Hedwig Klein and Wehr’s Arabic Dictionary.

Via Bulbul’s Facebook post, a heartbreaking story by Stefan Buchen that describes the fate of young Hedwig Klein, a Jewish native of Hamburg who tried to use her expertise in Arabic to escape her fate and managed to do so for a while by working on the Nazi scholar Hans Wehr’s Arabic dictionary, which was originally intended as a resource for translating Mein Kampf. I won’t try to summarize the story, which I encourage you to click through and read; I’ll just quote the postwar sequel:

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.”

As I commented on the Facebook post, “I’ve used Wehr for decades and had no idea.” (The relevant sentence from the Introduction to my third edition of Wehr-Cowan [no relation, presumably]: “The author wishes to express his gratitude for such contributions to Prof. Werner Caskel, Dr. Hans Kindermann, Dr. Hedwig Klein, Dr. Kurt Munzel, Prof. Annemarie Schimmel, Dr. Richard Schmidt, and especially to Prof. Wolfram von Soden, who contributed a large amount of excellent material.”)


  1. marie-lucie says:

    I read the story on Bulbul’s post this morning. Truly heartbreaking. Time and again this gifted young woman is a hair’s breadth away from achieving her goal, often with the help of established scholars (even officially Nazi ones), and time and again she is defeated.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    Fuhlsbüttel; Mitläufer; and the “gowns” are specifically medieval/ceremonial professor’s gowns (Talare).

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    Von Soden, undoubtedly a great scholar, was an active supporter of Nazi ideology, and conspired against his mentor Benno Landsberger, who happiiy escaped to America and magnanimously interceded for von Soden after the war; von Soden subsequently repented and recanted. Unsettlingly, von Soden’s current wikipedia page deliberately misrepresents all this. The reference to “certain American detractors” is shockingly mealy-mouthed.

  4. I’ve gotten increasingly fed up with Wikipedia. It’s a great resource that could be so much better.

  5. Klein’s German Wikipedia page has a photo of her memorial stone in Hamburg. It reads:

    Hier lernte
    Jg. 1911
    Fluchtversuch 1939
    nach Indien
    Deportiert 1942

  6. Ten to fifteen years ago, Wikipedia could be pretty much relied for uncontroversial facts; however, on controversial subjects, it could be almost equally relied upon to be misleading. It’s improved tremendously since then, but on controversial questions the entries can still be horribly wrong.

  7. It is possible of course that translating Mein Kampf was a ruse or at least a pretext. Scholars in totalitarian regimes (and in democratic as well, but to a lesser degree) have to go along to get along.

  8. Stu Clayton says:

    Also, a Mitläufer in a political context is not a “follower”, but a “fellow traveller” or “[more or less surreptitious] sympathizer”. Someone who runs with a crowd.

  9. Stu Clayton says:

    Here’s a 1967 Spiegel article on the incident with Spuler and his cry of “You all belong in a concentration camp!”. Those were heady times, and many rolled for good reason.

    Muff im Talar

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Well, “follower” as opposed to “leader”, I suppose. It refers to someone who “runs along”, perhaps by herd instinct, as opposed to taking an active role.

  11. It is possible of course that translating Mein Kampf was a ruse or at least a pretext. Scholars in totalitarian regimes (and in democratic as well, but to a lesser degree) have to go along to get along.

    Impossible to say for sure whether it was a ruse in this particular case, but (wiki says) there was a major German project in the late 30s to get a decent translation of MK into Arabic done. It seems to have hit three speed bumps: cost, the high standards of one Bernhard Moritz, an Arabist advising the German government, and the fact that it says rude things about the Egyptians.

  12. I mean, of course there’s a Wikipedia article about Mein Kampf in Arabic!

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    The English wikipedia article on Benno Landsberger, mentioned by David E. above, asserts that “He was also known for particularly black humor and a love of cigars and beer.” No one has yet been skeptical enough to add a “[citation needed]” even though none is given. I don’t know whether that’s a sufficiently uncontroversial claim as to be presumptively reliable?

