Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of American Jewish participation in the U.S. military during World War II is the number of men and women who served. Historian Elihu Rose estimates that “half of all Jewish men old enough” to serve in the various branches of the military did so. It is believed that more than 550,000 American Jews, including about 10,000 women, were part of the war effort, motivated not only out of patriotism but a commitment to save their fellow Jews overseas from being slaughtered.
“We went to reclaim who we were, and not to forget who we were and where we came from,” said former Army mapmaker Leonard Everett Fisher, who, like most Jews fighting in the war, was a child of immigrants who fled persecution in Europe.
The war effort was a transformative moment in Jewish — and American — history, and the story is told movingly and with great sensitivity in a new 90-minute documentary, “GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II,” airing nationally on PBS on April 11 (Channel 13/WNET, 10 p.m.) in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“As a child in Hebrew school in the early 1970s, I saw ‘Night and Fog’ [Alain Resnais’ 1956 French documentary of Auschwitz, with grisly footage], and I was absolutely shocked and disturbed by it,” said Lisa Ades, an Emmy-winning filmmaker who produced and directed the documentary, based on a 2004 book by historian Deborah Dash Moore (“GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation”). “‘Night and Fog’ had a profound effect on me and made me rethink my own Judaism,” said Ades.
She set out several years ago to tell the story of the American Jewish military experience in World War II. Through the use of extensive footage — including a poignant clip of a religious service conducted by David Max Eichhorn, a rabbinic chaplain, after the liberation of Dachau — and on-camera interviews with more than two dozen Jewish veterans, Ades chronicled the grim challenges faced by Jews who served. The troubles began with boot camp, where they endured harsh anti-Semitism from fellow soldiers, many of whom had never met a Jew. The Jews felt the need to prove they were “true Americans,” and some recounted taking extraordinary risks on the battlefield to show they were not cowards.
Among those featured are famous figures like Henry Kissinger, Robert Morgenthau, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, whose humor helps lighten the mood. But some of the most powerful remembrances come from “regular” soldiers like Lester Tanner, who recounts how Master Sgt. Roddy Edmonds, a Protestant, risked his own life to save the lives of 200 Jews, fellow prisoners of war in a German POW camp. Edmonds, despite having a gun put to his head by the Nazi commandant, refused an order to single out the Jews among the 1,275 Americans held captive.
“We’re all Jews here,” Edmonds told the Nazi officer. (Years later Edmonds was honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile for his bravery.)
Many Jews who served came back from the war with a renewed commitment to fight the kind of racism, bigotry and bias they encountered in the U.S. military and that, most dramatically, led to the Holocaust in Europe. Alan Moskin, an Army infantryman who survived serious wounds on D-Day, traveled the South to promote civil rights, and Sid Shankin, a pilot who dropped bombs on the Germans on Yom Kippur, became a rabbi.
At a full-house screening of the film on March 25 at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., Moskin and the former Army mapmaker Leonard Everett Fisher received a standing ovation when they were introduced by Ades. (The screening was part of the annual Westchester AJC-sponsored Jewish Film Festival; The Jewish Week was a co-sponsor.)
The film is especially timely, Ades said. “With the rise of anti-Semitism, racism and anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S. and around the world, these stories of the children of Jewish immigrants fighting anti-Semitism at home and abroad resonates profoundly for me — and hopefully, for others when they see it.”