By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

The largest craft ever to sail the skies, was now twelve hours overdue at its prospective destination, Lakehurst airfield, New Jersey. The airship, the Hindenburg, over 200 metres in length, (surpassing even the Titanic in size), was now becoming visible through the heavy rain cloud. On board were thirty six passengers and sixty one crew members.

One of the crew was a 14 year old boy, Werner Franz. After his father had become ill Werner, like his siblings had had to find employment in order for the family to survive. Through connections, Werner had obtained work on the Hindenburg, earning a comparatively high salary, at that time, for a child. As a cabin boy, it was Werner’s task to serve the airship’s crew; beginning the day at 6.00 a.m. and going to bed at 9.30 p.m. Prior to that fateful journey to the United States, Werner would travel three times to South America in less than a year, and by winter 1936 had become an official member of the crew, passing his probationary period.

The Hindenburg left its dock at Frankfurt on May the 3rd, 1937. Werner was looking forward to this trip as the journey from Lakehurst to New York City was only a short one, and he had been fascinated by the prospect of seeing the world famous metropolis. By May the 6th, the airship, slowed down by inclement weather, was making its way over New York City, the passengers eagerly looking down as the zeppelin glided over the Empire State Building. The Captain, Max Pruss, then decided to circle Manhattan in order for the passengers to look at the world’s largest city in more detail. On the water, steam puffed out of the funnels of ships in New York harbour; as if the giants of the sea, were saluting the mighty leviathan of the air. As Werner recollected this scene: “Since we had already passed over the steamship docks, we saw nothing but an ocean of buildings far and wide. Elevated trains, streetcars, and buses crisscrossed the wide streets, between which wound countless smaller automobiles. The sidewalks were swarming with people, like an anthill. Now and then you could see a subway train coming up from underground.”

Despite the delay Werner was still hoping that he could go into the city of New York directly after landing. As they came into Lakehurst Werner could see two young boys pedaling hard in order to keep pace with the dirigible. At 7.00 p.m. the Hindendurg was prepared for landing, the radio operator relayed the Captain’s orders that he needed six of the crew to go to the bow so as to keep the ship trim.  Werner had cups to wash, so he could not follow. Soon there was a shudder, and the cups and dishes sprung out of their cabinets. The ship tilted and Werner ran out into the hallway to see a ball of flame charge toward him. Everything around was burning. A water pipe from the kitchen burst open and drenched him; his clothes were saturated. He remembered an exit and kicked out the hatch – the ship came close to the ground, and then pulled away. Werner jumped as the Hindenburg came toward the ground once more; he ran out from under the dying craft, just in time to avoid being engulfed by the fiery carcass. After sprinting forty metres; Werner turned around. Crew members were trying to rescue the survivors. The Chief Steward called Werner to return to the ship so as to help. Obediently, Werner did; but as he got near the ship, an American sailor grabbed him by the arm an ordered him away. Werner, tried to explain in German to the sailor: “Ich bin der cabin-boy von Hindenburg! Ich bin doch der cabin-boy von Hindenburg!” The sailor understood Werner, and another sailor, placed a coat on his shoulders. “Come on, son,” they said, “There’s nothing more we can do here.”

As he walked to the hangar, amidst the sound and smell of a great fire burning, Werner Franz, had survived one of the great disasters of the 20th Century with a barely a scratch – Providentially rescued by a burst water pipe. The next day Werner was to read his name as one of the fatalities of the disaster in the newspaper. To the world, through the international media – Werner Franz had died. He immediately telegrammed his family to let them know that any reports they had heard of his death were false. The following day Werner walked through the wreckage and found his watch, given to him by his father. Werner would spend the remaining time in the United States living with a German family. Two weeks later, on the 22nd of May, Werner celebrated his fifteenth birthday in Germany having taken a steamer home.

In 2007, Werner Franz, the last remaining crew member of the Hindenburg, was interviewed for the documentary: Hindenburg: Titanic of the Skies. At the closing of the film, Franz was asked as to what impact the disaster had on his life. He replied that a person who survives such a close call with death, has a new understanding of life; everything that they experience from that point onward, is felt with a heightened degree of intensity.

Werner Franz’s story highlights that the realization of personal mortality, places life in perspective, and gives one the wisdom not only to appreciate life, but how to use life well, or at least better, than without such a realization. Werner had been serving people who were to die horrific deaths – the ethereal, tranquil lighter, than air journey, had exploded into Dante’s Inferno.

The Ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus tells us: “God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God”. (Kennedy, 1999, p. 147). Not wishing to court pain or suffering, the wise know that in life, both of these felons are mixed in the joy that we experience daily. For all of us, even he or she who has never been ill, who has never wanted, or been in need – understands that there will come a time, even if it is only at death that what they have considered to be eternal bliss, was a sideshow to a larger opera being played out.

It is not by mere chance that we see wisdom and compassion often in the furrowed and wrinkled faces of those whose visage shows a lifetime conquering folly and fate; certainly the man or woman who has lost much, does not become disconsolate when pennies slip through a hole in their pocket; life experience – makes future life experiences relative – to those reference points that the individual has lived through and surmounted. Our souls are a canvas by which the hand of life paints on them a pastiche – but this canvas is not inanimate – it is very much alive, and responds to every brush that is laid on to it – and responds by allowing the paint either to lie on its surface or be drawn deeper into itself – so as to become not merely a background for the paint – but one with its life experience.

In life we exist in the present, and march forward looking over our shoulder time and time again, in order to prepare us to meet whatever is before us, equipped with the knowledge of the past. Whatever lies before us – has the predictability of being a wave, larger than those we have swam through before. Why do the waves grow larger as we swim from the shore? For we are meeting an ocean. What do we learn by life and living? That life is a journey – a journey, a journey of the soul into God. We cannot escape this journey – all we can do is learn from it, and arrive at our destination, aware and more knowing because of it; all we can do is try to make sense of our experiences and learn about the depths of ourselves by learning from the content of our lives.

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