Back in the day, John Krebs cut diamonds, covertly served in the Jewish underground and spent time in the Oakland, Calif., city jail.
Then the world turned, and the Fresno resident with a Teutonic accent was elected to two terms in Congress during the 1970s. He was, as it happened, California’s first foreign-born member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Now, many more turns underfoot, Krebs is 87 and looking back. The former Fresno County planning commissioner, supervisor and grand juror, the lawmaker after whom a Sierra Nevada wilderness is named, is sharing what others could not see until now.
“Most people know me from my public life,” Krebs said in a telephone interview, “but they don’t know my sordid past.”
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He’s kidding, people. John Hans Krebs’ past is not sordid. Eventful, yes.
Born in Berlin and largely raised in Israel, Krebs resisted powerful developers, fought with San Joaquin Valley farmers and ultimately lost his House seat over a remote Sierra Nevada valley. He can be blunt and he can be funny, and he made his mark on the region he served.
With time and memory pressing down on him, Krebs has written a 158-page memoir entitled, “From Berlin to Capitol Hill.” He wrote it not for publication, per se, but for his grandchildren, so they might know him better. Still, the bound manuscript, accompanied by photographs, is a roadmap to more than one life.
“John’s story is the American immigrants’ story, which is one reason I think we can all take pride in him,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.
Costa once worked for Krebs, and he’s affectionately recalled in the Krebs’ memoir for both his “hard work” and his long-ago “shoulder length hair,” the latter being something never seen on the buttoned-down Krebs.
Krebs’ memoir, too, is characteristically crew-cut. He has an eye for the anecdote, as in his recounting of his short jail sentence for an unpaid traffic ticket, but he largely eschews gossip, backstabbing or score-settling. From a political journalist’s callow perspective, that’s kind of a shame. Krebs shows, instead, considerable respect for his one-time House colleagues who entered Congress with him in the class of 1974.
“The majority of them were good guys,” Krebs said, though adding, “sure, a couple of guys went to prison.”
Even the Republican attorney who ousted Krebs in a tart 1978 campaign, Charles “Chip” Pashayan Jr., is treated civilly in the memoir. Backed by developers and big farmers, Pashayan outspent Krebs $260,000 to $156,000 in the 1978 election. Krebs subsequently lost a 1980 race for a Fresno County Superior Court seat, and that was it for elected politics.
Pashayan, in turn, served in the House through 1990, when he was replaced by Democrat Cal Dooley, who served through 2004. When Dooley retired, and here comes the great circle of life, he was replaced by Costa, who got his political start escorting Krebs around rambunctious Portuguese-American celebrations in Kings and Tulare counties.
“I owe John a lot,” Costa said
Sometimes, Krebs acknowledges, he now feels like “the wheels are starting to come off.” He lost use of his right eye 10 years ago. Glaucoma impedes his left eye. Surgery ameliorated some troublesome tremors a while back.
“My days are numbered,” Krebs said. “I can’t last forever.”
Still, he remains remarkably engaged with the larger world. He reads The Economist magazine. With his wife Hannah, he’s maintained a subscription to the Fresno Philharmonic. He stays in touch with the likes of former Senator Chris Dodd, now the chief lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America and at one time, incongruously enough, a hard-living, cigarette-puffing tennis partner of Krebs.
“Waking him up,” Krebs writes, “was not always an easy task.”
In his memoir, Krebs describes how his family escaped Germany in 1933, finally ending up in Tel Aviv in what was then British-administered Palestine. At 14, he began an apprenticeship as a diamond-cutter, a trade he practiced for five-and-a-half years.
Turned away from the British Army during World War II because he was too young, Krebs recalls joining the Haganah underground organization in 1943. Krebs describes it as a “centrist” organization as opposed to the more radical Irgun. He served in what he describes as a “special unit,” which undertook some dicey missions, including the protection a mobile underground radio transmitter.
“Our unit,” Krebs writes, “also had the task of keeping an eye on suspected informants for the British.”
Bizarrely, Krebs reports that during the 1960s he later encountered one of the suspected informants at a Patrick James clothing store in Fresno.
An attorney, Krebs served a term on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors at a time that, he wrote, his colleagues frequently went along with the “shenanigans” and “the schemes of various developers.” He defeated Republican incumbent, and former Olympic athlete, Bob Mathias, in 1974 to claim a House seat.
A review of Krebs’ career, as seen through the pages of his era’s Congressional Record, show a lawmaker closely involved with his district, from the ceremonial sponsoring of National Raisin Week to the support for substantive farm programs and the denunciations of Turkey for not paying restitution to Armenians. Ultimately, though, it was his support for protecting the Mineral King Valley in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains from a potential Disney ski resort that cost him his seat.
Krebs’ work is now memorialized as the 39,740-acre John Krebs Wilderness, designated in 2009.
“I did,” Krebs said, “what I thought was the right thing to do.”