The unknown Arabist

During the Nazi period, Hedwig Klein worked on a dictionary intended to help with the translation of Hitler's diatribe "Mein Kampf" into Arabic. But it didn't help the Arabist: she was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. The dictionary, however, remains a bestseller – with no mention of Klein’s fate. By Stefan Buchen

By Stefan Buchen

"Allah will help me." Hedwig Klein, a 27-year-old native of Hamburg, is feeling confident. She is an Islamic studies scholar who had been planning to make a career for herself at Hamburg University. But there is an insurmountable obstacle in her way: Hedwig Klein is Jewish. On board the steamer Rauenfels, she writes a postcard to the man in Hamburg who helped her escape, Carl August Rathjens.

"I feel very comfortable on board in this good weather and at the moment am not worrying about the future." The postcard is dated 21 August 1939. The ship had left Hamburg two days previously, heading for Bombay in India. Rathjens, an economic geographer with contacts in many different countries, had managed to get the persecuted Jewish woman a visa for the British colony.

Salvation seemed so close, but it was to remain elusive. Hedwig Klein’s attempt to emigrate failed. The last hope of the Hamburg Jew would ultimately hinge on helping spread anti-Semitism in the Arab world. She ended up working on a dictionary that was intended to serve as the basis for the translation of "Mein Kampf" into Arabic.

Born in 1911, Hedwig Klein was the second daughter of the oil wholesaler Abraham Wolf Klein and his wife Recha. She lost her father before she had even turned five – he was killed in early summer 1916, fighting on the eastern front in the First World War.

A race against time

The semi-orphaned Hedwig Klein attended school in Hamburg, took her leaving exams in 1931 and applied to the university to take Islamic studies, Semitic studies and English philology. Her student card still exists. Under career ambition, she wrote "academic librarian".

After the National Socialists came to power in 1933 and began excluding Jews from society, Klein’s university career became a race against time.

Hedwig Klein (photo: private)
Hedwig Klein was born in 1911, the second daughter of the oil wholesaler Abraham Wolf Klein and his wife Recha. She lost her father before she had even turned five. Attending school in Hamburg, Hedwig took her leaving exams in 1931 and applied to the university to take Islamic studies, Semitic studies and English philology

She finished her doctoral thesis in spring 1937: the critical edition of an Arabic manuscript on early Islamic history. Hedwig Klein applied to sit the necessary exams. In the philosophy faculty office she was informed that, owing to a decree issued by the Minister for Education and National Culture on 15.4.1937, Jews could no longer be entered for doctoral examinations.

Hedwig Klein fights. On 3.5.1937 she sends a letter to the deacon, beginning with the words: "I, Hedwig Klein, a Jew with German citizenship…" She explains how much work she has put into her thesis. And she mentions that her father was killed in action, fighting for the German Reich.

The request ends with the sentence: "Since being excluded from taking my doctoral exam would represent a great hardship to me, I ask once again to be admitted for the reasons mentioned above." And in fact, she manages to convince the university authorities: on the list of candidates, Hedwig Klein’s name is followed by the note: "Jew, admitted as an exception."

The two examiners pass her thesis with the top mark: "outstanding". She achieves the same mark in her viva on 18.12.1937. Her supervisor Arthur Schaade attests that the young academic has a "measure of diligence and acuity that one might wish of some older Arabists."

"Doctoral certificate not issued: Jew"

Her thesis is due to be printed in 1938. The PhD certificate has already been drafted. And then the deacon of the philosophy faculty withdraws his "imprimatur". He has made inquiries with a "senior government advisor" in Hamburg and with the ministry on whether it is still possible to confer a doctorate on a Jew. After all, "the Jewish problem in Germany has entered a new phase."

On Kristallnacht – 9.11.1938 – Nazis lay waste to the synagogue next door to Hamburg University. A handwritten note is made on the cover sheet of Hedwig Klein’s doctoral exam file: "No doctoral certificate issued: Jew." At this point, if not before, as the extant documents show, Hedwig Klein begins to think of fleeing the country as her only option. But elsewhere in the world, doors are by no means open to persecuted German Jews. Her only chance of getting a visa lies in her professional qualification. The desperate Klein writes to people abroad, pleading for help.

Hedwig Klein is finally assisted by the Hamburg-based economic geographer Carl August Rathjens. After unsuccessful approaches to people in France and the USA, Rathjens turns to a friend of his, a professor of Arabic in Bombay. The professor invites Klein to India – and the British colonial authorities give their consent.

Equipped with her Indian visa, she leaves Hamburg on 19.08.1939, on board the steamer Rauenfels. Two days later, she sends her hopeful postcard to Rathjens. But then the crossing to India is suddenly halted. When it calls at Antwerp, the steamer receives the order to return to a German port within four days.  

The boat turns round and heads back to Hamburg. It has been recalled due to the German invasion of Poland on 1 September – the start of the Second World War.