  14. I think none of the [citation needed] cops has noticed it yet.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    Yes, although if you’re trying to allocate your skepticism rationally, one might think e.g. that as there is no obvious motive to falsely claim a long-since-deceased Assyriologist liked cigars and beer and focus ones [citation needed] energies in places where motive to distort the historical record is more obvious. But maybe I’m naive and just unaware of what questionable agenda might be being advanced by making this claim falsely?

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    Separately, in the main article linked I was struck by an interesting (at least to me) minor quirk in the timeline, namely that Wehr was referring to “Dr. Klein” in his de-Nazification paperwork a month or so before the actual posthumous award of the doctorate. Maybe he was being polite (and/or acknowledging that she deserved to have gotten it back in ’38); maybe he thought it had already happened; maybe he was trying to make his allegedly benevolent act seem more important by making her sound more important. Or maybe the tension between the concurrence of mass murder directed by the German regime of the time with the equally Germanic trait of careful attention to formal credentials and the hierarchy they represent is what struck me.

  17. I think you’re overestimating the rationality of the [citation needed] cops, and after all it’s the work of a moment to add a [citation needed]. I confess to having done it myself from time to time when I was annoyed by some random claim that seemed to me unjustified.

  18. “I don’t know whether that’s a sufficiently uncontroversial claim as to be presumptively reliable?”

    My take is that, since the whole article is headed by a warning “This article does not cite any sources”, it would be tautologous to tag individual statements. OTOH there is also a tag “[importance?]” that might apply to cigars and beer, assuming the beer is small and the cigar is just a cigar.

  19. J.W. Brewer says:

    @mollymooly: maybe there’s a question of how Griceanly to approach wikipedia articles. That sentence in its immediate context, was probably interpreted by me with subconscious reference to the Maxim of Relevance, i.e. as connoting something like “he liked beer and cigars notably more than the median Assyriologist of his time and place.” Although actually maybe that’s not even a connotation but explicit since saying that “X was known for liking Y” necessarily asserts that liking Y was noteworthy in context. If X liked Y no more than the vast majority of people of his social niche in his time and place I would think the “was known for” claim would be false, just as it would be false to claim e.g. that I “was known for” wearing a suit and tie to work back in the mid-’90’s when, unlike now, virtually all males in my line of work wore a suit and tie to the office on weekdays.

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    Looking separately at the wikipedia page on von Soden which troubled David E. for reasons less frivolous than cigars or beer, I have a somewhat different take, which is something like “an article that has been written and/or edited by someone who thinks it’s a significant and exculpatory difference that someone was a member of the SA but allegedly never voluntarily joined the NSDAP-as-such is to be approached skeptically,” even leaving aside the fact that phrasing like “certain American detractors” is a pretty decent signal that there’s another side of the story. This sort of article troubles me less than one that is full of misinformation serving some questionable agenda but does not come with those sorts of helpful warning signs. If someone develops a clever smartphone app that reliably converts tendentious rhetoric into what reads like thoughtful and judicious “neutral-point-of-view” wikipedian prose without changing the substance, we’re all in trouble.

  21. No need for an app. An unemployed and bitter copyeditor could turn to the Dark Side like that.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    Fortunately, all copyeditors are saintly people who would never abuse their power for evil. (I believe they swear oaths to that effect as well.)

    Come to think of it, who is the patron saint of copyeditors? (I don’t think I want to know what kind of martyrdom they suffered. The possibilities are too horrifying.)

    [Looking up Wikipedia, the answer seems to be John the Evangelist. How dull. Mind you, that may be deliberate misinformation planted in the article by some anticopyeditor zealot.]

  23. Marja Erwin says:

    I think that would qualify for “clarification needed” and “weasel.”

    But Wikipedia’s NPOV rules were a farce when I was active. As long as the secondary sources declare “they were accused heretics” or “they are subhuman,” then the official rules said the article should declare the same.

