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Hans E. Wulff was born on 27 August 1907 in Lüdinghausen Germany. He was the eldest child of three born to Mathias Wulff, a goldsmith from Cologne and Christine née Freilinger. After finishing High School in Cologne he studied Mechanical Engineering, completing his studies just as the big depression of the late 1920’s hit Germany. Because he could not get any work he spent another year at the Art school learning the goldsmithing craft.

Picking up languages was easy for Wulff. He studied French, English, Latin and Greek at school and picked up Italian and Spanish travelling as a young man. On two visits to Turkey with a Turkish student friend he learned Turkish. On his trips to the United States he improved his knowledge of English.

Wulff spent another year in Cologne studying for a degree in technical education because he still was not able to get a satisfactory job in engineering. Finally he got a job teaching at a Technical High School in Lübeck, Germany, which opened the way to get married to Magdalene Kőllenbach from Düsseldorf, to whom he had been engaged for seven years. Being a Catholic, Wulff soon realised that there was little chance of promotion for him in the strongly Lutheran town of Lübeck. A distant uncle, Heinrich Wulff from Dortmund, who at that time had a job in the Foreign Office in Berlin, helped Wulff to get positions to plan and set up Schools for Technical Education in Iran. This was foreign aid of the then German government for the Persian government.

These efforts were followed with great interest by Reza Shah Pahlavi, the then ruler of Iran who was particularly interested to have traditional Persian crafts taught at the schools. Wulff spent a lot of time in the five years from 1936 to 1941 travelling the country in parallel with administering and teaching at the different Technical Colleges. He interviewed many master craftsmen of many different crafts and took thousands of photographs to record their methods for teaching at the new schools and for posterity. Wulff learned to speak and write the Persian language very quickly, and having backing from the Shah, the craftsmen of the bazaars and the villages were eager to share their traditional knowledge.

In August of 1941, when Wulff and his family were in Tabriz in the Iranian province of Azerbaijan, this work was abruptly terminated. It was the beginning of geo-politically troubled times. On 25 August 1941 using Iraq as a staging area, British forces invaded Iran in conjunction with a Soviet invasion from the north. Wulff heard about this on the radio and gave his wife five minutes to throw essentials into the car. She put my baby sister Roswitha, who had been born in Tabriz in June that year on top of the washing, which she had just got of the line. Tabriz is not far from the Russian border, so Wulff drove south towards Tehran as fast as he could. This trip is one of my first memories – I can still see Russian tanks coming over the mountains trying to cut us off at an intersection. We just made it. German families who stayed on in Tabriz were displaced to Siberia. The last of those who came back at all returned in 1954.

Wulff and his family and many Germans from all over Iran who made it to Tehran camped in the garden of the German Embassy's summer residence at Shemiran for 9 weeks, while the German ambassador, Erwin Ettel negotiated with British forces and Iranian officials to work out what was to happen with the Germans in Iran. In the end it was decided that the men, including my father, were to be interned and were transported to Basra in Iraq. From there they were first shipped to India on the “Rhona”, but for various reasons they were then sent to Adelaide in South Australia with the New Zealand ship “Rangitiki”, where they arrived on 19 November 1941 and were then taken to the Loveday internment camp south of Barmera near the Murray River.

Wulff and about 500 other German men from Iran spent the next three years at Loveday, where they were well treated by their Australian captors. In January 1945, when Italy switched sides to the allied cause, Italian internees at Loveday and Tatura, near Sheparton in Victoria were released. At this time the Internment camp at Loveday was closed and all German men from Loveday were moved to Tatura.

One important aspect of the 5 years of camp life, which should be mentioned in this biography, was the fact that a very large proportion of the internees had high academic qualifications and they spent their spare time sharing this academic knowledge amongst themselves. For instance there was a professor of Oriental Languages from Gőttingen University from whom Wulff learned Arabic and strengthened his knowledge of the Persian language. On the other hand, Wulff taught a whole group of interested internees the art of jewellery making and goldsmithing.

Another important activity in the final two years of internment in Tatura Camp 1 was running a high school for boys over the age of 16, who were moved from the Family Camp 3 to Camp 1, which housed only male internees. My father was able to keep a Wimshurst Machine made from two 12” records, fencing wire and insulators made from toothbrushes, which was used in the physics laboratory. The syllabus was provided by the International Red Cross and was a preparation for a German Abitur (Matriculation). I have seen Final Certificates signed by Hans Wulff at the Tatura museum. The Victorian Education Department sent observers for the final examinations and they were so impressed they gave all the students an Australian Leaving Certificate. One of those students was Hugo Messerle, son of a Templer family from Palestine, who went straight to Melbourne University after being released from Tatura and who later became Professor of Electrical Engineering at Sydney University.

In 1946 the civilian internees in Australia were released. They were given the option to be sent home by boat or to stay in Australia. Many, including Wulff, elected to stay in Australia – he did not believe the Nazis would lose their influence quickly enough. He had to work till 1949 to earn enough money to pay for the passage of his family to join him in Australia.

Life in Australia in the post-war years was not easy. Wulff started a small engineering workshop with three colleagues from the camp in Sutherland NSW. Later he worked for Joe Wernard & Co, a manufacturer of ‘commutators’ for small electric motors. He designed machines for cold drawing rods of copper into the trapeze shaped cross-section for making commutator segments. He was still working there when I, my mother and two sisters joined him in Australia in September 1949. Soon after Wulff joined the staff of the University of New South Wales  as a lecturer in Mechanical Engineering.

In 1953 Wulff was able to retrieve all his notes and photographs of his work on the traditional crafts of Persia. He had wisely deposited all this material and his cameras in a bank safe in Tehran. This allowed him to start working on compiling the material he had gathered in the five years in Iran into an academic thesis.

After working six years at the University Wulff took a year of sabbatical leave in 1956, which he spent doing similar work to that which he had done in Iran. He was retained by UNESCO to plan and set up a Technical College in Savannakhet in Laos, which was then still under French colonial rule.

Returning to Australia in 1957 he focused on his thesis, which he named “The Industrial Arts of Persia, their Development, Technology and Influence on Eastern and Western Civilisation”. Initially there was little interest in this topic in the School of Mechanical Engineering and even less understanding. In June 1963 the newly founded Department of Industrial Arts accepted the thesis. After some setbacks a very favourable examiners report from the well-known orientalist Joseph Needham, who recommended a note of "magna cum laude", Wulff received his Ph.D. After this Wulff worked hard to produce a publishable manuscript and to find a publisher. MIT Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts published the book with the title “The Traditional Crafts of Persia” in 1966.

He also started to do annual field trips in the summer university vacations – the first two in 1964 and 1965 to Iran and then two more in 1966 and 1967 to Pakistan. These field trips were sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. In these field trips he deepened his understanding of some of the crafts of Iran and expanded his knowledge to include Pakistan.

Unfortunately Dr. Hans Wulff died on the 31st of December 1967 during his 2nd field trip to Pakistan. His family have missed him very much.

"Written by John E. Wulff, H. E. Wulff's son, 05/07/2020"


© 2020-2023 Designed by P. KHOSRONEJAD

                     Dr. Pedram Khosronejad | Adjunct Professor

     Religion and Society Research Cluster | Western Sydney University

Fellow | Department of Anthropology | Harvard University


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