GI Jews. Unlike GI Joes, it’s not a term commonly used when speaking about members of the military. But it is the attention-grabbing title of a new feature-length documentary focusing on the more than 550,000 American Jews – men and women – who served their country during World War II.
Among those veterans are prominent citizens including comedy legends Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, authors Norman Mailer and J.D. Salinger and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
But most of the little-known stories told in the 90-minute documentary, set to air nationwide on PBS stations on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, are those of everyday soldiers, people whose war experiences not only transformed their futures but shaped American culture by busting open ethnic stereotypes.
“GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II,” was produced and directed by award-winning documentarian Lisa Ades (“Miss America,” “New York,” “The Donner Party”) and is based on a 2004 book by Deborah Dash Moore, who acted as a consulting producer.
Although they were from all walks of life and social strata, what many of the GI Jews had in common was the prejudice and discrimination they faced in all branches of the service, ironically, as they were going overseas to fight fascism, Hitler, anti-Semitism, bigotry and intolerance.
Especially poignant are the stories of immigrants fighting for their new country of America – those who had as recently as a decade before gotten out of Germany and Eastern Europe as Hitler’s influence raged across the territory, as well as first-generation Americans whose parents had fled those countries because of anti-Semitism in previous decades.
The documentary also tells how anti-Semitism was rampant in America in the years leading up to the war, and how many of the Jewish military members faced it head-on, beginning in basic training.
Yet many of the stories have what could be considered happy endings, with individuals overcoming the hatred and establishing a strong camaraderie with their war-time mates.
Reiner, the well-respected writer, producer, director and actor is among those who faced Jewish slurs as a young man growing up in the Bronx in the 1920s and 1930s.
Speaking over the phone this week about some of his experiences, Reiner talked about being trained as an Army radio operator and then as a French translator before he was “drafted” into another type of service. In a confluence of fortuitous circumstances while he was stationed in Hawaii, he joined an entertainment unit headed by Maj. Maurice Evans that traveled across the Pacific theater entertaining troops for a full year, right up until the very end of the war.
“I’m the star of a show—and this is like a bad movie,” Reiner recalled. “On the final day of the war when Japan has capitulated, we were landing on Iwo Jima, and there were the guys I trained with for a year before I left with the entertainment unit. On V-J Day, I was playing for my old buddies, and it was one of the greatest and most extraordinary things in my life.”
In the first part of his tour of duty, Reiner faced anti-Semitism in his own barracks after he made a connection with a black serviceman. He was questioned by a soldier from the South about talking to the man, whom he referred to by a racial slur. Reiner got into a game of one-upmanship with the racist soldier, eliciting laughs from others in the barracks. The other soldier asked if he wanted to take it outside.
“He’s very angry. He said, ‘You a Jew?’ I said, ‘Yes, why do you ask?’ ‘Do you know a Goldfarb, he’s in New Orleans, I thought all Jews knew each other,’ he asked. I said no. That was the end of it,” Reiner said.
Reiner, who went on to create “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and team with fellow WWII veteran Brooks for “The 2000 Year Old Man,” among many other projects, also discussed his brother Charles, who was awarded the Medal of Honor and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Charles Reiner met with President Bill Clinton and both cried when Reiner related some of his war experiences, including being a liberator at the death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau.
“He saw bodies piled up in the forest before they were torched, but he never wanted to talk about it,” said Reiner, who credits his brother with getting him started in show business by alerting him to an ad for free acting classes sponsored by the WPA in the 1930s.
The 96-year-old Reiner said he’s currently writing two books, one on the history of radio and the other on the history of television, following two recently published tomes on film.
Ades began production on “GI Jews” in 2013 and interviewed more than 30 veterans for the film. Sadly, four of them have since passed away. We spoke with her by phone about the impact of these war stories being brought to life and their resonance today.
TVWeek: What initially inspired you to do this film?
