Above and main image: The Graf Zeppelin flies over the Tower of David in Jerusalem in April 1931 (courtesy of the American Colony Photo-Dept. Collection: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, LOC, Washington, DC)
courtesy of the American Colony Photo-Dept. Collection: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, LOC, Washington, DC

When zeppelin fever came to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 89 years ago

On Purim 1929, a famed German airship dropped confetti on 80,000 coastal revelers as, on board, two prominent Zionists read the Book of Esther above the holy city

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Main image by courtesy of the American Colony Photo-Dept. Collection: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, LOC, Washington, DC

Dr. Hermann Badt and Dr. Wolfgang von Weisl were not the first people to hungrily feast their eyes on the stretch of land the pair, ardent Zionists, hoped would someday serve as a Jewish state.

But the two, a senior Prussian Jewish official and a Revisionist leader, Viennese physician and journalist, were undoubtedly among the first served up the sight in a majestic mahogany-lined dining hall suspended in the skies by millions of cubic feet of ferociously pulsating hydrogen, while drinking turtle soup.

It was the Jewish holiday of Purim, 1929, and the two were among the 28 passengers — including ministers from Weimar Republic and the daughter of Count [Graf] Ferdinand von Zeppelin himself — and 41 crew members on board the austere Graf Zeppelin for an Egypt-bound voyage from Germany.

The Salon is transformed into a dining room aboard the German airship Graf Zeppelin circa 1928. The location is not known. (AP Photo)

In just a few years, the tail of the proud German dirigible would be irreversibly tattooed with a swastika. Its world famous commander, Hugo Eckener, would be declared a persona non grata over his outspoken criticism of the Nazis, though he would survive World War II. Von Weisl, five months after the flight,  would be stabbed and left for dead in Jerusalem during the Arab riots of 1929, though he would later recover; Badt, demoted from his political position, would flee the Nazis’ clutches to the land he was gazing at from above.

And the captain of what was then the largest airship in the world, Ernst Lehmann, would die of burns he sustained when his ill-fated Hindenburg erupted over a field in New Jersey in 1937, all but putting the dream of intercontinental airship travel to rest.

After a test flight of several hours, Germany’s new Graf Zeppelin, landed safely at Frankfurt-on-Main in the presence of Dr. Hugo Eckener. Dr. Hugo Eckener, center, with spectators watching the landing at Frankfurt-on-Main, Germany, in thick fog on Nov. 1, 1938. (AP Photo)

But as it made its way over Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and the Dead Sea, the zeppelin was squarely in its heyday, having successfully completed its first intercontinental flight to New Jersey and poised to make what would become a record-breaking round-the-world trip that same year, spreading zeppelin fever from Tokyo to Tel Aviv.

At the time, planes and zeppelins were fighting furiously for mastery over the skies. The commercial airships (retired from their earlier military role) offered luxury and grace, and lacked the fuel constraints that the much faster, though cramped, planes contended with. The glossy, hugely flammable Hindenburg would a few years later even be kitted out with an insulated smoking room. And you couldn’t waltz to the gramophone on a plane, could you?

An undated photo of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin (AP-PHOTO)

The silvery balloon invited frequent comparisons to a fish or whale, a metaphor that downplayed the sheer size of the behemoth: If you were to affix a blue whale lengthwise on the spire of Big Ben, and then gingerly balance the clock on Lady Liberty’s crown, that ungainly chimera would still fall 40 feet short of the length of the 776-foot Graf Zeppelin. But while its size remains impressive despite the passage of time, its cruising speed of 80 miles per hour does not.

And so it floated dreamily over cheering mobs in Haifa, dropped 15 kilograms of confetti on frenzied Purim carnival-goers in Tel Aviv, scattered 16,000 letters, hovered meditatively over Jerusalem’s holy sites, and plummeted to nearly skim the surface of the Dead Sea.

Above and main image: The Graf Zeppelin flies over the Tower of David in Jerusalem in April 1931 (courtesy of the American Colony Photo-Dept. Collection: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, LOC, Washington, DC)

On that Purim, Von Weisl and Badt, along with the other passengers, would heartily empty the bottles of Carmel Mizrahi wine on board. Badt would outmatch all in an in-flight chess tournament, according to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency dispatch. And a decade before their compatriots would decide to kill, destroy and annihilate the Jews, these two German and Viennese Jews, representatives of rival Zionist camps, would pull out the Book of Esther and read it in the sky.

‘Get ready for the zeppelin!’

“To the residents of the Land of Israel, get ready for the zeppelin!” screamed the headline of Doar Hayom on March 25 of that year. The Hebrew-language press was feverishly anticipating the zeppelin flyover, which was initially scheduled to travel to Egypt.

“For reasons that I don’t want to get into here,” Badt explained afterward in an April 1929 article in Davar, it was decided to drop Egypt from the itinerary.

“The journey to the East became the journey to the Land of Israel.”

