Hill author’s parents survived barbarism of Nazis
by LEN LEAR
With Valentine’s Day approaching, this is one of the most compelling love stories you will ever read. But it is so much more — a real-life political thriller, a rendezvous with history, a tale of moral courage in the face of the most despicable evil, murder, war, weapons of mass destruction and more. It is the material for a great recently-published book by a Chestnut Hill resident and possibly a great movie some day.
There are so many dramatic aspects to this story, one hardly knows where to start, but I will start 15 years ago when Bettina Hoerlin and her husband, Gino Segre, were moving from Gowen Avenue in East Mt. Airy, where they had lived for 17 years, to Rex Avenue in Chestnut Hill. Bettina, a beautiful, elegant 72-year-old with a great sense of humor, holds a doctorate degree in public policy sciences. She taught public health at the University of Pennsylvania for 17 years, served as Health Commissioner of Philadelphia and on the board of Friends of the Wissahickon and was a visiting professor at Haverford College. Her husband, now retired, was chairman of the physics department at the University of Pennsylvania who has authored three accessible scientific books published by Viking Press.
In the course of moving to Chestnut Hill 15 years ago, Bettina came across an old leather suitcase she did not recognize. (How many of us who have lived in homes for several years have boxes in an attic or basement that we have not looked at in years?) Eventually (eight years ago), Bettina went through the suitcase and discovered a box filled with over 500 letters handwritten by her parents, Kate Tietz Schmid and Hermann Hoerlin, to each other in Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1938.
Kate, a beautiful Munich resident who was half-Jewish, was originally married to Willi Schmid, a prominent cellist and musicologist who had been largely responsible for the revival of Baroque music in Germany. Although he was completely apolitical, Schmid was dragged from his house on June 30, 1934, “The Night of the Long Knives,” and murdered along with dozens of others thought to be anti-Nazi. The Nazis later delivered Schmid’s body in a coffin to Kate and apologized (they had actually been looking for another man named Willi Schmid) and even paid her reparations. The infamous Rudolf Hess personally apologized to her.
Kate, who had three children with Schmid, soon afterwards met Hermann Hoerlin, a handsome, world-record-setting mountaineer, physicist and staunch anti-Nazi who openly fought the Nazis’ attempts to co-opt athletic organizations and throw out all Jews and other “non-Aryans.” Kate and Hermann eventually got married in 1938, but they were on the verge of being arrested by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp (the Nuremberg Laws prohibited marriage between Aryans and Jews) when Hermann used his influence with an old family friend, Fritz Wiedemann, who had been Hitler’s commanding office in World War 1 and later became a high-ranking Nazi official, to help Kate and Hermann and their three children get out of Germany one month after their marriage. Bettina was born the following year, in 1939, in Binghamton, New York.
In 1941 Hermann was suspended from his job as a physicist and had his assets frozen after being suspected as a possible “enemy alien” since he had come here from Nazi Germany. He was reinstated, however, after the personal intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt.
“My parents were only interested in learning English and assimilating and contributing to this country,” said Bettina. “They were hugely grateful to the U.S. for permitting them to come here from the hell of Nazi Germany.”
In a strange twist, Hermann contributed to the World War II effort with his extensive European mountaineering maps that helped guide Allied reconnaissance missions. In 1953, he and Kate moved to the Atomic City of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where Hoerlin, by then a leading nuclear scientist, worked at the forefront of the first nuclear test ban treaty. Again he was brought under scrutiny, this time because of McCarthyism and Hoerlin’s links with the American left-wing.
Bettina’s dad lived to the age of 80; her mother, 86. He died in 1983, and she died in 1985. When Bettina discovered the box of their handwritten letters after her move to Chestnut Hill, she was in shock. “I never knew these letters existed,” she said. “How many of us have the chance to peer into our parents’ love life many years later? Some of the letters were pretty steamy. I wanted to translate the letters, which of course were all in German, but the task was too daunting. My German was lousy.”
Bettina solicited the translation assistance of an elderly German woman in the area, but the woman gave up after translating about 50 letters because “it was just too emotional.” Undaunted, Bettina took courses in German until her knowledge was strong enough, and then she spent more than a year translating more than 450 letters.
“I knew that if I didn’t do it, nobody would,” said Bettina, “and these letters deserve to be preserved for future generations … My parents’ lives were shaped by world events, and true to that generation, they never talked about it. I felt it was up to me to tell their remarkable story, and in the process I discovered so many secrets and mysteries.”
Those secrets and mysteries are now available to everyone, thanks to Bettina’s 316-page book, “Steps of Courage: My Parents’ Journey from Nazi Germany to America,” published last September by AuthorHouse.
According to famed Chestnut Hill author Buzz Bissinger, “Bettina Hoerlin’s ‘Steps of Courage’ is a story of love, adventure and terror. This alone makes it a wonderful read. The fact that every word of it is true, set against pre-war Nazi Germany, makes it even more special. Add to it the perspective from which it is told — a daughter discovering the incredible mystery of her parents — and you have something extraordinary.”
And Kathryn Davis, winner of the 2006 Lannan Literary Award, has written, “‘Steps of Courage’ is that rare thing — a personal narrative that is at the same time historically significant and utterly spellbinding.”
Although both of Bettina’s parents were larger than life, their grounded, enduring love for each other was a beacon of inspiration for all who knew them. “Thoughtfulness and selflessness were consistent throughout my father’s life,” Bettina wrote on page 240. “Once when my parents had visited me in Philadelphia and I was helping them unpack in their hotel room, I came across a climbing rope. I asked my 78-year-old father about its purpose, and he answered, ‘In case of fire, I can rescue Mummy,’ The image of the two rappelling down from the 18th floor of a burning building has stayed with me.”
Bettina and her husband have four children, all of whom live in other parts of the country. For now her mission is to promote her book, “a universal tale about two people who both showed great courage standing up for what is right, in the face of great obstacles. On my father’s 80th birthday he told us the most critical quality to have in life was courage. Both he and my mother had an abundance of it.” An agent is currently trying to get filmmakers in Hollywood interested in making a movie of “Steps of Courage.”
The Chestnut Hill author was recently interviewed by reporter Claudia Gomez on the Fox29 News, and has appeared or will appear at The Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy, local book clubs and German organizations, the Hill at Whitemarsh, Chestnut Hill Rotary Club and New England Ski Museum. And she will be going on a book tour to Germany and Austria next month.