Short Portrait: Elsa Ziehm (née: Harmening, adopted Wertheim)

Elsa Ziehm (née: Harmening, adopted Wertheim)
Elsa Ziehm (née: Harmening, adopted Wertheim)

Linguist and ethnomusicologist. Born March 23, 1911, died Oct. 15, 1993 in Berlin.

Born to non-Jewish parents, as Elsa Harmening, she was adopted by the Wertheim family of Jewish background , wealthy merchants and owners of the departmentstores „Wertheim“. In 1934, during her third year at the University of Berlin, encountering aggressive anti-semitism in the linguistic department (where, as she recalled, the study of Sanskrit had come to be regarded as an "Aryan science"), she switched her major and pursued a doctorate in ethnomusicology and accordingly began,, her professional career as an assistant curator in the Lautarchiv (i.e., the ethnomusicological collection) at the Berlin University, supervised by Dr. Fritz Bose [1905-1975] in 1939. But with the outbreak of the Secon World War in September of that year, her employment an dissertation studies came to an halt. In 1961, after marriage and raising three children, Ziehm reentered academia and began the long labor of clarifying and explicating the San Pedro Nahua texts, which had been collected in 1906-1907 by her former teacher Konrad Theodor Preuss [1869-1938]. The project provided the occasion for repeated trips to the Western Sierra Madre of Mexico, to the little village of San Pedro Jícora (Durango) where Preuss had amassed what would come to be recognized as the largest compilation of Nahuatl myth, song, and prayer since the sixteenth-century work of the great Franciscan, Bernardino de Sahagún. In 1985 Ziehm assumed duties as a lecturer, teaching Nahuatl, in the Alt-Amerikanistik curriculum of the Latin America Institute of the Free University of Berlin.

The division's director, who at the time was Berthold Riese, issued the invitation and thus reanimated the Berlin tradition of Nahuatl instruction that had been broken off some years earlier with the death of Gerdt Kutscher [1919-1979]. The Nahuatl course was popular with students but was discontinued after only a year, owing to Elsa Ziehm's reluctance to further accept the stress of teaching in the difficult situation of an institute which was disrupted in polticial stife. In 1980 the publishers of the Nahua-Texte, Gebrüder Mann Verlag, had announced Ziehm's Grammatik und Vokabular der Nahua-Sprache von San Pedro Jícora in Durango as a forthcoming title. This book was never quite finished, however. The grammar, in typescript, nearly complete, and other manuscripts of her intellectual estate are now in housed in the Philosophical Society in Philadelphia on behalf of John Bierhorst [born 1935]. A Spanish-language edition of Nahua-Texte, vol. 1, appeared in Mexico in 1982, titled Mitos y cuentos nahuas de la Sierra Madre Occidental (see Bibliography below).

(text written by John Bierhorst & Berthold Riese,  by courtesy of Berthold Riese; photo source: