Scientific Networks – Arabist Hedwig Klein’s Attempt to Emigrate

Elke-Vera Kotowski

Source Description

On October 25, 1941, the first train rolled from Hamburg to the Lodz Ghetto. The day before, about 1,000 Hamburg Jews, who were scheduled for deportation according to the transport list, had to report to the former lodge house on Moorweidenstraße. In the coming weeks (November 8 and 18; December 6, 1941) further transports to the “Eastern territories” were to follow. The author of this letter, the Hamburg Arabist Hedwig Klein, may have sensed the imminent danger of being deported herself. On November 2, 1941, she sent a letter to the Hamburg banker Dr. Rudolf Brinckmann, who had worked for the M. M. Warburg banking house since 1920. In 1933, this bank was a co-founder of the Palestine Trust Office for the Advising of German Jews (Paltreu) and oversaw the financial transfer of the assets of German Jews who emigrated to Palestine. In 1938, after the Warburg family itself had emigrated from Germany, Brinckmann had taken over the management of the bank. He had good contacts in Turkey, as he had studied Oriental languages in addition to law and national economics and had worked for Deutsche Bank in the former Constantinople until 1920. When Hedwig Klein wrote this letter she was 30 years old.
  • Elke-Vera Kotowski

Decision to emigrate

The daughter of a merchant from Antwerp who had fought on the German side and was killed during the First World War, she had studied Islamic Studies, Semitic Studies and English Philology at Hamburg University. She completed her studies in 1937 with a doctoral thesis on a “text-critical partial edition of an Arabic manuscript on the history of Oman,” as she reported to the recipient. Despite an equally successful oral examination in 1938, she was denied her doctorate due to the “stricter measures” against the Jewish population. These stricter measures, which were characterized by increasing discrimination and violence against the Jewish minority, reached a first climax with the November pogroms, during which stores were demolished, synagogues desecrated or burned down, and Jews were abducted in Hamburg as well. Carl Rathjens, whom the Arabist had met while studying at Hamburg University in the Seminar for the History and Culture of the Near East (Klopstockstrasse 33), supported Klein’s decision to leave Germany. He used his personal contacts in the U.S. and India to get the Arabist, whom he considered an outstanding scholar, a visa and an appropriate job opportunity at a university or research institution abroad. In addition to the Orientalist Julian Obermann, who had emigrated from Hamburg and now held a chair in Semitic languages at Yale University, a colleague in Bombay (now Mumbai) also offered his support. Hedwig Klein received a visa for India in the summer of 1939 and boarded the steamer “Rauenfels” on August 19, 1939, which was to take her to her future, albeit an unknown one. In a letter written on board the ship dated August 21, 1939, which Hedwig Klein addressed to Carl Rathjen, she recalled: “[] I boarded the ship all alone and was sad about it – but not because of the fact itself. [] I am only saddened by the thought of my relatives’ situation. Yesterday afternoon the ship left the harbor, and tomorrow morning it is to be in Antwerp, where a four-day stay is planned. [] I feel very comfortable on board with the beautiful weather and am not worried about the future at the moment. Allah will surely help.” Carl Rathjens papers, Hamburg State Archives, cited in: Peter Freimark, Promotion Hedwig Klein - zugleich ein Beitrag zum Seminar für Geschichte und Kultur des Vorderen Orienten, in: Eckart Krause et al. (eds.), Hochschulalltag im "Dritten Reich". Die Hamburger Universität 1933-1945, vol. 2, Hamburg 1991, pp. 851-864, here p. 854.

Forced return to Hamburg

When the ship had already left the port of Antwerp, all German ships were ordered to set course for the nearest home port as soon as possible, an indirect signal of the imminent invasion of Poland and its possible consequences.

Hedwig Klein was forced to return to Germany and moved once again into the family-owned house at Parkallee 26, which she had left a few weeks earlier, certain that she would probably never return there. The next few months were marked by the hope that she would be able to leave Germany after all. A future in India became a distant prospect, since the British-controlled country had been at war with the German Reich since September 3, 1939.

As in the entire German Reich, the situation for the Jewish population in Hamburg became noticeably worse. Hedwig Klein and her sister Therese now had to focus all their efforts on securing a livelihood for themselves, their mother and their grandmother.

Klein’s work on the Arabic dictionary – “essential to the war effort”

Through the mediation of Professor Arthur Schaade, who had been the second reviewer of Hedwig Klein’s doctoral thesis four years earlier, the Arabist Hans Wehr was made aware of Klein in August 1941. The Wehrmacht and war propaganda were highly interested in the completion of the Arabisches Wörterbuch für die Schriftsprache der Gegenwart [Arabic Dictionary for Contemporary Written Language], which was to serve as the basis for an Arabic translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf authorized by the German Reich, and Hedwig Klein’s work was judged to be “essential to the war effort.” Wehr commissioned his colleague, who was three years his junior, to evaluate works of contemporary Arabic literature. She received a fee of 10 pfennigs for each word translation entered on a piece of paper. She was denied a job in the editorial office, so she sent her notes to Wehr’s staff, who appreciated the “excellent quality” of her contributions. There were already reservations among some members of the editorial staff towards their colleague Andreas Jacobi, whose father was Jewish, as far as equal rights in the editorial work on the dictionary were concerned. In Klein’s case, one of Wehr’s employee in a letter to Arthur Schaade dated August 8, 1941 stated quite bluntly: “However, it is of course completely impossible that she Hedwig Klein will later be named among the staff.” Arthur Schaade papers, Hamburg State Archives, cited in: Freimark, Promotion Hedwig Klein, p. 856.

