Steps Of Courage

Steps Of Courage

by Bettina Hoerlin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781463426187
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 09/16/2011
Pages: 332
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.74(d)

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My Parents' Journey from Nazi Germany to America
By Bettina Hoerlin


Copyright © 2011 Bettina Hoerlin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4634-2618-7

Chapter One


There are 54 steps leading up to St. Michael's church in Schwaebisch Hall. Since 1507, children in this quintessential medieval German town have raced up and down them, their ears deaf to the obligatory parental cautions of "Vorsicht!" (careful!). The contests of getting to the top first have endured over time. It was probably not until 1908 when my father, age five, had sturdy enough legs to fully participate in this ritual. But I have no doubt that from that time onward he led his peers with skill and speed on both the assault and descent. It might be considered as the first of his many conquests.

The steps ask to be counted and climbed. They beckon to any first time visitor, as they did to me when I was thirteen. My father had brought me to Germany to meet, for the first time, my grandmother. At age 78, she guided me slowly up the welcoming staircase and reached the top with misty eyes but a triumphant smile. Almost twenty years later, after I had become the mother of two children of a widower, I watched them, ages eleven and nine, jump excitedly up and down the steps. Then, to settle the kind of impassioned argument that occurs only between siblings, they walked up slowly hand in hand and counted out loud the exact number of steps. One of them, I no longer remember whom, was right: it was fifty-four. As I accompanied them they did not know, and I only suspected, that a new baby brother, my first born, was partaking in his special version of conquest, ascending the steps safely tucked in his mother's womb. Over 30 years later the feat of summitry for all my four of my children was complete when the youngest climbed the steps with his fiancée. That evening they spoke with an elderly resident of Schwaebisch Hall and asked if, by chance, he had heard of my son's grandfather. The gentleman replied, "Ja, Hermann Hoerlin, ja." He paused ... and continued: "Er war (he was) Sportsmann." My father's reputation as a one-time world record holder for first ascents on three continents, Europe, Asia and South America, lived on.

In no small part inspired by my son's glowing reports of the town's beauty, my husband of twenty years and I put it on our 2005 travel agenda. Schwaebisch Hall sits on the banks of a gently meandering river crisscrossed by several wood shingled bridges. Entering the town feels like a stroll through history with harmoniously varied architecture styles, narrow cobble-stoned streets, thick protective walls and impressive watch towers. But the highlight of the town is the famous steps. When we reverentially ascended them to the top, we could glimpse the distant hills of the Swabian Alb, a perfect hiking area and, if one was so inclined, a challenging rock climbing destination with 500 foot cliffs. My father was so inclined and he, like other budding alpinists, used it was a training ground for more demanding ventures.

Not far from the church lays the town's Baroque town hall, which houses the record of my father's birth on July 5, 1903. As I held the yellowed document with his parents' signatures, I noted that it had taken Adolf and Maria over a month to register their son's name: Hermann Julius Wilhelm Hoerlin. Perhaps the delay and his multiple names portended the various names given my father in subsequent years. Although usually known by friends and later on by colleagues as Hermann (the extra "n" was dropped as a concession to his subsequent immigration to America), fellow mountaineers referred to him as Pallas. His valiant feats stirred comparisons to the eponymous god of Greek mythology, the father of Victory, Rivalry, Strength and Power. And the name Pallas was derived from pallo, "to brandish (a spear)." If one substituted an ice axe for a spear, his friends would regard the picture as complete. My mother, not part of this brotherhood and accordingly not entitled to use "Pallas", never liked the name Hermann (or Herman). She created her own imprimatur, simply calling him Hoerlin. To me, he was Father for years, but that morphed—some place along the way—to Papa.

Little "Hermannle", as his mother called him, or "Maxile", as his sister Liesel inexplicably chose to name him, grew up with the comfortable trimmings of bourgeois life. The family lived above the store owned for generations by the Hoerlins, the "Wilhelm Hoerlin Glas, Porzellan Haus-und Kuechengeraete," specializing in wedding giftware. His father, Adolf, was a successful businessman whose distinguished looks were softened by a perpetual twinkle in his eyes. His pious mother exuded more reserved and solemn airs, reading the Bible and reciting her prayers on a daily basis.

His sister, five years younger than he, was wispy in her loveliness, a pale and gentle soul. Altogether they were a good-looking family, proper citizens involved in town affairs, attendees of the Lutheran church. Mother/daughter were more resolutely devout than father/son, neither of whom were regular church-goers. Life was generally well ordered although my father had an early mischievous streak. Occasionally during World War I, he and his friends got away with clandestinely ringing the town's church bells, the public communiqué of a German battle victory resulting in early dismissal from school. As the war dragged on, there were fewer and fewer times the bell rang, warranted or not.