Lisa Ades: I was working on another project and interviewed some other veterans and found their stories to be incredibly surprising and moving. Particularly, the anti-Semitism they faced while they were preparing to go overseas to fight anti-Semitism was astonishing. Deborah Dash Moore wrote the  book from which I borrowed the title, “GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation,” inspired by her own father’s service. Even though various aspects of the Jewish American experience have been made into films, with numerus films about the Holocaust, no one had made a documentary like this for public TV.
I was interested in telling stories of Americans fighting for their nation, their patriotism, and rescuing brethren overseas who were being annihilated and what was it like to be a Jew serving in the war in Europe where Jews were being persecuted, although they didn’t know about the death camps at the time.
To make this film, time was of the essence as it couldn’t be made five years from now. We started contacted people, like Bea Cohen, who was a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) serving in England. She was 104 when I interviewed her, and died the next year. She was a badass. Remember, the women were enlisted, not drafted, and she said she wanted to pay back the country who had taken her family in as Romanian immigrants. That’s a big part of the story, kids who were children of immigrants – especially now with anti-Immigration sentiments, I think it’s important to know that these people wanted to fight for their country There were stereotypes about Jews that they were weak or selfish or draft dodgers shirking responsibility. The sheer number of those who served showed that wasn’t the case.
TVWeek: Most of the people you interviewed seem incredibly vibrant, and radiated strength. What impressed you the most about these veterans?
Ades: I think the lasting pride they feel–as they well should feel having served their country. It’s not something that we know and see today, that level of patriotism and how united they were, the camaraderie they felt. In basic training, their differences evolved into depending on each other for their lives. That was nice to see that shift. I loved the stories like that of Buck Horowitz, the so-called fighting Jew who was killed in action. Jewish Americans really became Americans in a way they didn’t before war. They were just another minority, and looked down on. There were quotas for the number of Jews allowed in housing, education and business. We had to be careful not to romanticize the post-war years too much, when things got better. It took a really long time for anti-Semitism to evaporate, and indeed it hasn’t totally. When we have white supremacists, suddenly this story becomes relevant. A lot of anti-immigrant sentiment and racism here and overseas resonates with this film, sadly. It’s interesting for our generation that we’re much closer to this war than you might imagine. I found a scrapbook that my uncle kept as a child of every battle the Allies won. Everybody was engaged and connected. This was the last war people enlisted in record numbers, and most felt it was a just war.
TVWeek: Tell us more about some of the stories from the people you spoke with and how you found some of them.
Ades: Some of the more famous vets, like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Henry Kissinger, of course I loved their stories, but there were other stories that dug deeper. Sam Kessler, who lives in Florida, was a GI Jew who fell out of a plane in Belgium with his parachute caught on a church steeple and was rescued by townspeople. He told us about a guy who was a bombardier and later became a rabbi, Sid Shanken. He wrote on the bombs, “Hitler, here’s a gift from the Jews.” He later marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. We just did a lot of research. I heard about Harold Baumgarten, a guy who went into D-Day with a Star of David painted on his jacket. That D-Day scene in some ways was the hardest in the film. I feel fortunate I got all these incredible storytellers. Often the chronology and battles of war dictate the narrative. But in this case we decided to start with the stories and then weave in the battles. This was a film about Jewish Americans, and it had to be Jewish in some way to warrant inclusion in the film. The intimacy of hearing their stories gives us a new perspective on what it was like to be a Jewish American during the war. I interviewed more than the 30 seen in the film but couldn’t fit all their stories in. I found many more willing to talk than I thought was possible. I thought it would be more difficult. In 2013, less than 6% of World War II veterans were alive, so we thought we had better boogie–and we did.
TVWeek: Talk about the lighter moments you encountered and the fact that some of your interviewees donned their old uniforms for the camera.
Ades: Mel Brooks tried on his own Army jacket in the middle of the interview. Carl and Mel were really important for this film, as it’s such an intense and heavy content. I sit with audiences at screenings and they roar with laughter about Mel’s cheeseburger story and Carl’s, “You know a Jew named Goldfarb?” They didn’t hear the next line. They’re really wonderful. These moments of levity are just as human as the dark and powerful stories we hear. I’m really grateful to have them. Mel and Carl were great in the basic training scene, which would have boring without them. They got to the heart of basic training but provided much-needed levity.