5th edition of Hans Wehrʹs Arabic-German dictionary (published by Harrassowitz)
Hans Wehr completed the " Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic" in 1945 – yet it would be seven years before it was published. These days also available in English translation, it is still regarded as one of the best Arabic dictionaries in the world. Yet the fate of "Dr. H. Klein" remains concealed from readers

Hedwig Klein now suffers "the full torment", as Rathjens would later put it, that all German Jews had to endure after the start of the war, from wearing the "Jewish star" to being evicted from her apartment and forced to move into a "Jewish house". 

The geographer Rathjens is also treated like an enemy of the state. He has already been dismissed from his position in the Hamburg World Economic Archive (in 1933) for being "politically unreliable". At the start of 1940, the Hamburg security police lock him up and interrogate him for a month in the Fuhlsbuttel concentration camp. He is very lucky to be released from "protective custody" at all.

Contact with Hans Wehr

Her former professor Arthur Schaade tries once more to do something for Hedwig Klein. He puts "his lady academic" in touch with the Arabist Hans Wehr in Greifwald. Wehr has been a member of the National Socialist Party since 1940. An essay of his recommends that the government make allies of "the Arabs" against England and France, not to mention against the Zionists in Palestine.

But the government, or more specifically the Foreign Office, sees Wehr as an important man for another reason. He is working on a modern Arabic dictionary. The oriental specialists in the Foreign Office regard this dictionary as an indispensable resource for getting Adolf Hitler's book "Mein Kampf" successfully translated. The translations produced to date have proven inadequate.They hope Wehr’s dictionary will help "strike the right tone" with a choice of words that will appeal to Arabic speakers. The project is supported with government money. And the Hamburg Jew Hedwig Klein is now tasked with providing entries for the dictionary – which she duly does, as letters preserved in Schaade’s estate testify.

Hedwig Klein analyses modern Arabic literature for the dictionary. She notes the meanings of words on slips of paper and sends them to the editorial office by post. She is paid 10 pfennigs for every slip. Wehr’s people praise "the excellent quality" of her entries. "Though of course it will be completely impossible for her to be credited as a contributor later," as one person involved in the project writes to Arthur Schaade on 8 August 1941.

Her work saves her from the deportation to Riga on 6.12.1941 that the Hamburg security police have planned for her. Five days previously, Schaade writes to the authorities that "The army and war propaganda office have a great interest in seeing this project finished." Fraulein Klein, he says, is "exceptionally well-qualified" for this work on the dictionary and "unfortunately the number of Aryan contributors is not sufficient." Her work has now been "brought into question by the threat of deportation to the East."

Deported and murdered

This time, Schaade is successful and his former doctoral student escapes deportation. But six months later, there is nothing he can do. On 11 July 1942, Hedwig Klein is transported to Auschwitz on the first train there from Hamburg. She does not survive the death camp. Her sister, mother and grandmother are also murdered.

In an act of remembering unusual for the time, the economic geographer Carl August Rathjens has Hamburg District Court appoint him as Hedwig Klein’s "curator in absentia" in summer 1947.  

Then he has 56 copies of her doctoral thesis printed. On 15 August 1947, Hedwig Klein is officially declared a "Doctor of Philosophy".

Entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
On 11 July 1942, Hedwig Klein was transported to Auschwitz on the first train there from Hamburg. She did not survive the death camp. Her sister, mother and grandmother were also murdered

Hamburg University’s Oriental Studies Department would be peopled by others during the first decades of the Federal Republic of Germany. Take the Islamic Studies scholar Berthold Spuler, for instance. During the war, this member of the Nazi party had been a leading employee of the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories. He had helped to mobilise Muslims for the war on Germany’s side, including those who were Soviet prisoners of war.

From 1948 to 1980, Berthold Spuler held the chair in Islamic Studies at Hamburg University. In 1967, when students unfurled a banner that read "Gowns hide the mildew of 1000 years", Spuler cried out: "You all belong in a concentration camp!"

And Hans Wehr? After the war, he was called to appear before a denazification commission. On 20 July 1947, he wrote in his defence that "I managed to save a Jewish academic colleague, Dr Klein from Hamburg, from transportation to Theresienstadt [sic] in 1941, by requesting that the Gestapo release her for work supposedly important to the war effort, on the Arabic dictionary." The words are taken from his denazification file. Wehr was classed as a "Mitlaufer" (follower); he was ordered to pay 36.40 deutschmarks by way of "atonement" and the legal costs associated with his case.

His dictionary, which was supposed to help with the translation of "Mein Kampf", was not published before the end of the war. It came out in 1952. In the foreword, Wehr thanks "Dr H. Klein", among others, for her help. He fails to mention what happened to her. Today the "Wehr", as the "Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic" is known, is the most-used Arabic dictionary in the world. The German 5th edition was printed in 2011.

But even this latest tome reveals nothing more about "Dr H. Klein". When I enquired, the Harrassowitz publishing company told me that a new edition was in the pipeline. The publishers said they would ask the current editor whether he could insert a note "about the undoubtedly tragic fate of Dr Klein."

Stefan Buchen

© 2018

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin