Rudolf and Josephine Höber, my grandparents, fled Nazi Germany for Philadelphia already in 1933, but their son Johannes and his wife Elfriede were holding on in Düsseldorf in the belief that the Nazis couldn’t last. By 1937, my grandparents were desperate to have their children join them in America, so Rudolf and Josephine invited the young couple to come and visit them in America. It turned into a grand trip.
Elfriede kept a travel diary capturing her impressions of the country that would later become home to her and Johannes and their little girl, Susanne.
Elfriede complained on every page about the “unbearable,” “insane” heat (Washington and Philadelphia before air conditioning) but otherwise she and Johannes found much to like in America. They were impressed by Washington, where many of the iconic government buildings along the Mall had recently been finished, and they liked the democratic feel of the place.
In Philadelphia, the family attended the graduation of Johannes’s sister, Ursula, from the University of Pennsylvania medical school. They were impressed by the 1,500 graduates and the audience of 8,000 in Philadelphia’s Convention Hall, with Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull as commencement speaker.
Elfriede loved Connecticut: “This is the way I always imagined New England to be, with hills and forests scattered with enchanting villages with white wooden houses and white churches on trim green lawns under high trees. The houses are mostly laid back from the street and not separated by fences. As a result the country seems so open and gains a wonderfully elegant and fresh appearance.” In Woodbury, Connecticut, they asked directions of a police officer. “This guy was like a sheriff in the movies, going around in short sleeves with a big tin badge, unshaven, and stormed off in the middle of our conversation and threw himself into his car to chase another car that had exceeded the Woodbury speed limit.” The family drove from Philadelphia to Cape Cod in two cars, a Ford and a DeSoto, where Elfriede declared the beaches to be the loveliest she had ever seen.
Johannes and Elfriede traveled from Cape Cod (Fall River MA) back to New York by night boat! Elfriede: “Excellent cabin on the Commonwealth, a very old fashioned but very comfortable ship. Wonderful evening ride to Long Island Sound. Fantastic passage through the ocean of lights of the harbor of Newport. Night’s sleep interrupted by foghorns. Awoke at 6:15 in the East River. Reunion with the Empire State Building. Passage under the East River bridges that cross the river in great arches, all with two levels with eight lanes each. Generous good breakfast on board to prepare us for a day in New York.”
Johannes and Elfriede spent their last America day in New York, where Johannes indulged himself three times in “America’s national drink” — an ice cream soda. Elfriede: “Lunch in an enormous restaurant. The ladies room has 60 toilets, 30 for free and 30 for 5 cents. The noise of the streets is mind shattering. The noise of the El is deafening, the subway hellish. The people in this city seem to have lost all sense of hearing.”
And a highlight of the whole trip, an hour before they boarded the ship to return to Europe, was to go by New York’s City Hall and catch sight of Fiorello LaGuardia, whose reputation as a dynamic, progressive mayor had reached even into the corners of Hitler’s Germany. “We were able to watch as LaGuardia stood next to his car for a few minutes talking with advisers. Because we were speaking German, a man appeared next to us out of nowhere, unmistakably a cop, and didn’t let us out of his sight until the mayor left.”
Elfriede and Johannes returned to Düsseldorf in late June 1937, but the visit to his parents bore fruit. Six months later, Johannes and Elfriede began making their own plans to leave Germany and move to the United States. It would be nearly two more years, however, before the whole family could be reunited in Philadelphia.
The story of how Johannes and Elfriede eventually got out of Germany and into the United States is told in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939. You can read more about that book here. Also available on Amazon.com.
My mother, Elfriede Höber, and my father, Johannes Höber, were counting on Johannes’ father Rudolf to support Elfriede and my sister, Susanne, then nine. Rudolf had fled Germany five years earlier, in 1933, and was a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. His stipend from Penn was small, however, and by 1939 he was already supporting six relatives who were unemployed refugees. Johannes had arrived in Philadelphia a couple of months earlier, so it was Elfriede who had to file the visa application with the U.S. Consul in Stuttgart. After weeks of delay, the Consul rejected her application because Rudolf’s income was insufficient to support her on top of the people he was already carrying.
Johannes was crushed when he received Elfriede’s letter with the bad news. In the few weeks he had been in America, however, he had made a friend at the office where he worked. This friend, Walter Phillips, sensed right away that something serious had happened. He asked Johannes what was wrong. When Johannes explained, Walter too was distressed that his new friend’s wife and daughter were trapped and might be unable to escape from Germany.
