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Questions Abound After Wild Ride for Love of Dead Jewish Astronaut

January 9, 2003
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Some Germans may be obsessed with Jews, but few demonstrate their fixations the way Franz Stephan Strambach did.

On Sunday, Strambach, a psychology student now under lock and key at the Hadamar psychiatric hospital, stole a small plane from an airport near Frankfurt and took it on a wild ride through the skies of the city, threatening to crash into the European Central Bank tower. He finally landed without incident.

Strambach, 31, said he wanted to call attention to his hero, the Jewish astronaut Judith Resnik.

“I want to make my big idol Judith Resnik famous,” Strambach told German TV journalist Leo Busch, who spoke to the amateur pilot while he was still airborne.

Resnik, who died in the explosion of the Challenger shuttle 17 years ago, “deserves more attention,” Strambach said. “She was the first Jewish astronaut. Perhaps that’s why she never got proper attention.”

“We hear you,” said NTV’s Busch, communicating with Strambach via the Frankfurt airport control tower. “But you are endangering yourself and other people. Why don’t you just land?”

The control tower reported that Strambach also spoke briefly with Resnik’s brother before landing, asking him what he thought of the Web site Strambach set up with links to information about Resnik, and quizzing him on details of the family’s life.

Despite the oddity of Strambach’s obsession, Frankfurt police spokesperson Juergen Linker told JTA that Strambach’s motivation is “not our primary interest.”

There is no indication that Strambach is Jewish, and Strambach’s religion did not come up when he was questioned by police, Linker said.

“For us, it is meaningless. We are only interested in what he did,” Linker said.

Journalist Henryk Broder, an observer of relations between Jews and non-Jews in Germany, told JTA he did not think the case was “an example of the usual German sickness vis-a-vis the Jews” — a philo-Semitism that sometimes manifests itself in a fascination with Jewish life and culture.

Rather, he said, this is “an individual problem.”

But reporting of the incident reflected another problem: a lingering discomfort in Germany about Jewish issues.

While live feeds carried Strambach’s comments about Resnik’s Jewishness, it was cut out of later news broadcasts. There also was no public reaction from Jewish leaders.

“My reaction when I read about it was, ‘What does it mean when a young German falls in love with an American Jewish woman who was killed in a tragic aerospace accident?’ ” said Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin. “There is definitely some resonance there. I thought it would be interesting to know more.”

But she wasn’t able to.

“Although the pilot made it clear on the telephone that he wanted the world to remember Judith Resnik as the first Jewish astronaut in the world, the adjective ‘Jewish’ was suppressed from most evening news reports,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper wrote in an editorial on Tuesday. “This single piece of information was kept under quarantine. It should perhaps be handled carefully, but instead it was suppressed.”

When it comes to Jewish topics, “German journalists and people in general are very cautious, and they don’t want to make mistakes. Rather than making a mistake they prefer to do nothing,” Thomas Schmid, a political editor at the newspaper, told JTA in an interview Wednesday.

Reporters “were astonished hearing and seeing on TV that the hijacker wanted to promote ‘the Jewish astronaut Judith Resnik.’ They said, ‘Oh, this is very strange and maybe a dangerous case for Germans, so we won’t put it in the news,’ ” Schmid said.

“I think this is a problem,” he continued. “I think it’s not a mature society until we are able to treat this as news.”

Asked what German journalists might have feared, Schmid said he thought many journalists “believe there may be attitudes among the population against Jewish people, so if it’s possible not to mention that the person is a Jew, it’s better.”

In this case, though, the information was essential to understanding Strambach’s actions, he said.

“My problem is that it was his main argument, his main motive. He said ‘I am doing this because I want the Jewish astronaut to become famous,’ ” Schmid said. “And I think it’s necessary to report this.”

According to German media reports, Strambach is enrolled as a student of psychology at the Technical University of Darmstadt. He lives with his mother on the outskirts of the city.

Strambach obtained an amateur pilot’s license at age 18, but it has been suspended since 2000.

According to reports, Strambach and his mother had just purchased tickets for a flight at the Babenhausen airport when he left her in the car and used a pistol to force his way into the mechanized glider. However, Strambach’s mother insists her son had no weapon.

Police spokesman Linker said Strambach would be kept in the psychiatric hospital for evaluation, and could face criminal charges.

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