Ages: Leonhard Adelt - 55
Gertrud Adelt - 34
Residence: Berlin, Germany
Mr. Adelt's occupation: Journalist
Mrs. Adelt's occupation: Journalist (press card suspended by Nazi government)
Location at time of fire: Starboard lounge
Leonhard Adelt was born on June 17th, 1881 in Boizenburg/Elbe, Germany, but spent most of his youth in Dortmund, Germany. He began writing early in life, and published his first novel at age 17. The novel, entitled "Werden", was considered quite racy at the time, as it contained passages dealing with teenage sexual experiences. This caused such a scandal that Adelt lost his apprenticeship as a bookseller in nearby Kleve, and his family ended up moving from Dortmund to Cologne. Here, he got another bookseller job, and began to write for newspapers in several cities including Eberswalde, Stettin, Vienna, and Hamburg. He also attended the University of Berlin.
By 1912, Adelt had become interested in aviation – not only writing about it from the ground, but actually learning how to fly. It was through this that he became acquainted with Ernst Lehmann, who was then commanding the new passenger Zeppelin Sachsen for the DELAG airship service. Adelt reportedly even worked with Lehmann's cousin on an experimental non-rigid airship being built in Düsseldorf, though that ship never made it past an initial test flight or two. Adelt also wrote a series of aviation novels during this time, and seems to have been something of a trendsetter in this regard.
During World War I, Adelt was a war correspondent in Austria for the Berlin Tageblatt, and later as a correspondent and freelance journalist in Munich. From 1920 through 1926 he was an editorial representative for the Berlin Tageblatt and also for the Neue Freie Presse (Vienna) in Munich, where he wrote a number of articles that were very supportive of Stefan Zweig, a world-renowned Austrian writer who was also an outspoken pacifist and an advocate for a united Europe, and with whom Adelt had been a friend since childhood. (Zweig went into exile in England in 1936 to escape Nazi persecution). Since 1926 Adelt had been a travel correspondent.
Adelt, who had been married once before, met Gertrud Stolte in the mid 1930s They were married in 1935, and had a son, Christian, in 1936. Gertrud, born March 6, 1903, was from Dresden, and was a journalist in her own right. She held a Ph.D in art history from the University of Münster, and had spent many years writing for the movie magazine Film und Frau, which allowed her to travel a great deal, and to interview many film celebrities. However, by 1937 Gertrud Adelt had been deemed a troublemaker by the Ministry of Propaganda, and the Nazi government had lifted her press card. Leonhard was still allowed to work as a writer, but it's very likely that his friendship with Stefan Zweig was attracting unwanted attention from Berlin.
The Adelts were passengers aboard the Hindenburg's first flight to the United States of the 1937 season. Leonhard had collaborated with Captain Ernst Lehmann, now Director of Flight Operations for the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei, on his autobiography the year before, and Lehmann had invited him and his wife to fly to the United States on the Hindenburg as guests of the DZR. Leonhard's brother Karl lived in May's Landing, NJ, and the two brothers had not seen one another in almost 30 years, and so Leonhard and Gertrud Adelt would be staying there. The English translation of Lehmann's autobiography, "Zeppelin," would be published in June, so it's likely that Leonhard Adelt planned to meet with the publisher while he was in the States.
On Monday, May 3rd, 1937, the Adelts boarded the bus that would take them and their fellow passengers from the Frankfurter Hof hotel to the Rhein-Main airfield where the Hindenburg was waiting to cast off. Gertrud couldn't help but notice that one of the American passengers had obviously been "celebrating" his departure from Germany quite a bit while waiting for the bus, and was now loudly and comically singing sad songs as the bus made its way to the airport.
The Hindenburg was waiting for them outside the hangar at the airfield. Gertrud thought it rather odd that none of the well-wishers who accompanied the passengers were allowed to approach the airship. However, after they had all climbed aboard and were watching the crowd through the wide banks of observation windows on either side of the passenger decks, and indeed after the ground crew had already let go of the landing ropes, a loudspeaker suddenly called for the wife of one of the passengers to come forward. She appeared moments later in the foyer at the top of the gangway stairs. The passenger was a Luftwaffe officer named Fritz Erdmann, and the Adelts watched as the Erdmanns embraced silently for a minute or so. Leonhard remarked to his wife how unusual it was for a guest to be brought aboard for a final goodbye this close to takeoff, and moreso since the public was being kept away from the ship this time.
The ship took off at about quarter past eight in the evening, and proceeded along its route up the Rhine river, then along the English Channel and out to sea. Leonhard would later write that it was the most uneventful journey that he had ever taken aboard an airship. Even his old friend Lehmann seemed quiet and withdrawn, and the weather was so bad for the first day and a half that there was nothing to see out the windows. It wasn't until the afternoon of May 5th that the weather cleared and the passengers got a close-up view of a group of giant icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland.