The next day, Walter did something totally unexpected. Although he was a young recent law school graduate with a limited income, both he and his wife Mary had inherited some money from their respective families. Without my father even asking, Walter and Mary volunteered to be guarantors for the support of my mother and sister, whom they had never met. Within days, Walter got an affidavit from his bank confirming his and Mary’s deposits and secured endorsements from leading lawyers in Philadelphia. He wrote his own extraordinary letter of support to the American Consul in Stuttgart:
I am informed that Mrs. Elfriede Höber, a Ph.D. of Heidelberg University, and Susanne Höber, Düsseldorf (Germany), Pempelforterstr. 11, have applied at your consulate for permanent residence. Mrs. Elfriede Höber and her daughter wish to come to Philadelphia to join their husband and father and his family who were admitted to the United States for permanent residence some time ago. Dr. Johannes Höber, the husband, also a Ph.D. of Heidelberg, has been working for me for about three months as a research assistant. He has proved himself to be an extraordinarily bright, intellectually honest, public spirited and able person. I am so much interested in keeping him in Philadelphia that I am willing to give my personal guarantee that his wife, after being admitted to the United States, will never become a public charge.
For my own identification you may be interested in the following facts: My family on all branches have lived in the United States since before the Revolutionary War. I am a graduate of Princeton University and also the Harvard Law School. … At present I am volunteering my time to the Philadelphia City Charter Committee in the interest of good local government. … As shown by a separate affidavit the financial responsibility of my wife and me together – we are giving a joint affidavit – should be sufficient to give the necessary guarantee required by law.
May I say again that Dr. Johannes Höber has in my opinion the makings of a fine American citizen and that to have his wife here would help him to be even more of an asset. She too, I have every reason to believe, would contribute much to America. …
Very sincerely yours,
Walter M. Phillips
The impressive stack of documents did the trick. Although it took several more weeks, the Consul in Stuttgart accepted Walter and Mary’s assurances and granted the Elfriede and Susanne visas on July 12, 1939. Without Walter and Mary’s selfless generosity, my mother and sister would never have gotten out of Germany and I would probably not be alive today. When I was born three years later my parents gave me “Walter” as a middle name. It is a name I carry with great pride and gratitude.
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.
Drawings of Hydra viridis and Podocoryne carnea by Rudolf Höber, age 17. [Click image to view full size.]
Rudolf Höber (1873-1953) was a prominent physiologist who conducted pioneering research into the electro-chemical properties of cell membranes. As an instructor at the University of Zurich, later a professor at the University of Kiel and head of the Physiological Institute there, and finally as a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he introduced many young doctors to the science of physiology.
Rudolf already became interested in biological science as a child, and started the serious study of microorganisms as a teenager. His notebook contains 83 meticulously detailed drawings of amoebae, paramecia, hydrae and the like. This notebook is a beautiful art object as well as a record of his studies. The image above is of one double page of that notebook, which Rudolf drew at the age of about seventeen.
Johannes Hoeber (1904-1977) arrived in Philadelphia from Nazi Germany on December 22, 1938. His parents, Rudolf and Josephine, had been in Philadelphia for five years, and had rented a large house in the Germantown section of the city in anticipation of the arrival of their adult children and their grandchildren. The plan was for seven adults and three children to live there together until everyone got settled into jobs in the new country.
Johannes had slipped across the German border into Switzerland seven weeks earlier and had succeeded in getting an American visa in Zurich. From there he traveled across Europe and in England boarded the SS Manhattan for New York. The winter crossing was stormy, and Johannes was tormented by an abscessed tooth. His first day in America was spent with dentists getting x-rayed and getting the tooth pulled.
Johannes had left his wife Elfriede and eight-year-old daughter Susanne in Germany, with a plan for them to join him later. But they were not to be reunited for many more months. Christmas eve was two days after Johannes arrived, and he joined his parents and sisters around the modest tree in the newly rented house. Money was tight and what little there was had to be saved to pay for Elfriede and Susanne’s eventual passage to the United States, so the adults agreed to forego giving each other Christmas presents. But they gathered around the Christmas tree — lit with real candles — and sang carols and recited old poems to one another, and were happy that, for a few hours, they could be at peace.
NOTE: Flash cameras were rare in 1938, so Johannes had to take the indoor pictures of the family Christmas tree in natural light with a long exposure. He probably set his camera on a table or window sill to make these pictures without blurring them. The long exposure also explains why he placed no people in the pictures.
