"Bagels Over Berlin" is a new documentary film that honors the Jewish veterans of the United States Army Air Corps during World War II, as told by the men who volunteered for this dangerous duty.
This idea for the project began when my wife's then 90 year-old uncle Donald Katz (who served as a nose gunner in a B-24 bomber based in Italy during World War II) came to our home for dinner. He began to describe his service in the Air Corps bombing the Ploesti oil fields in eastern Romania. We were spellbound listening to the descriptions of his missions during the war. What made the occasion
all the more poignant was that, like so many of his fellow veterans, his own children had never heard these stories nor had his wife, who never asked. The attitude among returning veterans was once they arrived home, the war was behind them - they hung up their uniforms and returned to school or went to work. Now, in what may be his last decade, he is willing to share those wartime experiences which would otherwise soon be lost forever.
Donald suggested I also reach out to his childhood friend Irwin Stovroff who was also a veteran of the Air Corps and who survived a POW experience in Germany. The idea of producing a film began to percolate in my mind since I had just stumbled upon the necessary elements of a worthwhile documentary - 'a good story, a cool sounding title and access to participants.' (Steve Audette, ACE). I also knew where I could find appropriate 'B-roll,' the fourth component for producing a documentary. I searched for and interviewed as many veterans of the U.S. Army Air Corps as I could find - from my home base in south Florida to Pennsylvania, Arizona, New York City and also to my original hometown in Buffalo, NY. I asked each of them about their contributions to the air war, starting at the beginning when patriotic fervor swept the country and the recruiting stations were swamped following Japan's surprise attack. We spoke about their recollections growing up in the 1930's and continuing through the war and then on to their lives after returning home. I was very careful about whom I chose for the project - being sure to pick nonagenarians who were lucid and eloquent story tellers. I looked for men with sharp memories and it helped if they had maintained a sense of humor about their experiences. I did not want to concentrate on the sadness of loss but instead focus on life, survival and the war's victorious conclusion.
They described what it was like carry out their missions knowing their bomber could be shot out of the sky and fall 20,000 feet or more to their death. I will not forget one description of a tail gunner trapped in his compartment which had been torn from the fuselage of a damaged B-17 bomber. He was floating earthward, still strapped to his seat - helplessly passing no more than 50 feet from the tail gun position of the vet describing the scene. They exchanged a momentary glance and a salute. The serene expression of the doomed comrade has been seared into memory for over 70 years. After one brief moment the doomed flier fell from view.
Early in the process I uploaded raw footage to get an opinion from my brother Gary, a history buff, who resides in Arizona. He called me to say that the clips I sent were fascinating and that I was 'on to something.' Then he asked if I realized that all the men in the interviews I had sent seemed to be Jews? I replied that I was not doing a film about Jews - it was about the war! I explained what most likely was happening is that it began with Uncle Donald who introduced me to a close childhood Jewish friend — and so on, one to the next. I told my brother that I had not given religion any thought.
The next day, Gary called me:
“Forget what I said yesterday. Don’t change a thing! In the 1920's and 30's Jews in America were often seen as shopkeepers and peddlers — not as fighters. You have stories of Jewish American war heroes! That's the story you should tell."
Between 2014 - 2017 I filmed more than 30 interviews with Jewish veterans of the war, followed by six months of editing. To keep a down the cost, I did much of the the work on the film myself - camera, audio, research, writing, editing and narration. To be sure, several other people gave their time and talent to the production, and organizations such as veterans groups, museums and fim archives allowed use of their historical footage. These contributions are acknowledged in the final credits of the film.
Despite the history of exclusion and discrimination in the 1920's and 1930's - Jews responded to the Japanese sneak attack on their homeland with an overwhelming determination to fight for the country they loved. They served in impressively large numbers and I found no ‘culture of avoidance’ of military service by Jewish men - in sharp contrast to the prevailing stereotype. Jews actually comprised a larger percentage of the armed forces than their share of the population. Also, a high percentage of the Jews who fought in the war chose the Air Corps—the branch of service with the highest casualty rate.
I have been thrilled by the enthusiastic reception the film has received from audiences around the country where it has screened at film festivals, community centers, commercial theaters and now on regional broadcasts on PBS. It has been very rewarding to see the men in the film bring their families and friends to the screenings where they enjoy the love and appreciation shown to the them by the audience. The vets were proud to have the opportunity to contribute their personal stories and I am happy that the film was completed in time for all the participants to see the final product and to experience the tremendous reception it has received. They shared their war stories for future generations who will remember them both as they are now from the film and as they were as young, patriotic and brave Jewish men who fought for liberty and freedom from oppression. Not unexpectedly, but sadly, some of the men have passed away since the 'Premiere' of the film (pictured above). I will never forget them.
Following is an unsolicited email I received from an audience member in Boone, NC who is encouraging a friend to see the movie when it came to her city. She copied me and I asked for and received permission to reproduce the letter in this space:
Yesterday I was treated to a moving and occasionally humorous documentary that was filmed in Florida but [partially] edited at Appalachian State University here in Boone. The film maker Alan Feinberg was in attendance as was one of the cast members, a 90 year old WW II Jewish Airman. The film features 18 Jewish men who flew bombing mission after mission in the European theater of the war. One of them was a POW in Germany and each one has a riveting story to tell. The peril, the pathos, the comradery, the anti-Semitism they faced, the funny incidents they remember merge to make a compelling, heart-stopping and often heart-warming film. All of these men are in their 90’s and Alan wanted to capture these memories NOW. They all are articulate and tell the stories so very well. Hannah dear, I remember those war days when people said the Jews would never fight for their country-well this film refutes that idea beautifully! The film is titled Bagels Over Berlin …and the reason for the title is revealed in the film. The film runs about an hour and ten minutes-and perhaps Alan, the film-maker, would come down from Palm Beach County for Q&A as he did here yesterday. He was very engaging and accessible. Our overflow audience loved every minute of the film and the discussion as well.Linda Lentin
Alan Feinberg 7/8/18