Monday, December 15, 2008

Alfred Grözinger

Crew Member

Age: 20

Hometown: Friedrichshafen, Germany

Occupation: Cook

Location at time of fire: Keel catwalk, base of stairs leading up to bow.


Alfred Fritz Grözinger was one of the ship's cooks, and had served in this capacity on both the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin and the LZ-129 Hindenburg. Apprenticed as a cook at the Zeppelin Company's Kurgarten Hotel in Friedrichshafen when he was 14 years old, Grözinger was soon "on loan" to the Graf Zeppelin for five flights to South America in 1932. This was likely in no small part due to the fact that his father, August Grözinger, who had been a mechanic with the Zeppelin Company since the early years, and who later became chief engineer on the Graf Zeppelin, was on good terms with Dr. Hugo Eckener. Eckener himself apparently pulled some strings on behalf of young Alfred, who had become a regular member of the Graf Zeppelin's kitchen crew by 1934, making numerous flights to South America.

During the Graf Zeppelin's winter service break of 1934-35 Grözinger, acting on Dr. Eckener's advice, took a job in the kitchen of a hotel in Rio de Janeiro which operated in conjunction with Brazil's Syndicat Condor airline. During his winter stay in Rio, Grözinger lived with the family of his uncle, Karl Rösch. Rösch was an engineer on the Graf Zeppelin who was temporarily living in Rio and supervising the expansion of the airship facilities in nearby Santa Cruz. Grözinger returned to the Graf Zeppelin once it resumed service in early 1935, and was later assigned to the Hindenburg when it began operations in March of 1936. He flew onboard the Hindenburg throughout the entire 1936 season.

Grözinger was aboard the Hindenburg on its first North American flight of 1937, working with the kitchen staff to prepare food for 36 passengers as well as 61 crew members. As the ship approached the mooring circle at Lakehurst on the evening of May 6th, Grözinger was in the kitchen down on B-deck. It had become apparent to the command crew that the ship was tail-heavy, despite several ballast drops from the stern. A few minutes before the fire, the captain ordered six men from the crew's mess to take positions in the bow of the ship, in an attempt to bring the ship into trim for the final approach to the mast. Three off-watch crewmen and three cooks answered the order.

Grözinger, still in his kitchen whites, was one of those who made his way forward, along with fellow cook Richard Müller, assistant cook Fritz Flackus, electrician Josef Leibrecht, and engine mechanics Alfred Stöckle and Walter Banholzer. Grözinger took a position about halfway between the control car and the bow, just forward of the crew quarters at Ring 218. Of the 12 men stationed forward of the control car, Grözinger (along with elevatorman Kurt Bauer, who was standing directly across the keel walkway from him) was furthest from the bow. He found a triangular ventilation hatch a meter or so to the port side of the catwalk through which he could see the activity on the ground below, and he laid down on his stomach to watch the ground crew take up the landing lines. He saw the sailors haul one of the lines over to the mooring circle and attach it to a large winch.

Alfred Grözinger's location at the time of the fire.
(Hindenburg structural diagram courtesy of David Fowler)

Suddenly, Grözinger felt a massive jolt run through the ship, and thought, "Oh my God, something's happened." He immediately looked overhead and saw fire above him. As the ship tilted down by the stern and sent several drinking water tanks tumbling aft down the keel past him, Grözinger thought to himself, "This is the end." He was never entirely sure what happened next, remembering only vaguely that he had hung by his hands from the hatch through which he'd been looking, and then when the ship descended low enough he dropped to the soft, sandy ground below. He picked himself up and ran away as quickly as he could, with the ship collapsing to the ground right behind him.

Alfred Grözinger (arrow) hangs from the portside vent hatch just forward of Ring 118. He is just barely visible due to his white kitchen tunic.

Grözinger drops to the ground as the Hindenburg's hull rebounds slightly into the air.

Visible as before thanks to his white tunic, Grözinger can just barely be seen here as he runs past the front of the Hindenburg's control car, with the ship's framework beginning to collapse above him.

With the Hindenburg's framework crashing to the ground almost literally at his heels, Grözinger (extreme right) sprints to safety. Members of the ground crew can be seen in the foreground already running back toward the ship to begin rescue operations.

Alfred Grözinger (right) walking away from the Hindenburg's wreckage, his kitchen whites barely singed after his narrow escape. US Navy sailors assist senior helmsman Kurt Schönherr at left.

