Across an Ocean of War and Time, Translated Letters Bring Life During Holocaust Into Terrifying Focus

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A South Philly resident shares his parents letters from Nazi Germany.

The human toll of the Holocaust can’t be tallied by simply counting the 6 million Jews lost during the Shoah. Countless other lives were affected as well, by those taken from them and never returned, and by those forever burdened with the experience of doing whatever was necessary to survive the Nazis and their partners in genocide.
 
Francis Hoeber, a resident of South Philadelphia, is one of the affected. He discusses his parents’ fear, hardships and emotional torture of fleeing Germany and being separated from each other in his new book, Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939.
 
Johannes Höeber left Nazi Germany on Nov. 12, 1938 and immigrated to Philadelphia. His wife, Elfriede, and their 9-year-old daughter, Susanne, were unable to leave until September of the following year, after the outbreak of World War II.  
 
“They were always nervous that they wouldn’t get out,” Hoeber said. “Even in the worst times in world history, people were leading daily lives and having interpersonal relationships while continuing to deal with the outside world.”
 
Hoeber, 72, spent nearly 45 years in public service, including serving as an administrator for the National Labor Relations Board in Philadelphia and as an executive in the New Jersey court system. 
Hoeber told the Jewish Exponent he did not initially know much about his parents’ history. When they immigrated to the United States, they wanted to assimilate and become Americans. 
 
“We really didn’t speak about it much,” he said. 
 
In the late 1980s, Hoeber discovered a packet of letters in the back of a filing cabinet in his house, which had never been open. They were yellowed, typed and handwritten wrinkled pages, in German, dated 1938 and 1939. Without asking his mother, Hoeber knew these were letters his parents wrote to each other during the year they were apart. His father and mother, while not Jewish, opposed the Nazi regime. Johannes, a member of a social democratic party, was arrested in 1933 and, after being interrogated by the Gestapo in 1938, realized it was time to leave Germany.
 
“The bigger question for me always was why they stayed so long,” he said.  
 
Johannes was born in Switzerland and, because of the immigration quotas in America, it was easier for Swiss citizens to move there. The quota for Germany was around 27,000 per year, which was quickly used up  by those desperate to escape.  Before he left Germany, he and Elfriede witnessed the mass destruction of businesses and homes on Kristallnacht in 1938. Separate from the letters, his father described how their best friends, Karl and Hilde Lenzberg had every piece of furniture smashed, including their grand piano being thrown out of a third-story window. 
 
“After that, the real exodus of Jews from Germany sped up,” Hoeber said. 
 
Hoeber hired a tutor and took classes at the German Society of Pennsylvania, which allowed him to understand what took place while his parents were apart. Every letter was sent by ship and took about 10 days to get to the other person, if it arrived at all.   
 
“They were written on the assumption that the Gestapo might read them at any time,” he said. 
 
In case the Gestapo opened their letters, they wrote in code. For example, Johannes would reference an Aunt Lilly, when he was actually referring to their friend Lilly Reif, who lived in Zurich. There was also the use of Uncle Carl, which was the American Consulate in Germany and Uncle Fritz, which was Paris.   
 
“When you came to the Gestapo’s attention, you never knew what would happen,” he said. 
 
In Germany, they ran a newspaper business and she was stuck managing it while Johannes was living in Philadelphia. Along with daily conversations about how they were doing, there were often arguments about the business and what to do with the people who left Germany and owed money for subscriptions.   
 
But, mostly Hoeber sensed one thing in all of the letters: fear. With Jewish friends being taken and persecuted and witnessing terrible things in Germany, she could never directly tell her 
husband what was going on. 
 
“You won’t believe how horrible Uncle Paul is,” his mother wrote in a letter. “Some things uncle Paul does turn your stomach.” She was describing Hitler.  
 
Sometimes the letters conveyed more by what they didn’t say, he said. For example, his father wrote that in March 1939, he was glued to the radio all day, but didn’t elaborate further. After doing some research, Hoeber discovered that was when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. 
 
Hoeber transcribed the letters through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. He then copied and sent them to Achim Bonte, a historian at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, who recalled staying up for three days straight reading the letters.
 
“I thought of them [the letters] as very personal,” he said. 
 
In 2010, Hoeber stopped working in order to devote his time to compiling the letters into a book. He finished translating 150,000 German words into English and discovered his parents were quite different in the letters than they were when he was growing up. 
 
In the letters, his mother often used sarcasm, but she was typically a very serious person. However, the letters were never intended for other people to read and he believes his parents wouldn’t be happy if they found out he wrote about them. 
 
“Here I get to see them as two 35-year-olds — a husband and wife sharing their daily experiences and missing each other.” 
 
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747.