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
I have had this charming letter for many years, but only recently deciphered its old script with the invaluable help of my cousin, Britta Fischer. The letter is in German, but the author had lived in New York for nearly 40 years when he wrote it. It reveals an incident in my family’s history that I never knew about.
Emil Höber (1832-1906) came to New York from Karlsruhe just before the Civil War. Trained as a doctor in Germany, Emil became Coroner of New York in 1898. My grandfather, Rudolf Höber, was the son of Emil’s first cousin and grew up in Stettin. By 1899, Rudolf had completed his own medical studies at the University of Erlangen and had begun his career as a research scientist in human cellular physiology. Apparently he wrote to his uncle Emil (whom he had never met) and asked advice about moving to the United States. In this letter, Emil tells Rudolf that scientific research is not as well supported in America as in Europe and that American scientists were not as well regarded. He urges Rudolf to remain in Europe. Lacking Emil’s encouragement, Rudolf decided not to emigrate, and continued his research in Switzerland and Germany for the next 35 years.
In addition to giving advice to Rudolf, in this letter Emil reviews the monumental advances in medical science over his lifetime. Here is the translated letter:
612 Lex. Ave., New York, 24 March 1899
My Dear Rudolf,
I was extremely pleased to receive your letter, and many thanks as well for the paper that you sent me. I must admit – and you will understand when I remind you that I studied medicine between 1852 and 1857 – that my chemical/physiological knowledge is not sufficiently developed to be able to follow you. I have made an honest attempt to stay au courant with the advancements in our science, but a practicing physician and a very busy man cannot do everything, so I gave up on chemistry and microscopy a long time ago and manage as best I can. It is now possible to decide things without understanding chemical formulas, and one can have blood and urine tests conducted by specialists and make do with their results. Your understanding of the history of medicine will tell you what colossal changes it has experienced in the last 50 years. I began my studies in Göttingen in 1852. Thermometers for measuring the temperature of blood were unknown; bacteria had not been discovered; I remember a 2 hour long lecture by Pfeiffer in Munich on “whether and under what circumstances one could risk treating a case of pneumonia without bleeding the patient“; blood transfusions (and intravenous saline) were terra incognita; salicylic acid was not around yet, nor was cocaine; and even less present was Lister’s great work on antisepsis. These are only a few examples; our science really only became a science in these years – if indeed it is one even now in connection with medical therapy. Wohler’s Chemistry is not recognizable in its subsequent editions; Chelin’ Chirugie is today pretty much not worth the paper it is printed on; and a book dealer told me recently that my edition of Virchow’s Cellular Pathology (2nd edition 1859) is no longer of any value whatsoever. Maybe these remarks will be of interest to you.
Now for a different topic! Do not aspire to any American professorship! I could write books about that! I adore America, even though I am not satisfied with my level of success here – but that is mostly my own fault. But a man of science – like you – is better off somewhere else,where he occupies a higher position and receives greater recognition. And the difference in salary is offset by the difference in the cost of living, if not completely then almost. But on balance the difference is not great enough to be decisive and not great enough to make up for other differences. You will not find the scholarly scientific atmosphere of German and Swiss universities here! Based on my experience, you are assured of a professorship, and if you take Rosenthal as an example of how not to do it then your career is assured. You should look for a rich girl – there are nice rich girls – then your security is assured for life. That is important – in fact it is the most important thing. In my opinion, if the drive to acquire scientific knowledge is not constrained by concerns over where the next meal is coming from, then its wings can never be clipped.
If, in spite of my opinion, you still want me to, I will see what Dr. A. Jacobi, Dr. Knapp and Dr. [illegible] here think about it. I would have to show them your paper, or perhaps you could send it to them directly: Dr. A. Jacobi 110 W. 34th St; Dr. H. Knapp 26 W 40th St
You surely know them by name. But – I am almost certain that they will agree with me.
I recently read with great interest the summary report about your man Schlatter’s almost [illegible] stomach resection in the local Medical Record and you probably have that in your medical library.
Unfortunately since I began writing this answer I mislaid your letter, and so I do not know if I have answered all of its contents. If you have time, please write me again. Connecting with young people is good for old people – and perhaps I can be of some use to you in some connection. If you want to know something or to get something from here, just ask and I am at your disposal.
In the meantime, I wish you continuing success! Please greet those near to you and stay well. This is the wish of your cousin
Dr. E. W. Hoeber