Townspeople took for granted that Hermann would follow in his father's footsteps, but Adolf Hoerlin had other ideas. With a genealogical past dominated by farmers and craftsmen, Adolf wanted his only son to have a university education and venture out into the world. He harbored regrets that he himself had never traveled and experienced other cultures. Adolf had led a rather predictable life: running the family business, marrying a girl from a nearby town, being a good parent and an upright citizen. It was a life of merit but not of excitement. He wanted more for his son. This longing was shared openly, so the ground was well prepared for Hermann to go and explore relatively unknown territories. As my father wrote, "Who does not wish to travel untrodden paths?" Neither my father, and certainly not his own father, could have anticipated how far afield these paths would be.

In 1922 his journey from home began when he enrolled nearby in Stuttgart's Institute of Technology, distinguishing himself there more by his enthusiasm for climbing and skiing than for academics. He joined a number of sports clubs and, given the number of his climbs listed in their yearly reports, it is difficult to imagine when he had time to study at all, much less major in physics. The tenor of the clubs encouraged extreme sports adventures, as well as partying and carousing. Camaraderie was sealed by exploits on snow and rock, winter and summer climbing and/or skiing tours of the Alps, and nights spent over campfires or in alpine huts. Although women sometimes joined these excursions and were even officially club members, Hoerlin sensed the overall tone as "... anti-feminine" with a concentration on male prowess and achievements. Considered as bastions of young German manhood, the clubs—much to my father's dismay—later became fertile ground for promoting Aryan ideals when Nazism came into power. Political rhetoric urged the nascent idols to seek glory for the Fatherland on mountain tops. Climbing for love of country became the goal, one that subsequently spawned tragic consequences.

But in the 20's, the mountaineering community was relatively innocent, small, low-key and friendly. Climbing was just beginning to emerge as a 'sport,' becoming more popular and international. Young Alpinists from all over continental Europe and Great Britain sought ever increasingly degrees of difficulty by finding new routes or scaling virgin peaks. My father was among them, exalting in the reward of summitry and appreciative of being at one with nature. By 1926, he had made numerous ascents in the Austrian, Swiss and Italian Alps, climbing approximately 20 peaks. In 1927 alone, he summitted 30 more. His was an auspicious resume, getting the attention of other climbers who knew it required great athleticism, stamina and—not least of all—judgment.

On one of his excursions, Hoerlin met a wild Austrian named Erwin Schneider, who would become his most trusted and frequent climbing companion. The two shared natural affinities for mountaineering and similar ambitions, always seeking new challenges. While summer ascents in the Alps were becoming more commonplace, winter ascents—which combined expertise on skis as well as rock and ice climbing skills—were rare. Hoerlin and Schneider, undaunted by Europe's highest mountain, set their sites on Mont Blanc and its surrounding peaks. Resembling a snow and ice castle, the huge massif looks majestically over France, Italy and Switzerland. First summited in 1786, Mont Blanc begins in deep valleys and builds gradually from wide open meadows to giant glaciers, rock and ice buttresses, and longer ridges leading to its imposing white dome. Steep needle-like peaks (Aiguilles) pierce the mountain's contours and are regarded as more technically difficult to climb than the mountain itself. The climbing partners decided that winter ascents of these narrow spires held the promise of great adventure and perhaps, with luck, wider recognition of their talents. This was on another level from other climbs, offering a welcome chance to test their limits. As my father articulated in a mountaineering journal, "Alpinists find a solitude in winter climbs that we seek in vain during the summer. The precipitous interchange of ice and fields of the wintry Mont Blanc landscape is unique." And he continued to describe the special attraction of winter ascents: "... {they} offer the additional challenges of short and cold days, avalanches, snow and wind—in summary ... the difficulties are greater and multifaceted."

Hoerlin and Schneider were a curious pair. Schneider, a head shorter than my father, had thick black hair—long by the standards of the day—that regularly fell over his rugged-looking face. Ebullient and outrageous, the shaggy Austrian from Tyrol cracked a steady stream of jokes. My father shared with him a certain rebelliousness, but it was much more subtle and controlled. Pallas was quiet and contemplative, always neat, with a natural air of elegance. But on ice, snow and rock, their dissimilarities faded and they fashioned a formidable team.

To plan their climbs, the two partners poured over a large two-by-three map, that had become a classic in its time, the 1924 Carte Albert Barbey of La Chaine du Mont Blanc. The map folds neatly into pocket size, still sturdy and impressive in detail even today. When I touch its smooth surfaces, it feels as though I am coming into contact with my father's skin. Climbing was indeed under his skin and played a key role in forming who he was as he himself noted: "These excursions, during which one learns so much about oneself, deeply shape our minds." Qualities of modesty, calm, integrity and thoughtfulness were all central to his persona, whether on or off a mountain.

During consecutive winters, Hoerlin and Schneider made ascents of various Aiguilles from the French and Italian approaches, from Chamonix and Courmayeur respectively In the winter of 1928, the pair along with two other climbers, made their way up to the Aiguille Verte, considered the most difficult and stunning peak on the Mont Blanc range. Using lanterns to light their way, the team took off at 4 a.m. on skis to cross a hazardous glacier in single file.