Grözinger was virtually unscathed in the crash, though he was hospitalized briefly for shock at the Royal Pines Clinic in nearby Pinewald. 9 of the 11 other men stationed in the bow of the Hindenburg weren't so lucky, with only Kurt Bauer and Josef Leibrecht surviving the fire along with Grözinger. He stayed in the States for about a week and a half after the disaster, testifying through translator Karl Loerky before the US Commerce Department’s Board of Inquiry on May 15th. Grözinger sailed for Germany on May 15th with the rest of the Hindenburg's surviving kitchen staff and stewards aboard the steamship Europa, arriving in Bremerhaven on May 22nd.

Alfred Grözinger in hospital after the fire.

After Lakehurst, with Zeppelin operations quickly waning, Grözinger took on a job as ship's cook for a yacht owned by a Frankfurt cosmetics manufacturer, and after WW II (during which he served in the German military and was captured and placed in a POW camp) he toughed out some lean post-war years before opening his own restaurants. He later retired to suburban Friedrichshafen. In his later years he was a founding member of the Freundeskreis zur Förderung des Zeppelin-Museums (Friends of the Zeppelin Museum) in Friedrichshafen, and was interviewed a number of times for various Zeppelin documentaries, as he was one of the last remaining Zeppelin old-timers by the beginning of the 21st century.

Alfred Grözinger passed away at his home in Friedrichshafen - Oberteuringen on Christmas Eve, 2002, just four weeks short of his 86th birthday.

Alfred Grözinger circa 2000

(Many thanks to Siegfried Geist, whose detailed obituary for Herr Grözinger was invaluable to me in rounding out this article.)


Unknown said...

As a young person traveling through Europe during 1979 - 1980, I had the privileged to work with Herr Groetzinger in Ravensburg. He was working as the head cook for a 'Snellimbiss', and I was a lowly kitchen helper. Mr. G was so kind, and so patient as I learned to use the German language I had learned in high school. He listened patiently, instructed as he corrected me, and talked about an endless variety of topics. Having been raised in northern Germany, he spoke High German as well as the southern dialect of Schwabenland, and he was so good about explaining the differences. What an education! The account written here is very much as he related his experiences to me. Thank you for the chance to be reminded of one of my favorite life experiences!

Ruth Kemalyan Weis, Ovando, MT, USA

Unknown said...

Thank you very much for the nice information. i am the grandchildren of mr grözinger.

Patrick Russell said...

Hallo Marc,

Ganz meinerseits! Es freut mich dass Sie haben meiner Artikel an Ihren Großvater gut befunden. Hoffentlich ist es ziemlich sorgfältig und genau.

Wenn Sie möchten mit mir an Ihren Großvater weiter zu sprechen, bitte schreiben Sie mir an:

Es wurde mich freuen, die Lebensgeschichte Ihren Großvaters zu erweiten.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen aus Chicago,


Patrick Russell said...

Hi Ruth,

I'm sorry I missed your comment when you posted it before.

What an amazing experience that must have been. I spent a month in Germany when I was in high school, but was a bit too young to truly appreciate it all. To have been able to work alongside somebody like Herr Grözinger and learn from him (especially the differences between the northern dialect and Schwäbisch.)

I was never fortunate enough to meet Herr Grözinger, but I know a number of people who were, and by all accounts he was a genuinely nice fellow. It sounds like you found him to be just so. ;^)

Take care,

Unknown said...

Dear Marc,

What a treat to see your comment! I cannot adequately describe what an important impact your grandfather had on my life. It is my sincere belief that we were in the same place in the world at the same time by divine design.

My views of the world, of the world's views of Americans, my understanding of the importance of historical memory... all of these were profoundly touched and nurtured by him. Five months is not a long time, but it was seminal to my growth as a human being.

To my great regret, I did not continue corresponding with him after several years. Certainly that would have been a continuation something just as meaningful as our face-to-face interactions.

I would love to hear more about your family and yourself, if you should choose to share it. My email address is

PS I am a bit shy about trying my German in public because I haven't had much practice. However, if you prefer, I will make a strong effort to use it!

Unknown said...

Dear Patrick,

Thank you SO much for your blog! As you can see, I have learned something wonderful today! My friend, Mr. Groezinger has a grandson!

I hope you understand what a fine work you have done with your blog.

Ruth Kemalyan Weis