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Alma Maximiliana Karlin, 1889-1950

The Remarkable Life and Enduring Legacy

Have you ever heard of Columbus’ daughter? This is how the citizens of Celje referred to Alma Maximiliana Karlin, a Slovenian traveller, writer, poet, collector, polyglot, and theosophist. She was one of the first European women to circumnavigate the globe alone

Alma Karlin lived her life with extraordinary independence and determination, despite numerous challenges and dangers. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she travelled without financial support. Setting off at the age of thirty, she encountered and overcame many obstacles. Her travel books, published during the interwar years, made her one of Europe’s best-known authors. However, her outspoken opposition to the Nazis and refusal to align with Communist demands led to her being largely forgotten.

CHILDHOOD AND ADOLESCENCE

Alma M. Karlin was born in 1889 in Celje, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her parents were German-speaking Slovenians; her mother, a forty-five-year-old teacher, and her father, a sixty-year-old retired major of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Born with a lowered left eyelid, Alma faced rejection from her mother from an early age. However, she shared a close bond with her father, who educated her with an emphasis on fortitude and independence. Tragically, her father died when she was just eight years old, leaving her at the mercy of her mother’s strict and often harsh upbringing.

Alma’s mother tried to mould her according to contemporary social norms, but Alma resisted. Despite developing inferiority complexes due to her mother’s rejection, she grew into a brave and determined young woman. At sixteen, she realised that education was her key to economic independence and a way to break free from her mother’s influence. This insight drove her to leave Celje, a town rife with nationalistic tensions between Germans and Slovenians, and seek opportunities elsewhere.

SETTING OFF INTO THE WORLD

At eighteen, Alma left her home for London, embarking on what she called a “voluntary exile.” In London, she taught languages and immersed herself in the diverse cultures of her students, which sparked her desire to explore these cultures firsthand. She excelled in learning languages, passing top of her class in exams for Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Russian at the Royal Society of Arts.

In London, she taught languages and immersed herself in the diverse cultures of her students, which sparked her desire to explore these cultures firsthand

The outbreak of World War I forced Alma to leave London for Norway and Sweden, where she discovered her passion for writing. In 1919, at the age of thirty, she returned briefly to Celje, packed her typewriter “Erika” and the ten-volume dictionary she had compiled, and set off on a global journey. She worked as a language teacher, translator, journalist, and travel writer. Despite facing financial hardships and lacking travel permits, she navigated numerous detours to reach her destinations, particularly Japan, which she longed to explore.

THE JOURNEY

Alma’s journey was anything but smooth. She travelled across South and North America, Japan, Asia, Australia, the Pacific Rim, and India. Along the way, she faced numerous personal challenges and life-threatening illnesses. Despite these obstacles, she continued her travels, documenting her experiences in her writings. Alma’s resilience and determination to overcome adversity were evident as she navigated through unfamiliar territories and cultures, often without adequate financial resources.

In Japan, Alma spent a blissful year filled with profound impressions. From Japan, she continued her travels, visiting various countries and immersing herself in their cultures. Her extensive travels and the stories she gathered enriched her writings, which became well-known in Europe and beyond during the interwar period.

DIFFICULT TIMES

Upon returning to Celje in 1927, Alma continued to write novels and travel books. Despite her literary success, she faced hostility and scepticism in her hometown. Her travel trilogy, published in Germany between 1929 and 1933, was translated into several languages and achieved international success. However, the rise of the Nazis brought severe repercussions. Her books were banned, and she was imprisoned as an enemy of Hitler’s ideology. Remarkably, she escaped execution thanks to a Gestapo officer who was a fan of her travel books.

She excelled in learning languages, passing top of her class in exams for Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Russian at the Royal Society of Arts

During World War II, Alma joined the partisans in 1944, but her movements were restricted, and she was constantly monitored. Her opposition to both the Nazis and the Communists, along with her pro-British sentiments, made her a target. Despite the partisans ordering her liquidation, she managed to survive. However, she never returned to England, where she had hoped to spend the rest of her life. In post-war Yugoslavia, she was ostracised as a German-speaking writer and lived in poverty until her death from breast cancer in 1950.

LEGACY

Alma Karlin was a prolific writer, publishing twenty-four books, over forty short stories, numerous articles, poems, notes, and drawings. Her works were highly regarded in Central Europe, and her lectures attracted large audiences. Many of her travel books, novels, ethnological, and theosophical works were published between 1921 and 1938, some reaching print runs of over 80,000 copies and being translated into multiple languages.

Despite her financial constraints, Alma collected a variety of items during her travels. These collections include postcards, textiles, and her own zoological and botanical watercolour drawings. These artefacts offer a glimpse into her eight-year journey around the globe and her deep interest in the cultures she encountered.

Alma’s contributions to literature and her adventurous spirit are commemorated in a permanent exhibition titled “Paths of Alma M. Karlin” at the Celje Regional Museum. In 2009, a documentary about her life, “Alma M. Karlin: A Lonely Journey,” was released, further solidifying her legacy as one of the most remarkable women of her time. Her story is a testament to her resilience, independence, and unwavering quest for knowledge and adventure.

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