Occupation: Room steward
Location at time of fire: Passenger decks, portside dining salon
Max Henneberg, born in Hamburg in 1893, was a descendent of the House of Henneberg (itself a branch of the Babenbergs,) which existed from the 1100s through the 1500s. At its height, the House of Henneberg was quite powerful in the duchies of Thuringia and Franconia. Max Henneberg's branch of the family had moved north and settled in Hamburg in the 1800s. His mother died during childbirth, and his father remarried shortly thereafter, and then passed away himself about five years later.
Henneberg went to the naval academy in Hamburg, and graduated as a naval cadet at age 16. He joined the German Navy after graduation, and during WWI he was aboard a destroyer that was sunk during the Battle of Jutland. Henneberg survived for four hours in the icy waters of the North Sea before being rescued by a British ship, and he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner.
After the war, Max Henneberg and several of his friends worked as air mail pilots, flying mail all over Germany. However, the early airplanes were not particularly reliable, and Henneberg survived several crashes and forced landings before deciding that the life of a pilot wasn't for him. Through a friend of his family, Henneberg found work with the Hamburg-America steamship line. For 13 years, from 1922 through 1935, he sailed on various ocean liners, starting off as a dishwasher on his earliest trips, quickly becoming a steward, and then by 1929 rising to the level of Chief Steward. During these years he sailed around the globe several times.
On one of these voyages, Henneberg and three other members of the crew were playing a game of bridge. As the ship made its way through the Panama Canal, one of the men had to go on watch, so Henneberg invited one of the passengers, a young lady named Marta Balve, to join them and take over the empty spot in the game. Miss Balve was a practical nurse who specialized in the treatment of severe leg injuries. She worked with doctors in New York and Los Angeles, though she was from Germany. When she met Max Henneberg, Miss Balve was on her way back from Los Angeles to visit her home town of Düsseldorf. The two ended up dating for several years, although Marta spent most of her time living and working in the United States, and Henneberg was at sea a great deal of the time.
In late 1935, the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei began advertising for stewards for their new transatlantic airship, the LZ-129 Hindenburg, which was scheduled to make its first flights in early 1936. Thousands of applicants, including Max Henneberg, turned out for less than half a dozen open steward positions on the DZR's new airship. Henneberg was ultimately one of those who were hired, and he made his first flight in early May of 1936, a couple of months after the Hindenburg was commissioned. He made all of the rest of the flights during that first year, as well as all of the flights at the beginning of 1937.
Max Henneberg was, therefore on the Hindenburg's first North American flight of the 1937 season. As the ship came in to land at Lakehurst at the end of the flight on May 6th, Henneberg had just finished straightening up the new cabins on B-deck along with one of the other stewards, and then went upstairs to the lounge on the starboard side of the passenger decks. Since so many of the passengers were already gathered there to watch the landing, however, Henneberg walked over to the dining room on the port side of the passenger decks where there was more room at the observation windows. He found a spot near one of the forward-most windows, and was watching the landing operations on the ground from there when he looked aft towards the engines and suddenly noticed a fiery glow coming from back toward the stern of the ship.
Henneberg heard a sharp detonation moments after this that, based on his experiences in World War I, he later likened to the sound of a heavy artillery piece being fired. The shock of the detonation and the subsequent tilting of the ship aft threw Henneberg headlong to the floor along with two passengers (probably Otto and Elsa Ernst) who had been sitting on a bench to his left, and as he tried to rise he was thrown down a second time. He pulled himself up once more and made his way to the forward window again. Climbing up on the windowsill, Henneberg lowered himself through the window and hung there, waiting for the ship to drop closer to the ground before he finally let go from a height of about 15-20 feet. Henneberg ran to safety, and then returned with others to rescue passengers still trapped inside the ship.
