12 October 1889 – 15 January 1950
Alma M. Karlin was a traveler, writer, poet, collector, ethnologist, and one of the first European women to travel solo around the world. She was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the town of Celje (now part of Slovenia). Her opus includes 24 published books, more than 40 works of prose, numerous short stories, articles, poems, sheet music, and drawings. Much of her work remains unpublished and is kept in the National and University Library of Slovenia and the Berlin State Library.
During her teenage years, Karlin received private lessons in French and English and discovered she had a real talent for languages. After finishing high school in Graz, she traveled to London to study languages. She mastered English, French, Latin, Italian, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Russian, and Spanish. Around this time, she began writing a dictionary of ten languages, including Slovene, which remains unpublished, like a number of her other works. Interestingly, despite both her parents being Slovenian (but perhaps understandably in those times of nationalist strife between Slovenian and German speakers), she was never fluent in Slovenian, but wrote mostly in German. Later in life, she also studied Persian, Chinese, and Japanese.
After the start of World War I, citizens of Austria-Hungary became unwelcome in the UK, and Alma moved to Sweden and Norway, where she decided to become a professional writer. Upon returning to Celje in 1918, she founded a school for foreign languages, while also realizing she wanted to travel around the world. That same year, her first book was published in Leipzig.
Alma used her savings to acquire the typewriter she is to use for the rest of her life. She also prepared for her travels by practicing painting so as to be able to document her travels, and studied geography, history, natural science, botany and zoology, all the while working up to ten hours a day in her school trying to raise enough money.
She finally left Celje in November of 1919 for her nine-year-long journey around the world. She started from Genoa and disembarked in Peru, then continued to Panama where she worked as a translator for the management of the Panama Canal. In 1921, she traveled across Central America and Mexico, finally arriving in Hawaii via San Francisco. The news of the publishing of her second book reached her there.
From 1922 to 1923, she stayed in Japan and worked as a translator at the German Embassy, explored the country, and socialized with intellectuals and artists. She continued on to Korea, Manchuria, China, and further to Formosa. In Hong-Kong, she embarked on the ship for Australia, visiting Manila, Borneo, Pearl Islands, Celebes, and Thursday Islands on her way. From 1924 to 1926, she journeyed across New Zealand and the Pacific Islands where she lived among the indigenous peoples and fell ill with malaria and tropic dysentery. In 1926, she continued her travels along Indonesia, Java, Sumatra, Malaysian Peninsula, Thailand, and Burma. In 1927, India was the last leg of her trip.
In December 1927, having learned that her mother was on her deathbed, Karlin finally returned home. She herself was utterly exhausted by illness and depression and would never travel again. She devoted most of her time to writing, chronicling her journeys in various magazines and newspapers throughout Europe. As a natural extension of her travels, she also became an avid collector and amateur ethnologist. Most of what she had acquired on her journeys she sent to Celje and displayed in a small private museum. In the early 1930s, she often toured Europe and held lectures.
Karlin stopped publishing in the German press as an act of protest against the Nazi Germany. She was arrested soon after the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia in 1941, scheduled for deportation to Serbia and further to the Dachau concentration camp, but was released after the intervention of the painter Thea Schreiber Gammelin, her partner and “sisterly soul.” She was allowed to return to Celje, but had to stay in house arrest.
In the spring of 1944, she decided to escape to the part of Slovenia controlled by the partisan resistance. By that time, she was severely ill, but the Partisans did not allow her to go to the Allied-occupied town of Bari, Italy. She was transferred to Dalmatia, where she stayed until the end of the war. She returned to Celje and spent her last years with Thea Gammelin. She died of tuberculosis and breast cancer on January 14, 1950, and was buried next to Thea at a churchyard in Svetina.
Alma Karlin Memorial House, Pečovnik 44, Celje
Karlin's home in Pečovnik, on the outskirts of the city of Celje, in which she spent her final years with painter Thea Schreiber Gamelin, today serves as a memorial house. In the garden, the couple used to plant exotic seeds that Alma brought from her journeys. The house is an extraordinary historical monument which was renovated and opened for the public in 2014, and it houses the exhibition "Alma M. Karlin’s Lonely Journey," which presents her life as a traveler, polyglot and theosophist. At the Celje Regional Museum, you can also see the exhibition "The Paths of Alma M. Karlin."