Residence: Bad Homburg, Germany
Location at time of fire: Passenger decks -
portside dining salon
Mrs. Marie Kleemann was born Sophie Marie Zeuner in Liegnitz on December 8th, 1875. Her father Friedrich Zeuner was born in Breslau on January 4, 1848 and her mother Sofie Zeuner (née Kliegelhöfer) was born on April 18, 1849, also in Breslau.
The Zeuner family sometime around 1885 or 1890. Back row, from left: Ida, Sophie, Albert, Karl, Marie.
Front row, from left: Sofie (mother) holding Heinrich on her lap, Fritz (standing between his parents),
Luise (sitting between her parents), Friedrich (father), and Helene (in front of Marie.)
Marie Zeuner married Friedrich Kleemann in 1894, and they lived in Bad Homburg, just outside of Frankfurt. Friedrich Kleemann was born in 1878 in Oberstedten, on the western outskirts of Bad Homburg. He owned the Rex Konservenglas Gesellschaft (a manufacturing firm that made preserving/storage jars) and, with their son Fritz, also founded the Horex-Fahrzeugbau AG, in Bad Homburg. Horex (a combination of the town name HOmburg and the REX glass company) produced motorcycles from the mid-1920s until World War II. After the war Horex resumed production until 1959 when it was bought out and liquidated by Mercedes.
Interestingly, one of the more prominent motorcycles in the Horex line, the 500cc Imperator, ended up being the forerunner of the Yamaha XS 650, one of the best-selling bikes of the 1970s. In the 1950s, Horex had licensed the Hosk company to produce its motorcycles in Japan, which it continued to do until being bought by Showa in about 1957. When Yamaha absorbed Showa in 1960, they acquired plans for a Showa-designed 650cc upgrade of the old Horex Imperator. This was later used as the basis for the design of the popular Yamaha XS 650, which was first produced in 1970.
In late April of 1937, Maria Kleemann received word that her daughter Katharina, who lived in Andover, Massachusetts, had undergone a serious operation and would be recovering at home. Mrs. Kleemann wanted to be with her daughter during her recovery, and obviously wanted to find the fastest way across the ocean. Her daughter Katharina and her husband John Bolten, a manufacturer of vinyl and plastic goods with factories in Lawrence, Massachusetts as well as in Germany, had previously flown across the Atlantic on the Hindenburg in July and early August of 1936, and spoke very highly of their experience. Mrs. Kleemann therefore decided to book passage on the Hindenburg. It was certainly the fastest way of crossing the Atlantic at the time, two days faster than the top-of-the-line steamships, and it happened to be departing on its first flight of 1937 to the United States just when Mrs. Kleemann needed to leave.
She therefore telegraphed her daughter and son-in-law that she would be arriving at Lakehurst aboard the Hindenburg on Thursday, May 6th. Her son-in-law would meet her at the airport in Newark, where she would make a connecting flight from Lakehurst aboard an American Airlines DC-3. Katharina would be home from the hospital by then, and there was a small gathering of friends and family planned for that evening to welcome Frau Kleemann.
Marie Kleemann and the rest of the passengers boarded the Hindenburg in Frankfurt on the evening of May 3rd, and spent the next three days crossing the North Atlantic. "The trip over the ocean was wonderful," she later recalled. "Over Newfoundland, we saw a tremendous number of icebergs, like swimming castles. When we came over Boston Thursday noon, Captain Lehmann said, 'Sorry I can't let you down here.'"
The Hindenburg came in to land at Lakehurst later that evening, and as the ship approached the landing field, Marie Kleemann went to her cabin, which was one of the new deluxe passenger cabins that had been added over the winter on the lower level of the passenger accommodations. "I had gone downstairs to my cabin, and a stewardess [Emilie Imhof] had helped me change my clothing. Then I went upstairs to the social hall. The stewardess stayed below - and was killed."
