Snapshotsof German-Jewish History and Culture
German-Jewish Aviators in WWI – A Search for Heimat above the Clouds
With our latest ‘Snapshot’ we would like to introduce you to Felix Aaron Theilhaber (1887-1956) and his unique publication about German-Jewish aviators in WWI. Theilhaber’s book Jüdische Flieger im Weltkrieg – Jewish Aviators in the Great War (1924) is a fascinating visual and textual source that represents a German-Jewish voice countering anti-Semitic allegations spread in the early Weimar Republic against German-Jews who had served in the military during the First World War.
Felix A. Theilhaber was born the son of a doctor in Bamberg in 1887. He followed in his father’s footsteps and pursued a successful medical career in gynaecology and dermatology. As a student in Munich and Berlin he grew close to Zionist ideas and became an early member of the first Jewish Gymnasts’ Association in Germany (Jüdischer Turnverein Bar-Kochba) which was founded in Berlin in 1898. He promoted the benefits of physical exercise throughout his life. Theilhaber was also one of the most prominent voices in the Sexualreformbewegung (Movement for Sexual Reform) and published widely in this field. In 1913, he founded the Gesellschaft für Sexualreform – GESEX (Society for Sexual Reform) in Berlin and campaigned for the decriminalisation of contraception, abortion and homosexuality. After the Nazis imprisoned him for two months in 1933 and stripped him off his medical approbation, he emigrated to Mandate Palestine in 1935. There, he became one of the founding fathers of Israel’s first private health insurance providers, the Kupat Cholim Maccabi (Maccabi Health Insurance) which is still one of the largest healthcare insurance companies in Israel today. He practiced in the medical profession until his death in 1956.
Theilhaber did voluntary service as a doctor in the Ottoman Red Crescent Society in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). He pursued this path in the vain hope that he might be able to settle in Ottoman Palestine after his demobilisation. When World War I. broke out, he was drafted into the German military’s medical corps and served on both the Eastern and the Western front. During this period, he witnessed the rise of anti-Semitic vilification in the German military.
Theilhaber’s Jüdische Flieger im Weltkrieg (1924) was written to present a vigorous argument against anti-Semitic phantasies about ‘Jewish war shirkers’ that persisted in public discourse throughout the Weimar Republic. In his book he seeks to showcase German-Jewish aviators within the German Airforce as the embodiment of audacity and devotion to the German war effort. The volume is based upon letters and photographs Theilhaber collected from Jewish veterans and their families. Through this material he introduces the reader to a series of German-Jewish aviators and details their experiences in combat. The diverse range of examples includes individuals from all walks of life, such as the 46-year-old entrepreneur and experienced pilot 2nd Lieutenant Jakob Wolff from Hamburg or the young apprentice and newcomer to aviation, 2nd Lieutenant Simon Pinczower from Beuthen (Bytom) in Upper Silesia. The book is a treasure trove for visual history as it contains 40 photographs that either portray the pilots, or visualise the experience of early aviation.
Theilhaber’s attempt to confront anti-Semitic defamation also contains a bold cover page. It depicts the German-Jewish aviator Staff Sergeant Fritz Beckhardt from Wallertheim (Hesse) in front of his aeroplane adorned with the ancient symbol of the swastika (probably taken 1917). At the time, long before it was appropriated by the Nazis, the swastika was commonly referenced in a variety of contexts, predominantly as a good luck symbol of Indo-Asian origin. Beckhardt was the only Jewish pilot ever to decorate his aeroplane with this emblem as a protective charm. With this particular cover of the 1924 edition, argues the historian Derek J. Penslar, Theilhaber makes a visual claim that Jews are an integral part of the German nation.
Theilhaber’s book about the experience of German-Jewish aviators also affords an insight into their experience of being German. The texts and photographs are exhibits testifying to feelings of mutual respect and friendship between German-Jewish and non-Jewish German aviators and to a sense of common belonging to Germany. These emotions are tangible across individual reports and visible in the photographs collected in this unique volume. Nonetheless, Theilhaber was well aware of the persistent and widespread anti-Semitism within German Society throughout WWI and in the early Weimar Republic. This book is, of course, a political pamphlet and a fierce attempt to set the record straight.
The Leo Baeck Institute London holds a copy of the second edition of Felix A. Theilhaber’s Jüdische Flieger im Weltkriegthat was published by the German-Jewish veteran’s association RjF (Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten) through their publishing house Der Schild, Berlin in 1924. A first edition was released under the title Jüdische Flieger im Kriege – ein Blatt der Erinnerung in 1919 by the Louis Lamm Verlag, Berlin (for Louis Lamm, check Snapshot Moritz D. Oppenheim, 2020).
References for further information
Derek J. Penslar, Jews and the Military. A History (2013)
WDR, Planet Wissen: Der Jude mit dem Hakenkreuz (2015), https://programm.ard.de/TV/Programm/Jetzt-im-TV/?sendung=2811114245322985
With thanks to akg-images for their generous support.