  24. David: At least John (if he is the apostle as well as the evangelist) doesn’t seem to have been martyred.

    Marja: The NPOV meta-article now says, sensibly: “Generally, the views of tiny minorities should not be included at all, except perhaps in a ‘see also’ to an article about those specific views. For example, the article on the Earth does not directly mention modern support for the flat Earth concept, the view of a distinct minority; to do so would give undue weight to it.”

  25. Bathrobe says:


    A noun (from Latin nōmen, literally meaning “name”) is a word that functions as the name of some specific thing or set of things, such as living creatures, objects, places, actions, qualities, states of existence, or ideas. Linguistically, a noun is a member of a large, open part of speech whose members can occur as the main word in the subject of a clause, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition.

    I guess we’re lucky it even has a linguistic definition. Wikipedia is on solid reputable ground in giving a semantic definition of noun because just about every source on the Internet (including dictionaries) defines a noun as the name of a ‘person, place, or thing’.

    But there is no doubt that Wikipedia is ‘balanced’. Later on in the article it says:

    Nouns have sometimes been defined in terms of the grammatical categories to which they are subject (classed by gender, inflected for case and number). Such definitions tend to be language-specific, since nouns do not have the same categories in all languages.

    Nouns are frequently defined, particularly in informal contexts, in terms of their semantic properties (their meanings). Nouns are described as words that refer to a person, place, thing, event, substance, quality, quantity, etc. However this type of definition has been criticized by contemporary linguists as being uninformative.

  26. Bathrobe says:

    I objected to this paragraph in the article on Linguistic prescriptivism.

    A further problem is the difficulty of specifying legitimate criteria. Although prescribing authorities almost invariably have clear ideas about why they make a particular choice, and the choices are therefore seldom entirely arbitrary, they often appear arbitrary to others who do not understand or are not sympathetic to the goals of the authorities. Judgments that seek to resolve ambiguity or increase the ability of the language to make subtle distinctions are easier to defend. Judgments based on the subjective associations of a word are more problematic.

    I was informed by one of the self-appointed guardians of the article: “On the contrary, I find the language of this paragraph very balanced.”

    Someone else advised me to add “citation needed”.

  27. J.W. Brewer says:

    The sort of turn-to-the-dark-side copyediting mentioned above is really a sort of translation, albeit between registers rather than between languages. There are lots of saints (mostly not martyrs?) known for their work as the good kind of translator. Vatican sources will probably give you Jerome as the generic patron of translators-in-general, but they’re not the only ecclesiastical authority in town and even they might not mind if you picked one you thought more apt.

  28. The cigars sentence reminded me of the ODNB, whose life of the day email I subscribe to:

    If the life is that of, say, a worthy but not world-renowned 20th-century academic, there is usually a couple of sentences near the end about what the person was like in private. Sometimes this is a circumspect hint at some personality defect probably well known to confreres. Other times it’s an amusing anecdote. Other times it seems just random filler; perhaps the author wants to reassure the reader that they knew the subject personally, not merely by repute; perhaps the author feels it is important to treat the subject as a rounded human and not just a producer of science/culture.

  29. Unrelated, but some linguists should be remembered:

    Ivan Steblin-Kamenskiy

    Wakhi etymological dictionary

  30. Here‘s his Russian Wikipedia article (his surname is accented Стебли́н-Каме́нский, for those who like to know such things). I see he specialized in the Pamir languages; I remember being fascinated by them, and by Wakhi in particular, many years ago. Thanks for the news.

  31. And his father, Mikhail Ivanovich, was instrumental in making much of the Icelandic literary output available in Russian.

  32. An impressive family! Here‘s the father’s page (and for a Leningrader born in 1903 and staying through wars, sieges, and purges to survive to a reasonably ripe old age is an accomplishment in itself).

  33. A book (in Russian) by a disciple of M.I.S.-K.


    (Ranniye germantsy i ikh sosedi. Lingvistika, arkheologiya, genetika.)

  34. Old Icelandic grammar:

    (As far as I can tell, it’s based on Drevneislandskiy yazyk by Steblín-Kaménski père.)

  35. Unrelated again:
    The e-library
    The Institute of Slavic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences


  36. A great resource, thanks for the link.

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