|Wilhelm Frankl is the most well known German Jewish fighter pilot of World War I. He was born in Hamburg on December 20, 1893, and his family later moved to Frankfurt-am-Main. After graduating from school, Frankl went to Germany's famous aviation center at Johannisthal and took flying lessons from Germany's first female pilot, Melly Beese. After the war started he volunteered for the air service and proved to be an outstanding fighter pilot. In 1916 Frankl became engaged to the Christian daughter of an Austrian naval officer, and he made a controversial decision to convert to Christianity. Some say he converted to please his future wife, while others say he converted in the hope that he would have better career opportunities. (Jews in Germany were not allowed the same rights as Christians.)|
Frankl wearing the
|postcard from World War I: "Our most successful flyer, Lieutenant Frankl."|
In a short amount of time Frankl shot down several enemy planes, and soon afterwards his picture was featured on German postcards and he was hailed as a national hero. Frankl received the Pour-le-mérite (nicknamed the "Blue Max"), which was Germany's equivalent to America's Medal of Honor. He was made commander of his own squadron, Jasta 4.
Frankl was killed on April 8, 1917, when the Albatros D.III he was flying fell apart during combat over France. Just three days before he had shot down three enemy aircraft in one day, for a total of 19. He was buried in Berlin-Charlottenburg, but his grave has been lost to war and history. Frankl was excluded from Pour-le-mérite Flieger, Walter Zuerl's 1938 chronicle of German World War I fighter pilots who had received the Pour-le-mérite. In spite of his conversion, Frankl apparently was, in Nazi eyes, still a Jew.
In 1973 the West German Luftwaffe named a squadron after him.
|Friedrich Rüdenberg was born in 1892 in Hanover. As a young man he studied to become an electrical engineer, and he had just finished his courses and was preparing to take his state exams when the war started. Rüdenberg postponed his education and volunteered for duty. He applied to an aviation detachment and after completing the basic training started going on reconnaissance missions. He collected valuable data and was awarded the Iron Cross in mid-1917. Because of his excellent record, he was selected for fighter pilot school and after his training was assigned to Jagdstaffel 10, under Richthofen's wing command. Toward the end of the war he was allowed to complete his education, and after the war he taught for several years at the university level. He eventually was made Technical Director of the Istanbul branch of General Electric, but in 1936 he was dismissed from his job because he was Jewish. He wisely decided not to return to Germany but instead immigrated to Palestine.|
|Rüdenberg in the Cockpit of a Pfalz D. III|
|Fritz Beckhardt was from Wallertheim in Hesse. At the start of the war he volunteered for the infantry and later trained as a pilot in Hamburg and Hanover. He flew long-range reconnaissance missions and later received fighter pilot training and served with Jagdgeschwader 3, Jagdstaffel 26, and Kest 2. During the war Beckhardt received the Iron Cross (First Class), the House Order of Hohenzollern with Swords, the Hessian Medal of Bravery, the Hessian Order of Ernst Ludwig, the aviator's badge, a silver cup for bravery, and various badges for accomplishments and wounds. After Germany lost the war, Beckhardt refused to deliver his plane over to the enemy and instead flew it to Switzerland.|
|Fritz Beckhardt flew a Siemens Schuckert fighter with a swastika on it. Pilots on both sides flew planes adorned with swastikas, which during World War I represented the sun, good fortune, or just something interesting.|
Berthold Guthmann was born in 1893 and had just started his university studies when the war started. He volunteered for military service, as did his two brothers (one of whom was killed at Verdun). He became an observer and gunner on military aircraft and received the Iron Cross (Second Class), the Tapferkeitsmedaille (Medal for Bravery), and the Verwundetenabzeichen (the German equivalent of the Purple Heart). After the war he became a prominent attorney in Wiesbaden. In addition to being the secular leader of the Wiesbaden community during its most difficult years (1938-1942), Guthmann was second in charge of the Frankfurt Jewish congregation during its final months (1942-1943).
|Guthmann with his brother and sister|
|AFTER WORLD WAR I|
"Now the present troubles touch me deep in my heart.
A wish becoming unified, a single sacred longing,
An inspiration. Jews and Teutons-
That we are German, no proof is needed.
Because the Jews of their own volition gladly
Rally around the flag of their Fatherland.
For me to gain-be it, if it falls to my lot,
Even with my own blood-the Fatherland,
Which to myself and my brothers, alas, alas,
Often has been a Stepfatherland:."
Immanuel Saul (Translated by Adam M. Wait)
Immanuel Saul was a Jewish soldier in the German Army who was killed in World War I. Saul yearned in the poignant lines of his poem to finally gain Germany, even with his own death, as his Fatherland. Saul had hoped that the fact that so many Jews were willing to lay down their lives for Germany in World War I would inspire the nation to finally recognize and reward their longsuffering devotion.
It would never happen.
Jews and Communists were blamed for Germany losing the war. After the Nazi party came to power in Germany, Hitler immediately set upon making life as difficult as possible for German Jews. He first did this through anti-Semitic legislation designed to isolate Jews from the rest of society. Fritz Beckhardt, the Jewish pilot who had flown in World War I with a swastika on his plane, was imprisoned in a concentration camp because of his relationship with an "Aryan" woman. His old flying comrade, Berthold Guthmann, boldly appealed to Hermann Goering, Hitler's right-hand man, as a fellow flier and asked him to intercede on behalf of Beckhardt. Although Goering was the creator of the concentration camps (and the Gestapo), he granted Guthmann's request and released Beckhardt, who then left the country.
