Documentary Highlights ‘GI Jews’ Who Served In U.S. Armed Forces
What do Henry Kissinger, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and half a million American Jews have in common?
They all served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, representing 11 percent of the Jewish population in America at the time. Some 11,000 did not live to celebrate the victories over Germany and Japan in 1945.
Their deeds and presence on the battlefields and rear echelons of Europe and the Pacific are recognized in the national PBS special “GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II,” premiering on the PBS network, and locally on PBS SoCal KOCE, at 10 p.m. April 11.
PBS says the documentary is “in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day,” which commemorates the uprising of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto against Nazi troops in 1943. Britain and most countries of the European Union mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 25, the date Russian troops liberated the Auschwitz death camp in 1945.
The 90-minute-long special will evoke different emotions and remembrances, depending mainly on a viewer’s age and life experiences.
For those of us who served in the American armed forces from 1941 to 1945, it will resurrect a time, some 75 years ago, when we had full heads of hair, no wrinkles, and spent a lot of time thinking and talking about what comic strip hero Li’l Abner used to call “females of the opposite sex.”
For civilians of the era, it was a time when the country was solidly united. The clearly demarcated enemies were the “Nazis” or “Krauts” and the “Japs.” The movies featured John Wayne and similar macho types mowing down hundreds of evil-looking enemies without suffering a scratch.
The era’s popular songs promised everlasting peace and uninterrupted bliss, once the boys (and gals) came home again.
To its credit, the film pulls no punches about the anti-Semitism encountered by most of the Jewish men and women in the service. Their tormentors wore the same uniform. Many had never met a Jew before but had imbibed the stereotype of the ugly Jew with their mother’s milk.
Carl Reiner’s barracks mates couldn’t believe that the future comedian, director and writer was Jewish because “everyone” knew that Jews were draft dodgers.
Alan Moskin’s fellow soldiers frequently addressed him as “kike” or “Nigger lover,” while other Jewish soldiers were clearly worried when one of their number, Isaac Ashkenazi, insisted on praying aloud in Hebrew three or four times a day.
During this reporter’s basic training in Camp Blanding, Fla., a fellow GI asked what church I belonged to. When I said “Jewish” his eyes widened in disbelief because I didn’t have a crooked nose, didn’t lend money at exorbitant interest rates and didn’t have horns growing out of my forehead.
Finally convinced, my buddy put a hand on my shoulder and, delivering his highest compliment, said, “Tom, you’re a WHITE Jew.”
Obviously, not all gentile GIs disliked Jews, and some stood up for them when it counted. One was Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds from Knoxville, Tenn., who had been taken as a prisoner of war, along with 1,292 other U.S. soldiers, during the war’s last German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge.
As the highest-raking noncommissioned officer among the POWs, Edmonds was ordered by the German commander of the camp, a Major Siegmann, to have all the Jewish soldiers fall out in formation the next morning.
Edmonds realized what fate awaited the 200 Jewish POWs and, instead of separating them, had all 1,292 U.S. soldiers line up in front of their barracks. The enraged Major Siegmann turned to Edmonds and insisted, “They can’t all be Jews,” to which Edmonds responded, “We are all Jews.”
At this, Siegmann pointed his pistol at Edmonds’ forehead, but the American calmly informed the German officer that “according to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our names, rank and serial numbers. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and when we win this war, you will be tried for war crimes.”
At this, Siegmann turned around and left. After the war, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, inducted Edmonds into the ranks of its Righteous Among the Nations.
In general, anti-Semitism was not the top concern of most Jewish GIs. Comedian-writer-composer Mel Brooks, wearing the uniform he sported as Cpl. Melvin Kaminsky, asked an interviewer after finishing off his first cheeseburger, “Why did the Jews deny me this all my life?”
Long-time producer Lisa Ades, in a phone interview, cited two major influences in tackling “GI Jews.”
“I saw ‘Night and Fog,’ the French documentary on Nazi concentration camps, when I was a child in Hebrew school, and it deeply affected my sense of Judaism,” Ades said. A more contemporary factor was her marriage to Prof. James E. Young, a distinguished American Holocaust scholar.
Observing that a major portion of the Jewish GIs were children of immigrants, Ades said the documentary had special relevance today, a time when anti-immigrant voices are being raised in the United States.
Despite considerable production and publicity assistance by WNET, the PBS flagship station in New York, it took Ades almost five years to obtain sufficient financing to make the film. Major grants came from the National Endowments for the Humanities, the Corp. for Public Broadcasting and the Righteous Persons Foundation.
Despite the documentary’s eyewitness interviews and extensive research, it appears its creators could not resist romanticizing and over-simplifying the impact the war had on its participants.
“After years of battle, these pioneering servicemen and women emerged transformed: more profoundly American, more deeply Jewish, and determined to fight for equality and tolerance at home” — states the film’s press release, a statement that appears to be more retroactive hope than reality.
This is not the time and space for a deep analysis of what makes men go to war (though draftees had little choice in the matter) and the impact of their experiences. But most veterans can probably vouch that, having spent up to five years in the service, they were fully focused on mundane goals such as getting an education, starting a family and paying for a home.
It is also quite doubtful that their wartime experiences motivated Jewish vets to participate in the civil rights struggles or become markedly more religious.
Nor did the war spell the end of anti-Semitism in America or full acceptance of Jews as equal citizens. That momentous change was arguably due to other factors — the civil rights struggle and Israel’s battlefield victories that radically changed the world’s perception of Jews as fighters.
Indeed, as Ades said, “This film is not the end of the story.”
“GI Jews” airs on KOCE at 10 p.m. April 11 and at 1 p.m. April 15. The documentary can also be viewed online at www.pbs.org/gijews for four weeks, beginning April 12.