How could the most wicked symbol of the twentieth century, the Nazi “hooked cross,” turn up on the aircraft of German-Jewish World War I planes? The answer is fascinating.
Felix Aaron Theilhaber (1884–1956), author of an important account of German-Jewish aviators fighting in World War I, was a gynecologist based in Berlin and Jena. As a young man he visited Palestine and remained committed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland for the remainder of his life. The squalid and overcrowded conditions of Berlin in the first decade of the century convinced him of the value of social and moral reform. Furthermore, within his role as a physician, Theilhaber was active in the sex reform movement championed by Wilhelm Reich and Max Henkel. He was an early advocate of birth control and legal abortion, and resisted the criminalization of homosexuality under German law.
Early in World War I he enlisted as a frontline field doctor and was conscious of the important part that Jewish soldiers and NCOs played in battle. His publications resisted antisemitic attempts to denigrate the Jewish contribution to the German war effort, beginning with Die Juden im Weltkrieg (1916), which was followed by the booklet, Jüdische flieger im Kriege (1919), and a second edition in 1924 with the variant title Jüdische flieger im Weltkriege. Carefully researched, Jüdische flieger im Weltkriege frequently draws upon the author’s personal contact with the aviators themselves, or their surviving families. The contribution of patriotic and valorous Jews to the Kaiser’s war effort was an uncomfortable truth for the Third Reich, which attempted to ban this book and others like it. Soldiers and airmen of the First War generation either emigrated or died in concentration camps—only a personal assurance by a general to the Nazi leadership could save them. Although a few were spared, this was a rarely done. As for Theilhaeber himself, following a few difficult months in Gestapo custody, in 1933 he ultimately emigrated to Palestine.
One Jewish-German pilot of note was Offz. Stellv. (acting officer) Jakob Ledermann, who was teaching at a Jewish orphanage for boys, became a father figure to most of them. When he joined the war, quite a few of his students joined as well—including Kurt Lindemann. For his bravery as an airplane machine gunner, he was awarded the coveted Iron Cross seen below (he was the grandfather of Nicky Lindeman, currently an art director at SpotCo, who also supplied these artifacts and was told this story when she was a young girl).
Fascinating are the photographs in Theilhaeber’s volumes showing military biplanes adorned with swastikas. Before its adoption by some postwar Freikorps units (pre-Nazi ultra-nationalist, antisemite paramilitary troops), the cross represented good fortune and other positive attributes. Jewish ace pilots proudly flew airplanes with swastikas on them without having any hint of what that symbol would later become.
Lt. Adolf Auer, who was not Jewish, and his wingman, Willi Rosenstein, who was, served in the Luftstreitkräfte alongside Hermann Goering, known for his vehement antisemitic rhetoric. It was claimed that Auer painted the Jewish Star of David next to the swastika or the iron cross on his aircraft in support of Rosenstein and to annoy his fellow aviator, Goering, the future high ranking Nazi and leader of the Luftwaffe.