Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Severin Klein

Severin Klein portrait 3   Crew Member

   Age: 24

   Hometown: Friedrichshafen, Germany

   Occupation: Steward

   Location at time of fire: Passenger decks, portside
   dining room.


Severin Klein was born on January 14, 1913 in Konstanz. He was named after his grandfather, Severin Keller, a successful businessman from the town of Lindenberg im Allgäu. Keller had founded Hutfabrik Keller in 1882, which produced hand-made straw hats. By the time his grandson and namesake was born in 1913, Keller's business had grown to the point where he had built a new factory, which continued to produce hats until the company finally closed at the end of 1978.

Severin Klein was the oldest of three brothers. His youngest brother, Josef, born October 4, 1917, went on to take over Hutfabrik Keller from their grandfather. However Severin and his brother Adolf followed their father into the hotel business. Josef Klein was a hotel manager, and despite the rampant unemployment that crippled Germany throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, he was able to get his two eldest sons hired on as waiters at the Park Hotel in Friedrichshafen.

Since the Park Hotel was so closely tied with the Zeppelin Company, which still flew its airships out of Friedrichshafen, Severin Klein visited the local offices of the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei to inquire about a position as an airship steward. Klein was advised to first learn French and English, and he traveled to both countries to immerse himself in their respective languages. 


Klein in DZR uniformSeverin Klein in his official DZR uniform, circa 1936

Upon returning to Friedrichshafen, Klein was hired by the DZR in early 1936, shortly after their new airship, the Hindenburg, was commissioned. He joined the Hindenburg's team of stewards, led by Chief Steward Heinrich Kubis, on the ship's first flight across the North Atlantic to Lakehurst, NJ, May 6-9, 1936. Klein then made every subsequent Hindenburg flight that year, as well as a round-trip flight to Switzerland aboard the Hindenburg's older sister, the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin.

During this time, Klein also met his future wife, Maria, whom he would later marry in 1944.

Klein in dining roomSeverin Klein (white jacket, far right) serves passengers in the Hindenburg's dining
room during a flight in 1936.
(photo courtesy of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmBH Archive)

Klein was aboard for the Hindenburg's first North American flight of 1937. The trip was mostly uneventful for him, and he performed his usual duties as a steward. On the last day of the voyage, May 6th, Klein went off-duty around noon and was asleep in his bunk as the ship flew over New York and circled the city. As the Hindenburg made its way south, Klein awoke and went back out to the dining room.

As the ship came in to land at Lakehurst later that evening, shortly after 7:00 PM, Klein was standing at a window in the aft portion of the portside dining salon in the passenger decks, not far from fellow steward Fritz Deeg. Mrs. Matilde Doehner, one of the passengers, was there with her three children, and Klein was talking with them as they watched the landing operations out the window. As he talked with the children, explaining what the ground crew was doing down below, Klein suddenly noticed a reddish reflection on the ground, and simultaneously heard a detonation.

Klein locationSeverin Klein's location on the port side of the Hindenburg's passenger decks at the time of the fire.

As the ship's stern dropped to the ground and the passenger deck tilted, Klein was thrown to the aft wall of the compartment and several other people fell on top of him. He managed to get back to his feet, made his way back over to the window, and called to the passengers nearby to jump with him. They were all too shocked to move, so Klein waited for Deeg (who went out the window just ahead of him) and then jumped from a height of about 20-25 feet as the ship neared the ground. Klein escaped from the wreck relatively uninjured, ran clear of the fire, and then returned to help rescue the passengers who had stayed behind in the ship. He arrived just in time to help Mrs. Doehner away from the wreck after she jumped.

Klein escape 1Severin Klein (arrow) swings out of the aft-most portside observation window as the Hindenburg's hull nears the ground. Chief Steward Heinrich Kubis' legs can be seen hanging out the window just forward of Klein as he sits on the windowsill waiting to jump. Further forward, steward Max Henneberg hangs from a window, preparing to drop to the ground.

Klein escape 2Klein hangs momentarily from the window frame...

Klein escape 3...and then drops approximately 20 feet into the sand below.

Severin Klein remained in the United States long enough to testify (in English) before the Commerce Department's Board of Inquiry on May 13th, exactly a week after the disaster. He returned to Germany two days later aboard the steamship Europa along with the surviving members of the steward and kitchen staff, arriving back in Germany on May 22nd. 

Following the disaster at Lakehurst, the old Graf Zeppelin was immediately grounded and the nearly completed LZ 130 (which would also be christened Graf Zeppelin) never carried a single paying passenger.  With no more passenger Zeppelins on which he could serve, Severin Klein went back into the hotel business. However, with war on the horizon, along with the virtual certainty that he would soon be called up for military service, Klein was reluctant to commit to a permanent position, preferring to work short-term waiting positions here and there throughout Germany, and to then find a permanent position after his military service was completed.

With the onset of World War II, Klein was indeed called up into the German military. He was stationed first in Yugoslavia, and then was later transferred to German-occupied Crete. When Germany finally surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945, eight years almost to the day following Klein's miraculous escape from the Hindenburg, his unit was ordered to return to Germany. Two weeks after the war had ended, Maria and the rest of the family had received word from him that they would have to stop in Yugoslavia before proceeding home. They never heard from him again.

Given the fact that Yugoslavia had been liberated by the Soviets in late 1944, and that the Yugoslavians were dealing harshly with both German POWs and German civilians residing in Yugoslavia, it is likely that Klein was either executed on the spot or else died in forced labor sometime afterward.

Severin Klein was simply listed "missing" in the official post-war tallies, and remained so for over 60 years. His family never did learn what became of him.

Klein's wife, Maria, never remarried. She became a druggist and ran her own shop in Heimenkirch in Allgäu, a few miles from Lindenberg. Maria Klein passed away in 2006.

Severin Klein's brother Josef, who had continued to manage Hutfabrik Keller until his retirement in 1975. Shortly after Maria’s death, he finally initiated the process to have his brother officially declared dead by the German government, since even after all these years Severin was still listed in war records merely as "missing". This brought at least some measure of closure to the family.


Special thanks to Herr Jürgen Föhl, who interviewed Josef Klein (Severin’s brother) on my behalf and provided virtually all of the information in this article, aside from that which covers Severin Klein’s experiences as a Hindenburg steward. Herr Föhl , his sister and his mother, who were displaced from their own home in Innsbruck, Austria after WWII, ended up in Heimenkirch where they met Maria Klein. Frau Klein welcomed the Föhls into her home, where they lived for many years, looking on Frau Klein (“Tante Maria”, as the Föhl children called her) as though she were a member of their own family.

I also wish to express my heartfelt thanks to Josef Klein for sharing information and photos (including the two portraits shown here) with Jürgen Föhl for inclusion in this article. Without his kind assistance, this article would have remained as I originally wrote it – limited almost entirely to what I was able to find in the transcripts of Severin Klein’s testimony to the US Commerce Department’s investigation into the Hindenburg disaster.



Anonymous said...

" aboard the Hindenburg's older sister, the LZ 129 Graf Zeppelin."

Patrick, surely you mean LZ 127... ;)

Great entry, as always.

Patrick Russell said...

Thanks Hendrick! Indeed, I did mean LZ 127. Thank you for catching that - I just made the fix and posted it.

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