They did get to know some of their fellow passengers, however, and Gertrud would remember them years later when she wrote an article about the flight for the Hamburger Abendblatt:
"There was the old merchant from Hamburg [Otto Ernst] who was finally taking his wife on a trip to America. There was the good, motherly businesswoman from Homburg [Marie Kleemann] anxiously counting the hours that separated her from her ailing daughter in Boston. The Swedish journalist with the rosy face [Birger Brinck] was on his way to Washington for an interview with Secretary of State Hull. The young artist with the gentle, deliberate way of walking [Joseph Spah] was going home to his wife and children on Long Island after a successful European tour. A family from Mexico [the Doehner family] was enjoying a wonderful conclusion to a visit to their old homeland. American and German merchants traveling on business. Air Force officers [Col. Fritz Erdmann, Maj. Hans-Hugo Witt, and Lt. Claus Hinkelbein] enjoying the luxurious amenities of airship travel, having been sent on this trip in recognition of meritorious service."
The Adelts were seated at the dinner table next to Captain Lehmann, with ship's commander Captain Max Pruss presiding over dinner. Gertrud would later remember an exchange between Captain Lehmann and one of the female passengers. It seemed that the woman had been part of a group that had been taken on a tour of the ship that afternoon, and as they walked along the catwalk they came to a spot where there was no handrail. Not wanting to let her guard down in front of the men by appearing afraid, she just strolled along straight and tall. The others cautiously hung back, and when she finally returned, she thought that she must have looked rather pale indeed. As she joked about this at dinner, "Ah," Captain Lehmann said gravely, "To have no fear and to do something courageous, that's nothing. But to be afraid and still take that risk… that's the real challenge."
Finally, on the evening of May 6th, the Hindenburg was coming in to land at Lakehurst. It had been scheduled to land that morning, but stormy weather and headwinds over the Atlantic Ocean had slowed the ship considerably, and then thunderstorms over the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst had delayed them even further. Leonhard and Gertrud Adelt stood at one of the observation windows in the starboard lounge, watching the ground crew taking up the ship's landing lines, and Leonhard looked to see if he could see his brother waiting for them.
Gertrud suddenly noticed that everything had grown strangely silent. She and her husband then heard a dull report from somewhere aft of them. It wasn't loud at all. Leonhard would later write that it was about as loud as a beer bottle being opened, and Gertrud would liken it to a paper bag being popped. Then the floor tilted out from underneath them and they were both hurled against the aft wall of the lounge along with a number of other passengers. Chairs, flower vases, fellow passengers - everything came sliding toward them. The Adelts both looked toward the window and saw a yellowish-red glow blossoming outside the ship, and they both realized that the ship was on fire. Somebody next to Gertrud began to pray, while Gertrud herself could think only, "Please, let it end quickly!"
Then she heard Leonhard's voice yelling to everyone, "Through the windows!" The two of them shoved some chairs aside and made their way to the observation windows. They jumped from a height of about 15 feet, and Gertrud found herself lying face down on the damp ground, unable to move. Suddenly a hand grabbed her by the collar. Leonhard had begun to make his way through the tangle of wreckage that lay between them and safety, realized that Gertrud wasn't with him, and gone back after her. He hauled her to her feet and gave her a push and she began running, as she would later write, "like an automaton… nothing could stop me then." Meanwhile, Leonhard had fallen and, like Gertrud had, he lay there on the ground feeling utterly drained. He looked up and saw Gertrud still running to safety, and this snapped him back to his senses. He got back to his feet "as though electrified" and followed his wife out of the wreckage.
Suddenly, they were out. The wreckage was all behind them, and they both turned around to look at what was left of the the Hindenburg. The proud silver airship was now a smouldering black skeleton enveloped in thick black clouds of smoke, and they could hear the screams of those still trapped within. Leonhard would later write:
"Something drew me toward [the wreckage]; I cannot say whether it was the feeling that I must try to save others, or that demon-like urge of self-destruction which drives the moth into the flame. My wife called to me, called more urgently and ran back to me. She spoke persuasively; took me by the hand; led me away."
The Adelts turned away from the horrible sight, walking hand in hand along the edge of the wreck and finally toward the hangars in the distance.
A man came up to them (Gertrud would always remember how strange he looked in his white Panama hat with everything else around them scorched and smoke-stained) and led them to one of the large limousines that had been onhand to ferry the passengers away from the mooring area. Now they were being used as ambulances. As they approached the car, a harsh voice from deep in the back said, "There's no more room in here!" Gertrud looked into the car and recognized Mrs. Doehner. She was sitting there clutching her two badly-burned sons to her "like a lioness", as Gertrud would later recall.
