12. Captain K

By Peter Fraenkel

He was much talked about – this Captain K. I had heard about him frequently but had not met him. He only showed up from time to time in my African home town but when I was next back for my vacation we overlapped and a family friend invited me to meet him.

His full name was Katzenstein, Kurt Katzenstein. I had heard he had had an exciting history: In World War I he had served as a fighter pilot in Germany’s most famous squadron, – Jasta 11 under the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. K, I was told, had been the only Jew in the squadron. When Richthofen was eventually shot down the command of the squadron had fallen to Hermann Goering, later Hitler’s right hand man. Both Goering and K, after 1918, had had to eke out their living as stunt flyers. K had once flown a plane under the bridge at the South German town of Fulda. Later K had started an aircraft factory in partnership with a non-Jewish comrade. Goering was eventually elected to the German Reichstag and was put on a parliamentary commission for aircraft procurement. He maintained amicable relations with his two wartime comrades; even with K the Jew. Perhaps this was because he was chronically short of money and they were good for an occasional touch.   I suspect they hoped he would support their bids for government contracts.

When K related this story one of the other guests asked rudely “A bribe?”

K denied this in clipped Prussian tones:

“We did not bribe – neither him nor anyone else. In the end we sued him for repayment. Would anyone have done that if it had been a bribe? Our case was due to come to court early in 1933. It never did. A few days after the Nazi takeover, two storm troopers came to our works. They asked to see the two directors. I was out. They forced their way into my partner’s office, pulled out revolvers and shot him dead. My secretary managed to get to a phone. She stammered so badly that it took me a while to get the point. I got into my car and drove at full speed to the Dutch border. I did not even collect my toothbrush. ”

This is what he told us the evening I met him at a friend’s house in the country now known as Zambia.

Did he hold a military rank of captain? I do not know but when he had to leave Germany he became an airline pilot in Southern Africa and these do usually announce themselves “Your captain speaking”.

As K. reached a certain age he was stopped from flying airliners. But this was colonial Africa and he managed to retain the right to ferry black labourers from Zambia to the gold mines of the Witwatersrand.

And there the story rested some 60 years …. until quite recently. Somehow I was consulted by the Berlin Technical Museum about the family of a well-known railway engineer (a relative of mine) about whom they were preparing a book. They sent me the catalogue of their recent exhibition on German-Jewish engineers, inventers, photographers and pioneer flyers.

I dropped them a line about Katzenstein. Had they ever heard of this man – fighter pilot and aircraft manufacturer? Yes, they had but had decided to feature another pilot in their exhibition. As for Katzenstein – their lady researcher chose her words cautiously: More research was needed.

Had he been a member of the Richthofen Squadron, I wrote back? Unlikely, she replied. Richthofen had commanded fighter squadron 11 (Jasta 11) while K, had served in squadrons 30 and 55. As for his period as a manufacturer, he had resigned as a director of the Raab-Katzenstein aircraft factory as early as 1929. Later had been employed by his old firm as head of their flying school. Later he had emigrated and moved to South Africa where he had performed as a stunt flyer. As for his German ex-partner, Antonius Raab, he had not been murdered in 1933. He had, in fact, died peacefully, much later, in 1985, having published his memoirs a year earlier. [“Raab fliegt.” Reihe Konkret, Hamburg 1984]

Had my aged memory been playing me tricks? No, the lady-researcher reassured me. Much the same story had appeared in South African newspapers in the 1950s.

Was none of it true, then? Could K have invented myths to advertise his stunt flying? Or was it all pure fantasy?

What does that make of captain K: Ace flyer or ace liar? Or both?