Turkey as a possible refuge for female orientalists? Last attempt at emigration

When the emigration of Jews was eventually prohibited on October 23, 1941, and the first deportation train set off from Hamburg to Lodz two days later, Hedwig Klein may have summoned up all her courage once again to write this letter on November 2, 1941, presumably on the recommendation of her mentor, the economic geographer and Oriental expert Dr. Carl Rathjens. Without stating it explicitly, she asked the banker Brinckmann, who certainly had a lot of influence and contacts, for help. Immediately after the address, she formulated her wish to emigrate to Turkey, not in order to flee Germany but rather to make herself useful in Turkey as an Orientalist who had been solidly educated in Germany, especially by reviewing the “wealth of source material” (which had not yet been done). Possibly Hedwig Klein had heard that Turkey was interested in German scholars to help establish new universities in Turkey and to build a library system based on the German model. The latter was, after all, the career goal that the former student had indicated in her resume: “academic library service”.

It is not known whether Rudolf Brinckmann sent a reply. While her sister Therese was on the fourth Hamburg deportation train to Riga on December 6, 1941, where she was murdered immediately after her arrival, Hedwig Klein continued to work on the completion of the Arabic dictionary in the following months. Originally, she was supposed to be on the same transport as her sister. Meanwhile, she, her mother and grandmother had to leave their apartment, which was owned by the family, as was the entire apartment building, and move into a “Judenhaus” [“Jewish houses”] at Kielortallee 13. There, on July 11, 1942, she received a summons to report to the assembly point for the fifth Hamburg transport of Jews. It was the first and only train that was to travel directly from Hamburg to Auschwitz. Hedwig Klein was presumably murdered there a short time later. On August 10, 1951, the Hamburg District Court granted Carl Rathjens’ request and declared her dead. With the laying of stumbling stones Stolpersteine for Hedwig Klein in front of her family home and in front of the main building of the University of Hamburg, the first steps of local remembrance work were taken. It remains to be hoped that others will follow, such as a long overdue note in a standard work: after Hedwig Klein’s collaboration on the Arabic dictionary was ignored until its 5th edition was published (1985), the last paragraph in the preface of the 6th edition published on December 16, 2020 states: “It is a special concern of Hans Wehr’s heirs and the publishing house to commemorate at this point one of Hans Wehr’s collaborators who was involved in the first edition, Hedwig Klein, a Jew. Her involvement in a dictionary enterprise classified as “essential to the war effort” did not save her from deportation to Auschwitz, where she was murdered in 1942. Wiesbaden, July 2020
For the publisher
Dr. Barbara Krauß

The handwritten letter from Hedwig Klein to Rudolf Brinckmann presented here is one of the few surviving personal documents of this bright and extremely talented Arabist, who under other circumstances would certainly have had a promising career ahead of her. This source shows quite impressively how Hedwig Klein remained optimistic until the end and hoped for her future: “when I express the wish to emigrate to Turkey, it is because I believe that I could work there as an Orientalist.”

Select Bibliography

Ekkehard Ellinger, Deutsche Orientalistik zur Zeit des Nationalsozialismus 1933-1945, Berlin 2006.
Regine Erichsen, Emigranten und offiziell aus Deutschland entsandte Fachleute im Bibliothekswesen. Ein Beispiel für Bedingungen und Wirkungen der Wissenschaftsemigration, in: Christopher Kubaseck / Günter Seufert (eds.), Deutsche Wissenschaftler im türkischen Exil. Die Wissenschaftsmigration in die Türkei 1933-1945, Orient-Institut Istanbul: Istanbuler Texte und Studien, vol. 12, Würzburg 2008, pp. 87-116.
Peter Freimark, Promotion Hedwig Klein - zugleich ein Beitrag zum Seminar für Geschichte und Kultur des Vorderen Orienten, in: Hochschulalltag im "Dritten Reich". Die Hamburger Universität 1933-1945, Eckart Krause et al. (eds.), vol. 2, Hamburg 1991, pp. 851-864.
Ludmila Hanisch: Die Nachfolger der Exegeten. Deutschsprachige Erforschung des Vorderen Orients in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts, Wiesbaden 2003.
Elke-Vera Kotowski, Die Islamwissenschaftlerin Hedwig Klein (1911–1942?). Eine jüdische Übersetzungshilfe für Hitlers „Mein Kampf“ – ihr Beitrag für das Arabische Wörterbuch von Hans Wehr, in: Julius H. Schoeps / Thomas Gertzen (eds.), Grenzgänger. Jüdische Wissenschaftler, Träumer und Abenteurer zwischen Orient und Okzident, Berlin / Boston 2020, pp. 361–375.

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About the Author

Kotowski, Elke-Vera, Dr. phil., studied political science, literature, philosophy and cultural studies in Duisburg and Berlin. Doctorate in Jewish Studies. 1994-2000 Assistant at the Chair of Modern History II (German-Jewish History) at the University of Potsdam and during this time involved in the establishment of the course of studies "Jewish Studies". Since 2000 she has been researching and teaching at the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam (History, Jewish Studies, Culture and Media). Research interests: European-Jewish cultural and social history, in these topics she is also active as an exhibition curator.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Elke-Vera Kotowski, Scientific Networks – Arabist Hedwig Klein’s Attempt to Emigrate (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, October 27, 2021. <> [July 19, 2024].

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the material is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute it in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.