Friday, May 6, 2016

Recounting the Disaster - A letter from one Hindenburg survivor to another

                Gertrud Adelt                                         Marie Kleemann
Recently, I received an email from Mr. David Hogan. His great-grandmother, Marie Kleemann, was a passenger on the Hindenburg’s final voyage, and survived the disaster with only very minor injuries. (A full account of her escape can be found HERE.)

Mr. Hogan, in going through some family documents, had discovered a letter to his great-grandmother dated late 1937. The letter (or, more specifically, a typed transcript of what had likely been a handwritten letter) was in German, but Mr. Hogan noticed that the Hindenburg was mentioned a number of times throughout it.

I was able to translate the letter into English, and it turned out to be from a fellow Hindenburg survivor, Gertrud Adelt. Frau Adelt and her husband, both professional journalists from Berlin, had also survived the disaster (the Adelts' story can be read HERE.) In her letter, Frau Adelt recounted their narrow escape, and updated Frau Kleemann on the latest news about a few of their fellow survivors.

As today is the 79th anniversary of the disaster, I thought this might be something interesting to share…

Berlin, November 27, 1937
15 Hartmansweiler Way, Zehlendorf

We were very pleased to hear from you in such detail through your husband – please give him our sincerest thanks. I'll never forget how I last saw you at the hospital in Lakehurst. I just wanted to hug you – I was so happy that you'd been saved, and you kept shaking your head and saying sadly, “Isn't that horrible? Isn't that horrible?” Ah, certainly you no longer remember that, which is good.

Your husband described quite vividly the extraordinary manner by which you got out of the ship, and asked how we had saved ourselves. I hope it won't upset you too much to hear about all of this again. We were standing, as the first landing ropes dropped, at a window in the reading room and were waiting for the dropping of the next landing ropes. When the thud of the first explosion followed, I innocently believed that it was just part of the normal procedure. I looked at my husband – he was deathly serious. And at that same moment the ship crashed to the ground. There was a bright red glow outside the window, and we were flung against the room's inner [aft] wall, tables and chairs about us like moving barricades.

Mr. Knöcher stood beside us, praying aloud. My husband, however, shouted, “Out through the windows!” He grabbed me and we charged uphill toward the window. Whether we jumped together or one after the other, I don't know. It must have been, by our current estimation, seven meters high. We felt the sandy ground beneath us, sodden from the rain. We tried to run away, but when we landed we were still inside the glowing framework.

At one point, suddenly tired, I lay down as though dead, my face to the ground. But my husband came back and shoved me up, however in doing so he got a breath of the thick smoke from the now-ruptured fuel oil tanks and also collapsed. But he picked himself up again when he saw me running, and we found ourselves both together about twenty paces away from the ship and saw, to our horror, that it was now only a dark, smouldering skeleton.

Then, as my husband babbled nonsensical things (which a radio reporter caught on his microphone and broadcast the next day to his listeners as an “interview”) a large, heavy man came and shoved us, against my husband's wishes, into a car. In this car sat, among others whom I can't recall, Mrs. Doehner with both of her little boys, who were crying dreadfully.

I can still recall with almost scientific precision what I then saw in the hospital, and I wish to spare you that. Only one: We sat then in the same room as Captain Lehmann. He sat naked on some kind of gurney, rubbing his knee, and greeted us wearily. When my husband asked him, "Lehmann, what was it?" he said with a shrug; "Lightning strike." The strange thing was that I do not remember seeing any injuries on him. Likewise, we ourselves felt as though we only had abrasions, and apart from that were extraordinarily alert.

At midnight, we hadn’t seen my husband's youngest brother. Many other relatives were there. After we had gotten first-aid dressing, they loaded us into an automobile, intending to bring us to my brother-in-law's house in Mays Landing (New Jersey.) Along the way, however, my husband had a choking fit. We stopped into a tavern and asked after the nearest hospital, but the only thing nearby was a children's mental asylum. There, they admitted my husband to the small hospital's only single patient room. The treatment was very diligent, the doctor was excellent, and after two days my husband was out of mortal danger. However, his burns were dreadful. Nobody from the Hindenburg would have recognized him. As he returned to his senses, the atmosphere with the sometimes ghostly apparitions of the insane began to bother him. So after a ten-day stay, we took him to Mays Landing. There, we were devotedly looked after for seven weeks. The doctors were astonished. They had given my husband half a year before he would be ready to travel, but after just two months we were traveling homeward from New York. And our reunion with our small son then blotted out many things.

Since then, we have met with several of the survivors. Chief Steward Kubis was here recently, because his wife was operated on in a Berlin clinic. He had survived the burning of the Schwaben and other disasters; yet now he was crossing the street “Unter den Linden”, got hit by a car, and is now also in hospital.

Yesterday I received a distressing letter from the wife of Colonel Erdmann, who sat to your right at the [dining room] table, in which she asked about her husband's last days.

Currently, Mr. Spah, the artist, who was also aboard the airship with his shepherd dog, is here visiting the Scala [vaudeville theater]. He brought his whole family (three children!) along from Long Island, because since Lakehurst he doesn't like to be alone anymore. His nerves still don't seem to have recovered. However, his escape was as extraordinary as perhaps no other. For years as an eccentric comedian, he has performed the following trick: he comes onstage as a drunkard, and after various other jokes, he looks for a place to lie down. In his confusion, he climbs a lamp post, holds onto the lamp with one arm, and hovers “asleep” in the air while the lamp swings wildly back and forth.

This same trick saved his life. During the landing he stood at the window in the dining room, spotted his wife and children down there and began filming with his camera. Suddenly, there was a noticeable shock and he saw the reflection of fire on the spectators below. His arm with the camera was shoved through the celluloid window pane, so that he could not be thrown to the interior. With a single bound, the agile man swung himself out of the window, clung to the windowsill with one hand, exactly like he always does with his vaudeville lamp, and jumped when the ship had almost reached the ground. Other than a sprained ankle, which broke while he was running away, he sustained no injuries.

And the strangest thing: the camera was later found, the film was intact, and we have a copy of it. There are all sorts of (though not very good) pictures from the trip. The icebergs are there, and at the end of the film, during the crash, the camera recorded the flames. My husband was invited to speak last Sunday in Dresden about “Zeppelin Yesterday and Tomorrow” and showed this film, which has now become a unique document.

Now I have talked so much that you must certainly be very tired from reading. Please forgive me! It would be a great pleasure if we could see you again someday. It is so unbelievably wonderful that you can begin to live a second time, so to speak, where for so many it was an ending. My husband is sending you a little biography of Lehmann that might interest you. He also has written an appendix about the end of the Hindenburg for Lehmann's book “Auf Luftpatrouille und Weltfahrt,” which is in the new edition, in which you are also mentioned.

Would you please give your husband our best? And accept from us both many kind regards.

Signed, Frau A.

Special thanks to David Hogan for sending a scan of his great-grandmother’s letter for me to translate, and for giving me permission to post it here on Project LZ129.