TVWeek: The story of the rabbi chaplains and their experiences is certainly one that is little-known.
Ades: It was a really a fascinating part of the research. It turned out a lot of guys didn’t have a rabbi in their branch and had never met a Jewish chaplain. Mark Zaid, he’s the grandson of one, was a really good interview. He was excited by his grandfather’s story, and he had unbelievable photos that had never been seen before. He told so many wonderful things about the chaplains. The chaplains ministered to any serviceman of any faith. One of our guys said most of the Shabbat services were led by a priest. The extraordinary footage of U.S. Army chaplain Rabbi David Max Eichhorn at Dachau was incredible. I start to cry every single time I watch the film. I can’t imagine what it was like to be a survivor and have this rabbi conducting services at the concentration camp and telling the story of the Maccabees to them. More than 300 rabbi chaplains served in World War II including at least one woman.
TVWeek: It’s incredibly powerful to learn how some soldiers had escaped Nazi-ism just a decade earlier and gone back to Europe to fight.
Ades: They had fled Europe and they came here for a better life. Then they’re going back to fight religious intolerance. Then there were the guys fleeing Nazi Germany and they went back to Germany as U.S. servicemen. A lot of people don’t know that part of story, and that was fascinating. German-speaking Si Lewen was thrilled to go back and “schnooker” the Nazis as a counterintelligence officer. We put in a snarky line about Germans that “little they did know the American they were surrendering to was a German Jew.”
When 1st infantryman Max Fuchs looks at the faces of GIs when he conducted a service as a cantor in Aachen, Germany (that was broadcast on NBC) and sees that nearly everyone had a family member who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their parents had fled persecution, it connects them to the war in a different way from others who didn’t have those ties. While as patriotic as anyone, they were fighting a second war, the war against the Jews. It’s the story of war against Jews that becomes a spine to the film and created our narrative arc.
TVWeek: It’s almost unimaginable what it would’ve been like for the soldiers who helped liberate the concentration camps.
Ades: We wanted to make clear Russians liberated the first camps. The first story we tell is about Ohrdruf, where Gen. Dwight D Eisenhower visited in May 1945 and saw the corpses piled up. I interviewed Eliot Hermon, as we knew we wanted to hear first-hand stories from the liberators, and what it was like being a Jew and entering those camps, yet we don’t want to give the impression that you had to be Jewish to be affected. Si Lewen was at Buchenwald and has to go home on hospital jet. That’s an extraordinarily moving and powerful story he tells. The epochal conundrum of journalism is “Do I want to make him relive the most horrific moment of his life?” He started to cry and I felt terrible and conflicted. At the end of the interview, I thanked him and he said, “I actually want to thank you. This was actually cathartic.” A lot of his art had its roots in the horrors of war. [Lewen passed away in 2016. An art museum in Bethlehem, Penn. bears his name.] As shown in the film, many liberators gave their rations to the survivors. Alan Moskin goes around speaking to schools about liberating the camps. He spoke Yiddish, one of the principal connections they had to survivors, and is proud and pleased they had a role. It must have been overwhelming.
TVWeek: What do you hope that audiences take away from viewing this documentary?
Ades: There’s a lot to learn about the history of Jews in America and the fact that anti-Semitism was so rampant. Jews served in large numbers during World War II and this is what their experiences were like. It’s a new lens through which you can see the war and it’s a different perspective, not better or worse than anyone else’s, but theirs. As a Jew, I am proud of them and want to tell their stories. Given the current political climate, I think it’s a good time.
(“GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II” premieres Wednesday, April 11, on PBS at 10 p.m. ET/PT on most stations. Check local listings. The film will be available to stream the following day on pbs.org/gijews and on PBS apps.)