respected journalist and literary critic in Berlin and Rudolf became a renowned physiologist. Lili, however, suffered from multiple sclerosis and died when she was just in her twenties.
By the 1890s, Anselm’s sons were on their way to being well established in the world, but something went awry in Anselm’s business. At one point his income dropped so precipitously that Rudolf had to withdraw from the University of Erlangen where he was studying medicine. Rudolf was later able to return to school, but problems continue to plague Anselm’s business.
In 1899, at the age of 67, Anselm killed himself.
Who knows why a person commits suicide? When I look at the old pictures of Anselm, I imagine that I sense some deep sadness in his dark eyes, some loneliness that haunts him even in good times. Am I just projecting that because I know what happened to him? Perhaps. Like many family tragedies, Anselm’s death was rarely discussed, and what I have written here is almost all that anyone today knows about him.
His widow, Elise, lived quietly for another 15 years, dying just before the start of World War I.
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.
The odd little musical instrument pictured above was among the things left behind when my father died 35 years ago. I didn’t learn until many years later where it came from or why my father, who was not at all musical, had it. I later figured out that this ocarina belonged to my grandfather, Rudolf Höber, called Rudi. The ocarina is made of fired terracotta with five finger holes in the front and three in back. If you blow on the stubby mouth piece it gives out whistling, high, flute-like notes. It has a little imprint indicating it was made in Italy, which may be where Rudi got it. On several occasions he worked at the laboratories at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples and loved the country and people there. They – and their music – seemed quite exotic to a North German science professor of the early 20th century.
Rudi became well-known in Europe and the United States as a cellular physiologist. His laboratory research led to books and dozens of articles published in Europe and America. He was an admired professor at the University of Kiel and — after the Nazis threw him out in 1933 — at the University of Pennsylvania.
Rudi died in 1952 at the age of 79. Two years later, his best friend from boyhood, Prof. Albrecht Bethe, published a memoir of Rudi in Pflügers Archiv, a European scientific journal. I discovered the article in 2005, by which time I had learned enough German to read it. I was interested in Prof Bethe’s observation about Rudi’s early work:
” Just ten years after Höber began his studies, in 1902, the first edition of his Physical Chemistry of Cells and Tissues appeared as a small volume that by its sixth German edition would swell to a stately tome. But immediately upon the publication of the first edition, this book had a major impact on the scientific world and raised the physical-chemical analytic approach to a nearly independent branch of physiology.”
From a personal perspective, however, I was particularly interested in Bethe’s following observation:
” One should not imagine, however, that from the beginning Höber was only a workaholic [Arbeitstier]. He really enjoyed his year at Freiburg and often made excursions into the Black Forrest with friends. He even got to know something of the typical student life of that period, as a participant in the pub crawls and the short-lived “Hanseatic Eating Society.” He was particularly entertaining at the students’ farewell drinking parties, where he pounded out his notorious Chopping Block Waltz on the piano or played his ocarina and sang old student songs.”
And so I learned that my grandfather had a less serious side, and learned the story of the little ocarina he left behind.
My grandfather Rudolf Höber loved his older brother Eduard dearly. While Rudolf was a scientist, Eduard (1871-1906) was a humanist and man of letters. He received his D.Phil. in comparative literature , and his dissertation on the German romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff was published when Eduard was just 23. He made a career as a literary critic writing for the Berliner Tageblatt, one of the largest newspapers not just in Berlin but in all of Germany. While still a young man, Eduard was admired for his wit, intelligence and literary judgment, as well for the generous spirit that characterized his critical writing.
In his mid-30’s, Eduard fell in love with Helene Schwarz, a rising poet in the Berlin literary scene. He was deeply devoted to her, admiring her talent and sense. They were a good looking couple, well-suited to one another, and married on July 1, 1906.
Eduard had another passion besides literature, however: mountaineering. He had considerable experience climbing in the Alps, but this risky activity concerned his his new wife, who feared for his safety. When they married, Helene asked Eduard to give up climbing. Out of affection for her he agreed to do so — after one last climb.
Two months after their marriage, Eduard and Helene travelled to Italy on their honeymoon. Their trip included the rugged peaks of the Dolomite s in northeastern Italy, not far from the Austrian border. There, on the morning of September 3, 1906, Eduard embarked on his promised last climb. Leaving Helene behind, he joined a climbing party to tackle the daunting Tre Cime (in German, Drei Zinnen). In the middle of the climb, Eduard’s rope broke and he fell to his death.
Eduard’s funeral in Berlin was attended by a large mass of people, including artists, writers and most of Berlin’s substantial press corps. Helene was devastated, crushed by her profound loss. A book of her poems published a year later is filled with verses of longing for her lost husband. She did not remarry until years later. My grandfather, Rudolf, never forgot the lost brother he loved so much.