Hermann Goering as a World War I fighter pilot
After Hitler came to power, Willy Rosenstein found it difficult to fly. The Nazis made it very clear that he was not welcome at any flying fields. An old war comrade was in charge of one of the flying fields, however, and he refused to comply with Nazi orders that Jews were forbidden to fly. He allowed Rosenstein to use the field whenever he wished, but Rosenstein became concerned that his old comrade would soon get into serious trouble, so he stopped going to the flying field. Rosenstein decided that he and his family should get out of Germany, and although the Nazis did not want Jews in the country, they made it increasingly difficult for Jews to leave. When German Jews tried to emigrate, the government taxed so much of their money and property that in most cases there was not enough left to buy a passage to another country or to provide a means for making a living. Rosenstein was running into all kinds of Nazi bureaucratic roadblocks as he tried to leave the country. A man Rosenstein had barely known from his days in Goering's squadron told Rosenstein he would inform Goering of his dilemma. Considering the circumstances under which he had left Goering's squadron, Rosenstein expected no help. To Rosenstein's great surprise, Goering sent him a letter that he admits "made things easier in some ways," because he was allowed to leave the country and take three planes and their spare parts with him, "a privilege which was not granted to other Jews at that time [summer 1936]."
|Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron", was rumored by some to be of Jewish descent.|
Berthold Guthmann once said that Richthofen was like "an umbrella that gave all the German pilots a covering of fellowship and chivalry," and Hermann Goering, in the case of Rosenstein and Beckhardt, was loyal to the brotherhood of fliers.
Unfortunately, a new kind of chivalry was rising up in Germany, one that was being developed by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. Himmler was obsessed with tales of knights and Camelot, but he wanted a uniquely German brand of chivalry. In the First World War, Richthofen had described the chivalry of fliers as: "A chivalrous battle with similar weapons, each with a machine gun, an airplane, and some athletic ability; only the heart remains to be weighed."
Himmler's knights would have no heart; they would glory in showing no mercy and no fairness. Himmler wanted a chivalry stripped of Jews and Jewish values. Medieval chivalry had been based upon Biblical principles of mercy and defense of the weak, especially women and children. Old Biblical principles had to be done away with if Nazi knights were going to fulfill their mission of killing the weak and defenseless. Ironically, Jewish values were removed from ideals of German chivalry in order to make it easier for Germany's new knights - the SS - to destroy the Jews.
Berthold Guthmann had served Germany faithfully in its fledgling air force during World War I, but that made no difference to the Nazis. He was not seen as a German, a veteran, or a human being. In 1943 Guthmann and his family were arrested, split up, and sent to various concentration camps. Although Guthmann had saved Beckhardt's life a few years earlier through his plea to Hermann Goering, no one interceded on Guthmann's behalf, and he was killed at Auschwitz (gates, below) as if he had been nothing more than an insect.
Ironically, when Theilhaber wrote his book on Jewish fliers in 1924, he lamented at the end the suffering that had already been inflicted upon Jews through the symbol of the swastika, which he called "the emblem of all Jew-haters." He had no idea the worst was yet to come.
|Berthold Guthmann with his wife
Claire, son Paul, and daughter Lotte, in a happier, more civilized
time. (Lotte is Charlotte Opfermann, our 2003 keynote speaker.
This site is dedicated to the memory of Germany's Jewish airmen of the First World War:
If you have any information on Germany's Jewish airmen in World War I that you would like to share with us, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Badinger, James. "Jewish Quandary," online at http://judischequandry.tripod.com.
Cook, Stephen, and Stuart Russell. Heinrich Himmler's Camelot: The Wewelsburg Ideological Center of the SS, 1934-1945. Kressmann-Backmeyer, 1999.
Doerflinger, Joseph. Stepchild Pilot. Tyler, Texas: Longo, 1959.
"Felix Theilhaber." Online article at http://www2.rz.hu-berlin.de/sexology/GESUND/ARCHIV/COLLTHE.HTM.
Gavish, Dov, and Dieter H.M. Groschel. "Leutnant der Reserve Friedrich Rüdenberg." Over the Front, Summer 2001, pp 99-132.
Gill, Robert B. "The Albums of Willy Rosenstein: Aviation Pioneer, Jasta Ace." Cross and Cockade, Winter 1983, pp 289-334.
Keen, Maurice. Chivalry. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.
Kilduff, Peter. Letter to Robin Smith, Sept. 4, 1996.
Opfermann, Charlotte. The Art of Darkness. University Trace Press, 2002.
Over the Front, Journal of the League of World War I Aviation Historians, online at http://www.overthefront.com.
Pourlemerite.org at http://www.pourlemerite.org/index.html.
Richthofen, Manfred von. "Der rote Kampfflieger." Ein Heldenleben. Berlin: Ullstein, 1920.
Smith, Robin D. Last Knight, First Ace: The Red Baron as Legend and Myth. Master's thesis, Wright State University, 2000.
Theilhaber, Felix A. Jewish Flyers in the World War. Trans. Adam M. Wait. N.p., 1988.
Theilhaber, Felix A. Jüdische Flieger im Weltkreig. Berlin: Verlag der Schild, 1924.