In Tel Aviv, the 80,000 restless Purim carnival-goers began to fret when the arrival of the zeppelin was delayed into the late afternoon hours, fearing a disaster had occurred or that it would arrive after dark, according to dispatches from the event. But when the airship appeared around 6 p.m., swooping down to rain confetti on the 20-year-old city like a newlywed couple, the spectacle did not disappoint.

A poster relaying a “Happy Purim” message from Graf Zeppelin commander Hugo Eckener to the residents of Tel Aviv in March 1929 (From the National Library of Israel collections)

“Great enthusiasm was displayed as the inhabitants gazed aloft at the huge, stately aircraft. The Zeppelin was lowered sufficiently to enable the gay, cheering throngs, most of whom were picturesquely costumed, to read plainly the airship’s name,” reported the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“We are sorry about our inability to land,” read the airship’s official message to Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff, which was pasted in the coastal city in Hebrew and German. “Wishing a good Purim, Eckener.”

“One of the most striking paradoxes of modern times was the arrival tonight of the Zeppelin over the Holy Land, where the means of transportation are still to a great extent those of thousands of years ago –- camels and donkeys,” reported the New York Times. “Each of the principal cities of Palestine welcomed the air monster in its own characteristic manner.”

The zeppelin’s symbolism as a pivot toward modernity was also noted by Von Weisl, upon gazing down at the tens of thousands of revelers in Tel Aviv.

Dr. Wolfgang (Benjamin Zeev) von Weisl (Wikimedia Commons)

“When the droning sound of the Zeppelin’s engines was heard, traffic in the streets stopped,and the crowds cheered, clapped hands and waved their hats. Proudly pointed Wolfgang von Weisl at the orderly system of roads and wide boulevards built by ‘his Zionists,'” wrote his granddaughter, Niva von Weisl.

“And here arrives the journey to its peak,” she quoted her grandfather  as writing, “here we forget the bad impression of Marseille and the disappointment from Rome, here the Zeppelin is welcome as a precursor of modern times… The streets are full of people. Thousands and thousands cram the city, its streets and squares; the blue and white flags of the Jews flood the length of the streets, factories’ sirens operate at full power. Automobiles haunt and escort us while we hover, engines mute, over huge Tel Aviv.”

“Three big bags of confetti are emptied off the ship as a contribution to the carnival tumult in the Jews’ city. The crowd below is increasing. Hooting and shouts reach us through the thin air. Europe in Asia welcomes the Europe in the air, constructing a bridge over space and mind.”

It was Badt who was tasked with hurling the bags of confetti into the crowds, according to his account in Davar.  One of those bags was found unopened on the rooftop of a Tel Aviv resident a month later, on the eve of Passover, the philosopher Gershom Scholem reported.

“Dressed like a Persian Jew, I attended a rather raucous ball,” wrote Scholem in a letter to his mother a month earlier. “I found myself amid the jubilant masses. You must have read in the paper how the Graf Zeppelin dropped confetti from the sky. Confetti did not fall on me, though I saw the Zeppelin directly over Cohen’s chocolate shop. It passed over the city of Tel Aviv, made a couple of turns, performed some short easy maneuvers, signaled with its light, and then vanished…”

Illustrative: Passengers are pictured in their cabin in the airship Graf Zeppelin, LZ 127, as they sail over the Atlantic Ocean in a seven-day journey from Europe to South America, August 1933. (AP Photo/Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Back home, the anti-Semitic press in Germany and Vienna was not amused by the participation of the airship in the Purim festivities.

“Participation in the Purim celebration by the crew and passengers of the Graf Zeppelin as it flew over Palestine is termed an affront to the German people by the anti-Semitic Hakenkreuzler press today,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. “The action of those aboard the Graf Zeppelin in throwing confetti from the airship on the city of Tel Aviv while the Feast of Esther was being gaily celebrated, is especially to be condemned, the papers write, because in doing this they joined in the Jews’ celebration ‘of the killing of 10,000 Aryans.'”

A scheme to land, and a ‘fiery chariot’ over Jerusalem

On board the airship, the passengers, eager to attend the parties below, hatched a plot to force Eckener to ground the airship.

News reports maintained the British had refused to allow the German airship touch down, while Badt said Eckener’s concerns over weather conditions were what prevented him from even seeking permission to land.

“While on board of the Zeppelin the president of the Reichstag, ministers, deputies and other distinguished travelers, who very much wanted to participate in the Purim celebration at their feet, devised a scheme that would force the British to approve landing for a few hours: one of the dignitaries sprained his leg skiing sometime before the Zeppelin trip. And lo and behold, the leg swelled horribly, causing the passenger severe pain, and the ship’s Viennese doctor, Dr. von Weisl, was convinced that another doctor in Tel Aviv is needed to examine the patient. A telegram to Ramle was about to be sent informing the headquarters there of emergency landing,” wrote Niva Von Weisl.

“But Eckener thought and pondered and finally decided to stand up and resist the urge and the beseeching: it was after dark and there was no certainty that the staff on the ground is equipped with all that was needed – such as flashlights.”