He subsequently went over to the DZR office in one of the airplane hangars where the crew survivors were gathering. Radio announcer Herb Morrison, who was set up in the same airplane hangar cutting a recording of his description of the landing and then the fire, spoke off-microphone with Henneberg and later mentioned this in his recording:
And now ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just walked back here into the office after checking up with a member of the crew. It happened to be… Henneberg. Henneberg. He was a member of the crew, was wearing a white coat. I don’t know what he was, maybe one of the stewards. He looked like he was one of the stewards, and, uh, another man here, and what was, [to man off-mic] did you know the other man’s name? Did you… [man off-mic: “ Clemens?”] uh, did you know the… oh no, uh, yes I announced, uh, Mr. Clemens. All right, and there’s another man just walked up. [man off-mic: (unintelligible)] Mr. Henneberg too, I wanted to tell you, is uninjured and he walked in here with several bundles under his arm, now what, what, uh, the man had in his arms when he fell out of the, uh, dirigible I don’t know, but he has two paper bundles and there’s not a bit of scorching on either bundle. Now, how it happened (chuckles) I couldn’t begin to tell you, because, uh, he landed in… it’s fortunate that it was over where there’s deep sand, and when he jumped down out of the dirigible, out of the cabin, they lit into the sand, and they didn’t receive any broken bones, the ones who I have talked to.
Max Henneberg was not seriously injured at Lakehurst, having merely twisted his ankle slightly when he dropped to the ground. Marta Balve, who was living and working in New York at the time, had been on her way down to Lakehurst to see Henneberg during the brief stopover before the Hindenburg was to have sailed back to Germany later that evening. Henneberg ended up staying with Marta in New York until it was time for him to return to Germany.
He remained in the States long enough to testify before the US Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on May 13th, exactly a week after the disaster. Henneberg was, in fact, the first of the crew survivors to testify, and spoke partly in English, and partly through an interpreter, Benjamin J. Schnitzer of Akron, Ohio. Henneberg then sailed for Germany on Saturday, May 15th, along with the surviving steward and kitchen staff, onboard the steamship Europa. They docked in Bremerhaven a week later on May 22nd.
With no more passenger airships to serve aboard, Henneberg made a few more ocean voyages, then later in 1937 he landed a job as Inhaber (proprietor) of Schümann's Austernkeller, an inn and oyster bar in Hamburg's Inner Sea district. Established in the summer of 1884 by August Wilhelm Daniel Schümann, the upscale restaurant consisted of eleven individual dining rooms – tiny intimate rooms for two guests, all the way up to large dining areas with seating for two dozen. The restaurant was quite popular with celebrities and national figures, and each room had its own unique design as well as its own dedicated waiter. Max Henneberg would continue to run the inn throughout World War II, and it would remain a fixture on the Jungfernstieg until it finally closed in late 2000.
In 1939, Max Henneberg and Marta Balve were married and moved into a house in Hamburg, not far from the inn. Their first daughter, Elisabeth, was born the following year. As the war intensified, Hamburg, a major port as well as an industrial center, became a prime target for Allied bombing raids. In 1942, the Henneberg house was heavily damaged during one of these raids, and the family moved to a farm house in Rellingen, which was about 20 miles northwest of Hamburg, where they lived for the rest of the war. Max Henneberg continued to make the journey into Hamburg every day, however, to run the inn.
After the war, British occupation forces set up headquarters in an old manor house across the road from where the Hennebergs were living. The British were pleased to learn that they had English-speaking Germans living so close to them, and a cordial relationship developed between the Hennebergs and the British commander. Max Henneberg wanted Marta and the girls (they now had three) to go to the United States as soon as possible, and arranged with the British commander to find passage for them. In early 1946, Marta Henneberg and her daughters sailed from Bremerhaven on a troop ship. After docking in New York, they went cross country to Los Angeles, where Marta's sister lived.
Max Henneberg was to follow as soon as could be arranged, and had plans to turn his lifelong talent at drawing and painting into a new career in architecture once he got to the United States. Unfortunately, this was not to be. He developed cancer and died in Hamburg in 1949.
Marta Henneberg eventually moved to San Francisco where she lived for many years until she passed away at the age of 93, leaving three daughters, nine grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren.
I'd like to express my gratitude to Elisabeth Henneberg, Max's daughter, who generously shared with me a great many biographical details about her father and mother, and also provided the photos of herself with her father and of their house in Rellingen, as well as the portrait photo for me to use at the beginning of this article – and the ice hammer that her father kept from the Hindenburg's wreckage. Without Elisabeth's help, this article on her father would have been quite brief and would have primarily focused on his experiences as a Hindenburg steward. It's my very great pleasure to have the opportunity to tell Max Henneberg's story in far more detail than has previously been published.