Lufthansa Airlines apologized this week after passengers traveling from New York City to Hungary said they were blocked from boarding a connecting flight in Germany because they were Jewish.
The airline said a “large” number of passengers had been kept from boarding on May 4, but it did not specify how many people were blocked from the flight, which went from Frankfurt to Budapest. Passengers on the flight from New York estimated that more than 100 people were not allowed on their connecting flight.
Lufthansa said in an earlier statement that the travelers had been blocked from the flight because they violated the airline’s medical mask requirement, but passengers told The New York Times and other news outlets that Jewish people had been unfairly grouped together and punished because a handful of people on the flight from New York did not wear masks.
The airline acknowledged in a statement on Tuesday that passengers who wore masks on the New York flight were denied boarding. “While Lufthansa is still reviewing the facts and circumstances of the day, we regret that the large group was denied boarding rather than limiting it to the non-compliant guests,” the airline said.
Lufthansa said it would be “engaging” with the affected passengers. “We have zero tolerance for racism, antisemitism and discrimination of any type,” the airline said.
A passenger on the New York flight, Isaac Kraus, 34, said that he had not been allowed on the connecting flight even though he wore a mask during the entire flight from New York and was traveling alone.
Mr. Kraus, who is a Hasidic Jew, was one of many passengers who flew to Hungary for a pilgrimage to honor Grand Rabbi Yeshaya Steiner of Kerestir, Hungary, who died in 1925. Each year, an event is held at the rabbi’s grave on the anniversary of this death.
“We go to the grave, we light candles and say prayers,” Mr. Kraus said. “It is a very holy and emotional thing for us.”
After landing in Frankfurt, Mr. Kraus said he saw a large police presence outside the gate for his connecting flight and assumed someone was going to be arrested. The people around him were growing anxious because the flight was delayed, he said, when about 10 to 15 passengers were called to board. The gate closed behind them, leaving most of the passengers behind.
Dan’s Deals, a website that provides information on frequent flier deals, reported on the blocked passengers and shared a video that showed a Lufthansa worker telling the gathered crowd that they would not be allowed on the flight because of “an operational reason” on the New York flight. “You know why it was,” the worker said.
In another video, a person who appears to be a Lufthansa worker tells a passenger that it was Jewish people flying from New York “who were the mess, who made the problems.”
Mr. Kraus said he believed some passengers did not comply with the mask rule, but that he and others were unfairly targeted. “I was punished because I am also a Jew,” Mr. Kraus said.
Those left behind in Frankfurt said they had faced a 24-hour ban from flying on Lufthansa and scrambled to get on flights with other airlines.
Mr. Kraus said that a travel agent booked him a new flight on a different airline to Warsaw, then Hungary.
He was seven hours late to the cemetery. He had also originally been scheduled to take a bus tour to visit 10 cemeteries in Hungary and Poland to honor other grand rabbis, but he said that the bus was only able to visit five because of the flight issues.
Ben Weber, president of Main Street Travel in Monsey, N.Y., said his agency had booked seats on the flight for 80 “ultra-Orthodox Jews,” who were “very visible in their mode of dress.” They included Mr. Kraus. Mr. Weber said all 80 were blocked from the connecting flight to Budapest and that his agency spent $50,000 rebooking their tickets on other airlines and rearranging previously scheduled bus rides.
The Anti-Defamation League said in a statement on Tuesday that because Lufthansa was a German company, it “has a special responsibility to educate its staff” and criticized the company’s apology.
“This non-apology fails to admit fault or identify the banned passengers as Jews,” the Anti-Defamation League said.
Max Weingarten and Eli Meisels, who are both Orthodox Jews, were also traveling to the cemetery in Hungary and were allowed on both flights. They said they were dressed “more casually” than other Jewish passengers, in pants and shirts. Mr. Weingarten wore a skullcap, and Mr. Meisels a baseball cap.
They said they were among the first passengers to board the plane in Frankfurt because they had first-class seats. They did not realize other people were being blocked from the flight and were surprised when they were told that boarding was complete, about two minutes after sitting down.
Mr. Weingarten, 36, called an acquaintance who had also been traveling in first class, but was not on the plane, and the man told him that gate agents had blocked Jewish people from boarding.
“That made us feel absolutely horrified,” Mr. Weingarten said. “Obviously right away, all these images, movies, books that we read about 1939 to 1944 jumped up and a lot of these images are now running through our head.”
Mr. Meisels, 27, wore a mask for the entire flight from New York. Mr. Weingarten said he removed his mask for parts of the flight, though no Lufthansa workers asked him or other first-class passengers to put a mask on.
They estimated that the flight to Budapest had about 20 people on it, and that the two of them were the only Jewish passengers. They said people in economy seating were asked to move to the back of the flight to balance out the weight of the nearly empty plane, and that they were told they could have as many kosher meals as they wanted because there were extras available on the flight.