As the Hindenburg hovered over the landing field, just beyond the mooring circle, Marie Kleemann was sitting on one of the benches next to the giant observation windows in the dining room on the ship’s port side, watching the ground crew. When the fire broke out a few minutes later, she stayed seated throughout the entire disaster.
"Everything was so sudden and so confusing. I was sitting next to the window, when it happened, all so suddenly," she later told a reporter from the Boston Globe. "I was sitting in the social hall, looking out of the windows at the ground close below when two big explosions came. The detonation was schrecklich - horrible. Everything was mixed up. Big men, bigger than John [Bolten, her son-in-law] were thrown against me. Everything was noise and shrieks and screams. I don't remember much of what happened until one of the stewards, who had jumped out at first but then returned, came into the burning [dining] hall and pulled me out."
Once the ship was on the ground, the steward Frau Kleemann mentions (probably Fritz Deeg) and other rescuers helped her out of the wreck via the gangway stairs in the ship's belly and she was led to safety, clutching the pair of gloves that she'd managed to hold onto the entire time. Amazingly, she suffered only a cut lip and a bruise on the side of her face, and the hair on top of her head was slightly singed. Her gold-rimmed glasses, which had fallen off during the crash, were recovered from the wreck the next morning by one of the Hindenburg's stewards, who saw to it that they were returned to her.
John Bolten, meanwhile, was waiting for her at the Newark Airport. When news of the disaster reached him, he immediately made his way down to Lakehurst. In the confusion following the disaster, however, it took him hours to find out that his mother-in-law had survived the disaster, and where she had been taken for medical treatment. Finally, at about 4:00 the next morning, he was able to locate her at the Royal Pines Clinic in nearby Pinewald, NJ, and they returned to Newark the next morning. Bolten had booked a 10:30 AM flight for the two of them from Newark to Boston, but after they boarded the plane and were seated, a shaken Frau Kleemann realized that she was not yet ready to fly again so soon after the horrors of the night before. They took a train up to Boston instead.
Marie Kleemann and her son-in-law arrived at the Bolten home in Andover that evening at approximately 6:30, almost 24 hours after the crash. Still wearing the clothes she'd been wearing at the time of the disaster, a souvenir Zeppelin Company pin still attached to the lapel of her coat, she sat with her family, still in shock from her ordeal. A reporter from the Boston Globe was allowed a short interview with her, with her son-in-law interpreting. She told him her impressions of the flight, and gave him a brief account of her narrow escape. She stopped to take a telephone call from her grandson, John Jr., who was at school in Stoney Brook, in New York. Then, her daughter and granddaughter led her to her bedroom for the first sleep she'd had in a day and a half.
Marie Kleemann and her daughter, Katharine Bolten are reunited at the Boltens' home in Andover, MA, the evening after the disaster.
Ten years later, in 1947, Marie and Friedrich Kleemann's grandson, John Bolten, Jr., flew to Germany and brought them both back to the United States to live. Friedrich passed away on December 18th, 1949. Marie became a naturalized US citizen on June 14, 1954. She passed a few years later, on August 9th, 1959, at the age of 83. Both she and her husband are buried in Andover, Massachusetts.
Marie Kleemann and her brothers and sisters pose for a group photo, probably sometime in the early/mid 1950s.
Brothers in the back row, from left: Heinrich, Karl, Fritz, Albert.
Sisters in the front row, from left: Sophie, Ida, Helene, Marie.
Special thanks to Mark Bolten, great-grandson of Marie Kleemann, who provided information about his great-grandmother as well as a great deal of material on the Horex motorcycle company. He also provided the photo of his grandmother from 1947.
Many thanks also to Dan Hogan, another of Marie Kleemann's great-grandsons, who was kind enough to share the photo of his great-grandmother and his grandmother the day after the disaster.
Thanks also to Brigitte Diefenbach, granddaughter of Marie Kleemann’s brother, Karl Zeuner, for providing the two family group photos.
Thanks also to Karlo Müller, a historical expert on Friedrich Kleemann’s home town of Oberstedten, for providing me with the correct year of Friedrich and Marie Kleeman’s marriage.