They were taken to the air station's infirmary, which was in utter chaos, being far too small to handle the sudden influx of badly injured patients. Horrified nurses ran to and fro trying to ease everyone's pain as best they could, using whatever they had onhand, including bottles of whiskey and, according to Leonhard, "a morphine syringe the size of a bicycle pump."
Gertrud found a wicker chair to sit in, and then noticed a horribly injured member of the crew laying at her feet, obviously dying. He said that his shoes were too tight, and she removed them and his heavy woolen socks for him. A priest appeared suddenly and heard the man's confession. Gertrud noticed that the injured man was speaking in German with a Schwäbisch dialect, and she was sure that the priest didn't understand a word of it. "Only God understood him," she later remarked.
Meanwhile, Leonhard had found Captain Lehmann sitting on a table. Lehmann was burned terribly, and was blotting at his wounds with a large piece of gauze soaked in picric acid. Leonhard was at a loss for words, and said the only thing that came to mind: "What happened?" Lehmann, in shock, could reply only, "Blitzschlag"… lightning. The two men looked silently at one another for a long moment and then Leonhard, overcome with emotion, had to leave the room and walk outside.
Gertrud had left the young crewman with the priest, and one of the medics came up and wanted to give her a shot of morphine. She refused, however, thinking, "Nobody's going to be able to find me if I'm laying here asleep."
Finally, Leonhard's brother found them and got them into his car and through the cordon around the airfield.
Leonhard and Gertrud Adelt both survived the disaster with relatively minor injuries. Leonhard had some burns on his scalp and was suffering from smoke inhalation, so he was taken to State Colony Hospital in Pemberton, New Jersey, where he stayed for ten days before being released. Gertud only had minor burns, (including one on her right hand that forced her to write left-handed until it healed) and did not require hospitalization.
The Adelts stayed the summer at Leonhard's brother Karl's home in May's Landing. Gertrud would later recall that the Gestapo in Germany continued to take an interest in them while they were out of the country. As she told author A.A. Hoehling some 25 years later, a woman from Philadelphia showed up and offered her services as a secretary. Leonhard naturally wanted to record his recollections about their flight on the Hindenburg and their escape from the fire. The woman was an excellent secretary, and asked for an unusually low amount of money. She would take her shorthand notes home every night to copy them, and given his and his wife's less than stellar reputation with the German government, Leonhard suspected that the woman was probably connected to the SD or the Gestapo. He was very careful about what he said around her, just to be on the safe side.
Gertrud, on the other hand, was definitely being investigated by the Gestapo. While she recouperated at Leonhard's brother's house, the Gestapo showed up at her mother's home back in Dresden. They insisted that Gertrud was spreading stories about the Hindenburg disaster that were not consistent with what the Propaganda Ministry had ordered German journalists to convey. The Gestapo agents demanded to read all of Gertrud's correspondence with her mother since she had been in the United States, found nothing in the letters that Gertrud's mother had received from her, and they let the matter drop.
The Adelts returned to Germany later that summer. They moved to Dresden, where they lived throughout the Second World War. Gertrud eventually got her press card back, and resumed her career as a journalist. On the night of February 13th, 1945, as the Allies firebombed Dresden, Leonhard and Gertrud and their son, Christian, escaped from their house as the flames began to consume it. Then Leonhard remembered an unfinished manuscript that he wanted to save, and ran back into the house after it. He was badly injured in the process, and was taken to a medical facility in Dippoldiswalde, about 11 miles south of Dresden. Leonhard Adelt died of his injuries a week later on February 21st, 1945. Years later, Gertrud would tell her family of how she and nine year-old Christian fled through the blazing streets of Dresden, dodging bullets as low-flying airplanes strafed them.
Interestingly enough, given Gertrud’s having once had her press card lifted for not being supportive enough of the Nazi regime, she found herself in a similar bind after the war ended. Because she had continued on as a journalist throughout the war, she wound up on an Allied list of German citizens who had to undergo denazification. She was prevented from writing professionally for a year, after which she was allowed to continue with her career. Gertud and her son moved to Hamburg, where she wrote for a variety of different German newspapers, including Die Welt, which was established by British occupational forces in 1946.
In 1949, Gertrud wrote an account of her escape from the Hindenburg disaster for the Hamburger Abendblatt. Published in the Sunday edition on August 27th, 1949 and titled Mein Sturz aus dem brennenden Luftschiff (My Fall from the Burning Airship), Gertrud’s article presented her perspective not just on the disaster itself, but also on various moments from throughout the voyage.
Gertrud Adelt continued to live in Hamburg, and passed away following a sudden heart attack in 1985 at the age of 82. Her son, Christian, had passed away three years earlier in 1982.
Gertrud Adelt in 1981
Special thanks to Ulrich Adelt, Leonard and Gertrud’s grandson, for providing me with family photos and additional biographic information.