The skis had to be taken off and on, depending on what was required to navigate through the glacier's maze of treacherous crevasses, ice towers and abysses. Reaching the almost vertical couloirs of the Aiguille, the team traded skis for spiked iron crampons that they attached to their boot bottoms. With perfect weather, the climb up avalanche-prone gullies was exhilarating. "It was like a fairy tale," my father exalted, "... winter, the sun shining, the sky deep blue and we were 4000 meters high." At the narrow top, the youthful conquerors indulged in a victory dance accompanied by hoots and hollers, an act of sheer jubilation that also helped thaw frozen toes. This ritual, actually dancing on a pin(nacle), was repeated two days later when the team added another notch, a first winter ascent of Les Droites, to their triumphs.

In 1929, Pallas and his Austrian counterpart met again in Italy, bound for the Aiguilles Blanche and Noire de Peuterey, among the most risky climbs in the Alps and never ascended in winter. They were determined to succeed in honor of their companion—a team member from the previous year—who meanwhile had been killed in a freakish climbing accident. In spite of fickle weather, Hoerlin and Schneider accomplished their mission. In fact their winter ascent of the Aiguille Blanche set an astonishing record: it was faster than the fastest of all summer ascents. This was followed by a first winter ascent of the Aiguille Noire, where a sudden storm broke out as they descending, forcing them to bivouac for the night without sleeping bags or warm clothing. They recovered from their ordeal the next day, basking in the sun, covered with Italian olive oil to improve their tans, albeit not their aroma. The victors could not help but bask in the glow of their conquests as well.

Their feats were not over: the indefatigable twosome made the first winter traverse across three mountains (Mont Blanc, Mont Maudit and Montblanc du Tacal), a grueling route that began in France and ended in Italy on a starry and moonlit night. On their way to Courmayeur, they wearily stumbled onto a modest farmhouse, whose sympathetic owner offered them beds. It was a fitting end to a glorious day. As my father later recalled, "What we hardly had hoped for in our wildest dreams became a reality." Pallas and Schneider had set a number of mountaineering records, establishing themselves as an extraordinarily speedy pair with, as noted by a leading British mountaineer, "as brilliant a record of great climbs as any young mountaineers in Europe." Years later, Hoerlin was credited further: "... between 1926 and 1930, in a time when the roots for today's measures of climbing difficulty were shaped, Hermann Hoerlin had already completed the most challenging summer and winter excursions in the west Alps."

Although Pallas was at his happiest on top of a mountain, other matters called. After graduating from the Stuttgart Institute of Technology, he returned for a year to Schwaebisch Hall to help run the family store due to his father's illness. After a year, his father's health stabilized and the twenty-three year old decided to continue his studies, with a focus on photographic physics, at the Berlin Institute of Technology. People were abuzz with exciting developments in photography and the burgeoning film industry. My father found himself on the cutting edge of new discoveries in improved film quality and techniques for documentary photography and cinematography. Movies were coming into vogue and Berlin was at the forefront of European filmmaking. Germany's first talking film, "The Blue Angel," became an overnight sensation with its femme fatale, Marlene Dietrich, and its depiction of the times: the decadence of cabaret life, general raunchiness, shocking nudity, and open sexuality.

The young man from Swabia must have been wide-eyed with his exposure to this new world, a stark contrast to the conservative and traditional style of Stuttgart, and of course to Schwaebisch Hall. Berlin had shed its stern Prussian image and burst forth as a "... a capital of modernism." Artists, musicians, and writers flocked to this vibrant city to participate in its boom and make their mark. Modern technology was evident everywhere, whether in the bright lights lining streets, the network of express trains, the advanced water and sewage systems, or the large flashy department stores with their swift escalators. The scientific atmosphere was also exhilarating with revelations like quantum mechanics and relativity theory; physics was changing the way the world was viewed, appealing to the best and brightest minds. Berlin's embrace of innovation was infectious and Hoerlin was enjoying it. Yet, he missed the splendor and thrills of mountain climbing.


Excerpted from STEPS OF COURAGE by Bettina Hoerlin Copyright © 2011 by Bettina Hoerlin. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Letters From The Past....................ix
One The 54 Steps....................3
Two The Throne Of The Gods....................15
Three In Humboldt's Footsteps....................29
Four Where Books Are Burned....................45
Five Mountain Of Fate, Mountain Of Destiny....................59
Six Loving Kate 7....................5
Seven Dancing Among Wolves....................89
Eight "Where Do I Belong?"....................103
Nine A Sunless Year....................119
Ten Outward Bound....................133
Eleven Together But Apart....................147
Twelve Under Wings Of Eagles....................161
Thirteen The Only Real American....................179
Fourteen Metamorphosis....................195
Fifteen "Oh, That Was In The Past"....................213
Sixteen Home....................231

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