In Germany, a Fight to Preserve the Grave of a Jewish Flying Ace Erased by the Nazis

Two Germans are pressing Berlin to save the grave of decorated World War I pilot Wilhelm Frankl from future destruction by declaring it a ‘grave of honor’ – but the city is refusing

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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German World War I flying ace Wilhelm Frankl.
German World War I flying ace Wilhelm Frankl.Credit: J-nerations
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In April, it will have been 104 years since the death of Wilhelm Frankl, one of the German Empire’s most celebrated Jewish World War I fighter aces. Although he shot down more than 20 enemy aircraft, receiving the Iron Cross and the “Blue Max” order of merit, Frankl is little known these days, and few Israelis have ever heard his name. But there are those who do remember, and hope to enlist public opinion and convince authorities in Berlin, where he is buried, to stop the destruction of his grave and the fading of his memory — for the second time.

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His grave was destroyed by the Nazis, who expunged his name from the roll of German medal recipients because of his Jewish origin. Only in 2017, on the hundredth anniversary of his 1917 crash in France, was a new headstone placed over his grave, on the private initiative of two historically Germans who sought to correct this erasure. They purchased a gravestone inscribed with the words “The Jewish pilot who sacrificed his life for Germany” and paid for use of the gravesire for 20 years.

In Germany, a lease must be paid for a grave. In general, although regulations and laws vary from state to state in the German Federation, burial in Germany is temporary, meaning that a grave can be emptied and reused. Given the popularity of cremation in Germany, this is not often a significant problem.

But one of the two Germans who paid for the gravesire, Oliver Wulff, is concerned over the future of Frankl’s grave. He worries over the possibility that once again the stone will be removed and then given to someone else. Wulff, who lives in Dubai because of his business, says that he is an enthusiastic fan of World War I aviation history. The deeper he delved into the subject, the more he discovered fascinating stories about Jewish pilots in the service of the German military.

The grave of Wilhelm Frankl in Berlin.Credit: J-nerations

When he tried to find out what happened to them after the Nazis’ rise to power, he discovered that Frankl’s tombstone, found in the Christian cemetery in Berlin – Frankl converted to Christianity and got married during the war, according to at least one report – was not where it should have been. “It had apparently been moved by the Nazis and never rebuilt,” Wulff says. After World War II, Germany did give recognition to Frankl, including by naming an air force base after him in 1973. But for some reason, his grave was left abandoned.

A century after Frankl’s death, Wulff teamed up with Joerg Mueckler, who had found Frankl’s burial place. The two raised the money for a new gravestone, Wulff purchased the right to lease the grave, and Mueckler organized a memorial ceremony. But the two could not persuade authorities in Berlin to confer on the grave site the status of a “grave of honor” that would protect it from destruction and ensure that it would remain in place. “I think that this man has a right to be remembered because of his bravery,” Wulff says. “I want to correct the injustice that was done to him and I want his story to be told to ensure that his memory is preserved through a grave of honor.”

Wulff recently made contact with Meir Bulka, chairman of J-nerations, an organization that works to preserve the memory of European Jews. “I was curious and I began to deeply research Frankl’s family tree to discover who he was,” Bulka, an expert in genealogy, told Haaretz. He discovered that Frankl was related to nobility whose roots go back to the British royal family.

Frankl was killed when his plane came down over France in 1917.Credit: J-nerations

“I hope the authorities in Germany come to their senses and restore to him the honor he deserves, both as a Jew and a pilot," Bukla says. “It’s unfortunate that in today’s Germany, the injustice perpetrated by the Nazis continues, and wipes out a story of one of [Germany's] great heroes in World War I, who happened to be Jewish.” Bulka is also planning to turn to the Israel Air Force to ask that they commemorate Bulka.

Berlin’s municipality has yet to pick up the gauntlet. In response to a query from Haaretz, the municipality said that it was "impossible" to recognize Frankl’s grave as a grave of honor for a number of reasons: Berlin gives this status only to people whose actions were associated with the city, and only to “original” graves, meaning graves and gravestones that were not removed over the years. “The original grave of the pilot, Frankl, is long gone,” the municipality explained. The reason — its destruction by the Nazis — was not mentioned in its response.

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