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The Physician Felix Theilhaber and World War I

​​With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, drafted together with hundreds of thousands of young men were also Jewish citizens of Germany, a majority of whom assumed their military duties with the same excitement as the rest of the population. Most Jewish physicians of the appropriate age were drafted to the medical corps. They worked as military doctors in the many hospitals that were established in keeping with the large numbers of wounded that required care and hospitalization following the difficult battles of the war.

Felix A. Theilhaber (1887-1956) was a young Jewish doctor who had studied medicine in Berlin and Munich. As a student, Theilhaber had already begun taking an interest in Zionism, even looking into the possibility of emigrating to Palestine. However, the outbreak of war prevented him from doing so, and instead he served as a physician in a number of military hospitals, mainly in Poland, but apparently also on the Western Front in Belgium. Even before his service in the German military he had taken a similar role in the Turkish Army in the Balkans.

During World War I, Theilhaber experienced all the intensity of the war, mainly through the sheer number of injured soldiers under his care, though an additional aspect of the war’s intensity also became apparent to him: the proliferation of anti-Semitic accusations within the German Army. This experience, and his deep conviction that Jews were equal citizens of Germany, convinced Theilhaber to write a book about the experiences of Jewish combat pilots in the newly-formed German Air Force, considered to be modern and prestigious.

 

Theilhaber thought that the contribution of Jews to such an elite unit would provide a convincing argument regarding the devotion of Jewish fighters to Germany. In his effort to collect data, Theilhaber sought out pilots and fighters who had manned war planes during the years 1914-1918. In letters they sent him, most wrote about their experiences and even sent pictures. One such letter was sent by the pilot Fritz Beckhardt, who was not only an outstanding combat pilot, but had also been awarded the German Army's highest honor. Coincidentally, Beckhardt had served in the same squadron as Hermann Goering, who went on to become a leading Nazi and Commander of the Luftwaffe during World War II. The squadron insignia was the swastika, and Beckhardt’s plane, too, was decorated with this symbol. This photograph appears on the cover of Felix Theilhaber's book about Jewish fighter pilots, which was published in two editions during the 1920s. In 2012, the book was even translated into Hebrew.


 


 


 

As a personal reminder of the war days, Theilhaber collected photographs, some of which he may have even taken himself. In these pictures he documented the daily life at the military hospitals where he worked, but he also selected landscapes from the Eastern Front in Poland and Russia, and from the Western Front in Belgium. The pictures from the city of Leuven document the great destruction cause by the German artillery bombardments, later condemned by many international agencies as disproportional use of force against a country that had declared neutrality. This album had been in the possession of Felix Theilhaber’s son, Mr. Adin Theilhaber-Talbar, who donated his father’s estate to the National Library in 2013/14, a number of months before he passed away. These unique photographs, most of them apparently unknown to scholars, are displayed here for the first time.


 


 

Felix Theilhaber also authored medical textbooks and even demographic studies. His research mainly focused on Germany's Jewish population, and even anticipated its demise due to the low birth rate, intermarriage and assimilation. The solution that Theilhaber espoused was the establishment of a Jewish State. Nonetheless, like many others, he did not emigrate until 1935 after losing his medical license in Germany due to his Jewish heritage. After arriving in Eretz Israel, Theilhaber, along with other doctors of German origin, established the Maccabi Sick Fund (which to this day is one of Israel's largest HMOs) and promoted awareness regarding the importance of physical activity.