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The Immigrant: The Life of Matthias Toebben in his own words — and what a life it has been

By Judy Clabes
Special to KyForward

Matth Toebben tells his story as only he can and as you turn the pages of his book, The Immigrant, the words come to you in his distinctive voice – heavy still with the German inflection from his boyhood, peppered with his innate good humor and the pain and poignancy of a life fully lived.

If you are lucky enough to have heard any of the stories firsthand, before they were committed to print with the help of Matth’s friend, retired surgeon T. Milton Mayer, then you will enjoy the book even more. Either way, it’s a must-read for its rich history – of a much-loved little boy growing up in Hitler-terrorized Germany who escaped to America and made a big mark on Northern Kentucky.

“There are some things kids should never see,” Matth said in retrospect, but he saw them – and surprised himself with the detail he remembered – that he didn’t want to remember – when he sat to put words on tape. He ultimately recorded his stories for Mayer, having struggled with the writing of them. He had been urged by his family to give permanence to his story so that they, too, would not lose the power of it.

Matthias Toebben grew up in a large, close-knit family in Lorup, Germany, a small, remote agrarian village. He was a twin and a sickly kid, in a large and poor household, well-loved by a strong mother, protected by a father who bore the scars of service in Kaiser Wilhelm’s army. Growing up, he wore wooden shoes and clothes made of “gunny sacks,” lived and learned by hard work and devotion to the good of the family. The family farmed their land, considered themselves blessed to do so, scratched out an existence. They had their devoted parents, their strong faith, their resilience, and a work ethic that never quit.

Matth’s narrative about his childhood is riveting and rich in detail. He speaks tenderly and with heartfelt respect for his Mother who he credits as the major influence in his life. They had a “difficult life,” he says, but they were happy.

Hitler changed that for all of Germany – and the fear came eventually even to Lorup. He tells of how fear gripped his small village – would a neighbor betray another over a misspoken criticism of the government? Then there came the Allied fighters who extended their air battles over Lorup – and one day he and his dad came way too close to becoming collateral damage. He can still hear the whiz of the bullets.

The book is forthright in its telling: In April of 1945, Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered shortly thereafter. Seven million Germans had been killed (ten percent of the population) and thousands more severely injured. Six million Jews had been massacred. The American soldiers who occupied the village of Lorup helped maintain order, re-establish the local government, and repair damage – and treated everyone with dignity and respect.

At 14, Matth had finished his official schooling and eventually was an apprentice for three hard years, learning the art of cabinet-making. He was a craftsman and made excellent cabinets, and in post-war Germany, the economy was growing and he was making a decent living. But he wanted to be “master of his own future.” When the bureaucracy got in his way, he decided to come to America – to join his older sister, Marie, who had already come to Northern Kentucky with her husband, Nick Kreutzjans.

With $10 in his pocket and hope in his heart, a young man who spoke no English and who had never been far out of the sight of Lorup, got on a boat (sponsorship papers in his pocket) with his self-crafted wooden suitcase for the arduous journey to America. It was the SS United States, after all.

Bitter cold, storms, rough seas and abiding doubt prevailed during the long trip, but finally Matth’s first sighting of America: The Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island. He muddled through somehow, finding kindness and generosity even in New York, and by happenstance and luck — hungry, tired, and late — he made it to the Union Station in Cincinnati where his relieved sister eventually found him.

Laverne andMatth in a photo from the book.

With his feet on the ground in Northern Kentucky and still speaking very little English, he went to work – and the rest is rich in local history. He found love at first sight at a dance hall in Cincinnati – a beautiful young woman named Laverne Huber. He didn’t speak English well, but he could dance, and he had found his life partner. They were married in 1955 and had five children. Laverne saved him from bookkeeping as his business interests grew and flourished. The Immigrant is dedicated to her as his “business partner, love and best friend.” She died in 2011, and the proceeds of the book are dedicated to the Alzheimer’s Association in her honor.

Matth, now nearly 89, built his considerable homebuilding enterprise on hard work, devotion to quality, savvy business skill, solid common sense – and treating people right. He started with a subdivision on Amsterdam Road then moved to Country Squire Estates when Buttermilk Pike wasn’t much more than a wagon trail. He focused on high-end, made-to-suit custom homes, with emphasis on custom. It is indeed a family enterprise – his sons John and Bill run different divisions of it today and his grandsons are growing into roles in the company.

Along the way, he expanded his interests into commercial development, mining, natural gas, prize livestock and more. He fought back against bureaucracy and unfairness and “big government.”

His imprint is all over Northern Kentucky. His business success is legend, his community involvement wide-ranging, his philanthropy generous, and his conservative political views well known.

The Immigrant chronicles his journey. The insight into his life experiences, how he handled challenges and adversity are worth the read. There are lessons to be learned in his kindness, his sense of humor, his principles, and his keen judge of character. He holds himself to a high standard as well. He is never far from the standards his father set or the values his mother instilled.

The Immigrant is on sale at Joseph-Beth Bookstore in Crestview Town Center and at Roebling Books in Covington and at the Toebben Company offices in Crescent Springs. It is $30 and all proceeds go to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The Toebben grandchildren.

Judy Clabes is editor and publisher of the Northern Kentucky Tribune.

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