As the sun sank, the airship headed to Jerusalem, where its residents had begun celebrating Shushan Purim.

“Arriving there at 7:10 in the evening, although it was already dark, the roar of the Zeppelin and its bright lights immediately brought the entire population out the streets,” reported the Palestine Bulletin. “From the roof of the German consulate a large searchlight was focused on the airship and the German Colony was brightly illuminated also.”

“A full moon rose red as blood and cast a magical glow over the city,” wrote Douglas Botting, in his book “Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine.” “Dr. Eckener ordered the ship’s engines to be cut, and the Graf hovered in reverent silence over the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock. ‘From below,’ Ernst Lehmann reckoned, ‘we must have looked like a fiery chariot. Palestine, the farthest point of our flight, lay at our feet.’”

The Graf Zeppelin flies over Jerusalem in April 1931 (courtesy of the American Colony Photo-Dept.
Collection: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, LOC, Washington, DC)

The guests “watched in reverence and silence the ancient, eternal city, which a full moon of Shushan Purim night illuminated in pale glow,” according to Niva von Weisl. “Dr. Badet and Dr. von Weisl read the Book of Esther.”

Jerusalem would also get another glimpse of the mighty Graf when it circled back over the city later that evening. And again two years later, this time by daylight, when it soared across Jerusalem on a return trip from Egypt.

“The airship almost touched the roof of the Jewish Agency headquarters opposite the Post Office,” according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in April 1931. “Thousands of Sabbath-making Jews cheered and shouted as the Zeppelin flew for about a quarter of an hour over the Jaffa Road district of Jerusalem.”

A ‘quite extraordinary’ sensation at the Dead Sea

Flying south from Jerusalem, the commander of the airship decided on a little detour.

“I now had the idea of offering the guests a sensation of a quite extraordinary kind. The surface of the Dead Sea lies almost 1,300 feet below sea level. We were irresistibly tempted by the opportunity to fly our Zeppelin at an altitude well below sea level,” Eckener wrote. “The barely risen full moon shone still with little power, so that the great lake lay reflected in semi-darkness, as mysterious as the nether world. We slowly sank down, carefully feeling our way lower and lower, until we hovered a few hundred feet over the surface of the water. We looked up to the heights towering above us as if from a cellar.”

There, the passengers again helped themselves to wine. Carmel Mizrahi wine, to be exact. (Lady Grace Hay Drummond-Hay, a British journalist and the first woman to travel the world by air, would later write a letter to the company thanking them for the wines, and recalling a 1925 visit to their vineyards in Rishon Lezion, with none other than Lord Balfour).

“When I clinked my glass to that of Dr. Weisl and said ‘L’Chaim’ I was astonished to hear him respond with ‘L’Chaim,'” wrote Badt in Davar, playfully addressing the tensions between his support for the Labor Zionist establishment, and von Weisl’s Revisionist ties. “According to the strict Revisionist rules, he should have, as a renowned Revisionist, have answered ‘L’Vladimir [Jabotinsky]…’ I hope Weisl won’t be enraged at me over this, and that Jabotinsky will forgive him this sin.”

Over the shimmering salt lake below, Badt gathered four bottles as keepsakes for his children.

“This bottle was granted by the president of the Keren Hayesod on the occasion of the first flight of the Graf Zeppelin airship to the land of Israel,” wrote the Prussian Jewish politician on the bottles. “It was emptied at 156 meters beneath sea level on Purim Day, 5689 (March 26 1929) on the Graf Zeppelin,” he wrote, also securing the signatures of the Eckener and the crew.

“When I showed the bottles to the passengers, a hunt began for empty bottles,” he recalled. “But they were not to be found, because the crew took advantage of being over the Dead Sea and had dropped all the inessential weight, such as empty cans, bottles, and the like.”

“My bottles are, as of now, the only of their kind,” he continued, “until the day comes when treasure hunters at the Dead Sea discover the ‘treasures’ of the bottles it holds.”

‘Dreamers without hope’

“Quiet, the deep night sky and boundless ocean revives, and more clearly, the sight of the land of Israel,” mused Badt nearly 90 years ago.

“A memory from my past rises. Over 25 years ago, the elderly Graf Zeppelin turned to my father and asked him for help in realizing his plan, building the airship. It was at the time when I started attending the first Zionist meetings to gather impressions. The entire world thought Zeppelin a dreamer, who cannot be taken seriously. That forced him to seek help from several people in various cities, including my father, to support his idea, today a dream, tomorrow perhaps a reality.

“And at the same time, Theodor Herzl walked among us and his brethren saw in him, and in all of us, dreamers without hope. For over 25 years, I have kept the Graf Zeppelin’s handwritten letter; for over 25 years, I have kept in my heart Herzl’s idea and did everything in my limited ability to help. And here is a scenario where the two dreams collided, each of them a reality fulfilled.”

read more: