The intentions were laudable: To mark 100 years to World War I (1914-1918), the nonprofit Society for the Heritage of World War I in Israel wished to commemorate the local role in the Great War.
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What does Israel have to do with that war, you may ask? Quite a lot, it turns out. Australian cavalry, German pilots, Turkish trains and a single British officer, after whom a street that has seen better days was named in Tel Aviv — and who, along the way, freed us from the yoke of the Ottoman Empire. That would be General Edmund Allenby of course.
The Israel Philatelic Service happily took up the challenge and issued a series of stamps showing choice scenes from the war within our borders: Aerial combat, military railways, the battle for Be’er Sheva and a few forgotten anecdotes, which for many living in Israel today are considered, unfairly, to be prehistoric.
But sometimes good intentions are not enough . That is how one of the stamps in the series, the one that commemorates “Aerial Warfare” over the Holy Land, carries the image of a German pilot — who years later, during World War II, was a senior officer in the Luftwaffe, the Nazi air arm under the command of Hermann Goering.
The pilot, Franz Josef Walz, was known as the “Eagle of Jericho,” and had an impressive military career as a fighter pilot and ace here in Israel. He also befriended a number of Jews from Kibbutz Merhavia, and even appears in their photo albums. But later when the skies turned dark and the Nazis rose to power, he joined their air force and reached the rank of Generalleutnant, the second highest rank in the Luftwaffe. He died after the war ended in December 1945 in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Breslau in Silesia (today Wroclaw in Poland).
Dr. Dov Gavish, a geographer who researches the first aerial photographs of Israel and its military history, exposed the identity of the pilot on the official Israeli stamp. He first published his findings on the wonderful Oneg Shabbat blog (in Hebrew) of history professor David Assaf of Tel Aviv University.
So how did (a future) Nazi general make it onto an Israeli stamp? Avi Navon of Kibbutz Lahav and the World War I Heritage Society was the person who initiated the stamp series. “I want to confess: I’m guilty of everything,” he wrote in humor on the Oneg Shabbat blog.
The graphic designer hired to design the stamps received pictures from a variety of sources from the Society and from archives in Israel and abroad. He used them to draw the figure that he thought best represented aerial warfare in that period in the Land of Israel.
As fate would have it, the picture that captured his imagination was that of Franz Walz. You can look at the stamp and pictures — and decide for yourselves. The cross, which appears in the original photo, was erased from the stamp version, of course, because it would not be appropriate for an Israeli stamp to bear such a symbol. In doing so he somewhat blurred the pilot’s German origin — not to mention his Nazi future.
Who's that handsome "Turkish" soldier?
This is not the end of our story by far. Now take a look at another one of the stamps, decorated with the mustachioed Turkish soldier.
The stamp is dedicated to “The Military Railway.” The instructions given to the graphic designer were to use a Turkish soldier with a locomotive and railway station in the background, circa 1915.
Take a look at the Turkish soldier chosen to fit the bill: Does he remind you of someone? It is actually Moshe Sharett (or Moshe Shertok at the time), Israel’s first foreign minister and second prime minister. The stamp pictures him during the short period he served as first lieutenant in the Turkish Army.
What was the future prime minister of Israel doing in the Ottoman Army? In 1913, the young Sharett, who was born in October 1894, went off to study law in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, of which today’s Israel was then a part. He headed off to study in Istanbul, as did David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi “in order to prepare himself to represent the [Jewish] Yishuv with the ruling power,” he wrote, referring to the Jewish community in pre–state Israel.
In 1914 when the war broke out, he returned home and was an activist in the movement for local Jews to become Ottoman citizens and subjects, a movement which thought the only way at the time to prevent the expulsion of Jews from the land of Israel was to become Turkish citizens.
In 1916, Sharett was drafted into the Turkish army, along with 120 other graduates of the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium in Tel Aviv and the Hebrew Teacher’s Institute (today the David Yellin College of Education) in Jerusalem. He completed officers training in Istanbul and because of his knowledge of Turkish, German, French and Arabic, he served as a translator on various fronts, including Macedonia, southern Transjordan and Syria.
Without a doubt, Sharett was a fine example of a Turkish soldier in the Land of Israel.
This story reminds me of another anecdote from the Philatelic Service I wrote about four years ago in Haaretz.
Yehudit Ayalon, one of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael’s founders, was very happy to receive a request in 2013 from the postal service’s Philatelic Service. She was informed that soon a new stamp would be issued to honor “100 years of industry in Israel” and was asked whether she might have old photographs of the Ayalon Institute, where she worked when she was young.
Ayalon, who died two years ago at age 90, was exactly the person to turn to in this matter. She is named after the institute that was a secret ammunition factory that operated until the State of Israel was established, producing bullets for the Haganah pre–state Jewish underground.
She wrote in reply to the letter: “Indeed we have photos of the Ayalon Institute, including the production of bullets for the War of Independence.” Together with Shaul Goldberg, director of the kibbutz’s archives, Ayalon collected and sent to the Philatelic Service photos of herself and other young women working in the factory and in the laundry built above the arms factory to conceal its real purpose.
The response of the Philatelic Service shocked her: “Could you possibly find photos that feature fewer women with bare legs?”
“The nerve! I couldn’t contain myself and wrote about it in the kibbutz leaflet.” Ayalon recounted. Today that attire may be too “outlandish” to be used in a stamp. “When we worked in the factory, in 1948, we wore working clothes of the time — short pants,” Ayalon explained.
And then there is the bizarre and intriguing story about the stamp and the toothbrush, which speaks for itself.