George Emil Wilkens Hirschfeld, born May 25th, 1901, was a 35 year-old cotton broker from Bremen. While his cotton broker father, Julius Hirschfeld, was from Germany, his mother Emily was from Galveston, Texas. As a young man of 23, Hirschfeld was sent over to the United States in 1924 where he worked for the next four years at the family cotton plantation near Hearne, Texas along the Brazos River in order to get a feel for the cotton trade.
By 1937, Hirschfeld was a partner in the Bremen cotton-dealing firm of Lentz and Hirschfeld, which had originally been established by Hirschfeld's father in 1897 and which since that time had regularly imported large amounts of American cotton. Hirschfeld was also a member of the Bremen Cotton Exchange as well as Bremen's Chamber for Industry and Trade where he was chairman of that body's committee dealing with the cotton trade. He flew on the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937 so that he could spend some time in the States studying the possibilities of developing business under a recent barter agreement between the U.S. and Germany, in which American cotton would be shipped to Germany in exchange for German goods brought to the United States. He was also to meet with a number of American bankers during his visit to New York, his first since 1928.
Hirschfeld was accompanied by friends to the airfield at Frankfurt on the evening of May 3rd, 1937 to board the Hindenburg. Since well-wishers were not generally allowed to approach the ship, Hirschfeld said his goodbyes and walked over to board the ship with the other passengers, and marveled at the sight of the "enormous silver giant." Once aboard, Hirschfeld watched the ground crew release the ship, and noted how it rose in absolute silence for about 200 feet, at which point the engines were started. He and his fellow passengers were then treated to the sight of German towns and villages sliding by less than 1000 feet below them. As he later wrote in a letter to his mother, "We had a wonderful trip in the dark over the Rhine cities, particularly Cologne."
Hirschfeld later recalled being immediately impressed by the Hindenburg's passenger accommodations. "The airship had a wonderful layout," he later wrote. "Everything was very modern, most practical and also roomy. The individual cabins had running cold and warm water. The meals were elegantly served on their fabulous own service and everything was extremely clean. The dining room as well as the lounge for the guests was very roomy and tastefully appointed."
The first day out over the Atlantic was drab and cloudy, and Hirschfeld noted that without much to see below, the day was more or less uneventful. By the second day, however, the ship approached Newfoundland and Hirschfeld was amazed by the numerous icebergs in the ocean below. "There were many icebergs and in addition there were entire large strips of loose ice in the sea," he would later write. "The icebergs really looked fantastic. We flew very low over some of them. One of these giants protruded about 250 feet from the water and was 1000 feet long."
The next afternoon, the Hindenburg flew down the northeastern coast of the United States, making a wide circle over New York, and Hirschfeld was impressed by how enormously the city had grown since his last visit there almost a decade before. As the afternoon passed, the Hindenburg flew further south to Lakehurst, where thunderstorms prevented an immediate landing. After a couple hours of cruising up and down the southern New Jersey shore, the weather cleared and the ship returned to Lakehurst to land. Hirschfeld was in the starboard lounge with other passengers, watching through a pair of Zeiss binoculars as the ground crew picked up the landing lines and the ship nosed in towards its mooring mast.
Suddenly, Hirschfeld heard a "muffled bang" and felt the ship shake violently. He saw the observation windows illuminated red from the outside and knew then that the ship was on fire. As the ship tilted aft and Hirschfeld slid towards the aft wall of the lounge, he was aware of additional explosions as the fire ignited the ship's gas cells one by one. As the passengers around him began to panic, Hirschfeld realized that his only chance was to keep his head and "to act with calmest control." He waited near the aft wall of the lounge until he heard the ship hit the ground, then leapt over a pile of chairs toward the nearest window, not knowing that the hull was briefly rebounding 10 or 20 feet back into the air. " I do not know whether I jumped through an open window or a closed one," Hirschfeld later recalled, "since the windows are not made of glass but mica."
Hirschfeld fell perhaps 15-20 feet and landed in the sand below. The ship rolled slightly to starboard as it hit the ground for the second and final time, and the hull structure above the starboard windows was collapsing to the ground all around the area where Hirschfeld and several other passengers were trying to escape. Hirschfeld found himself "surrounded by an immense red conflagration." He glanced back and saw that the area near the windows was still clear and not yet burning, but he knew that the only way out was through the burning wreckage in front of him. Hirschfeld, aware that there were even more glowing metal girders above him beginning to sink down, immediately began to run and leap through the mass of wreckage before him.
Suddenly, a pair of crossed wires snagged his foot and he fell. "At that moment I believed myself to be lost, but concentrated my entire willpower to crawl back and free my foot," he said. He picked himself up and continued to run, and had almost reached safety when a burning girder fell directly in front of him. He threw up his hands to protect his face, burning them on the hot metal in the process. Hirschfeld ducked past the girder and made his way over and under the remaining debris that lay in front of him. He noted that the cool air coming from outside to feed the fire was probably the main reason he was not burning alive at that point. He was also wearing a long, heavy coat, which also helped to protect him from the heat and flames. Just before he cleared the last of the wreckage, Hirschfeld realized that he was still holding onto his binoculars, and tossed them aside.
Then, suddenly, he was in the clear. Hirschfeld continued to run until he felt himself to be a safe distance from the wreck, at which point he stumbled to the ground, breathing hard and noticing for the first time that he'd twisted his ankle slightly. A man in overalls whom Hirschfeld assumed to be a member of the ground crew helped him away from the ship. Behind him, he could hear the screams of other passengers who were still trapped in the wreckage.
Hirschfeld's first instinct was to wire his family and business associates back in Germany, so he asked to be taken to the Western Union station in the main hangar. He later discovered that the telegrams he sent never arrived, apparently lost in the massive wave of similar messages that were being sent. Hirschfeld was then shown to a car that took him to the air station's infirmary. Shortly after he arrived, another car brought in several more survivors who were terribly burned, and Hirschfeld could not take the horrible sight, so he instead walked outside again. He stood in the cool night air, scarcely realizing that he'd been burned, when his business associate Adam Schildge and two other men found him. Schildge and the others had been onhand to meet Hirschfeld, and were visibly relieved that he was alive.
They drove Hirschfeld over to a hospital in nearby Lakewood, where he was given first aid for burns to his hands and face and was kept overnight. The following day Hirschfeld was transferred, along with fellow passenger Hans Vinholt and three crewmen (Theodor Ritter, Franz Herzog, and Josef Leibrecht), to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, where he immediately wrote (most likely with assistance, as his hands were bandaged) a letter to his mother describing his airship voyage as well as his narrow escape. The letter was reprinted in the May 21st, 1937 issue of the Bremer Nachrichten, and was also used as the basis for Hirschfeld's article "My Trip on the Last Voyage of the Hindenburg" in the June-July 1937 issue of the German-American commercial bulletin.
Amazingly, most of Hirschfeld's burns were superficial, and he was able to leave the hospital on May 27th, a few weeks after the disaster (and two days after his 36th birthday). He remained in the United States until the 5th of June when he returned home to Germany.
George Hirschfeld passed away on November 26th, 1986 at the age of 85.
Many thanks to Tom Pause, the grandson of George Hirschfeld, for providing the photos used in this article, and for filling in details of his grandfather's life.