My documentary "Bagels Over Berlin" celebrates Jewish veterans of the United States Army Air Corps who flew bombing missions against our enemies in World War II. Many Jews fought in the war and in the film, several veterans of the air war look back 75 years to describe their life-altering experiences.
The project began as an idea following the night my wife's uncle, Donald Katz, told us stories at the dinner table about his experience flying missions as a nose gunner aboard a B-24 bomber. We were fascinated by his description of a dangerous bombing raid over the Ploesti oil fields in eastern Romania. For 75 years neither his wife nor his children had ever heard him talk about the war - Donald came home at the end of the war, hung up his uniform and enrolled at Ohio State University. Shortly after I decided to begin work on a film celebrating WWII Air Corps veterans. They had much to tell and it had rarely been been discussed publicly. I am pleased that Donald lived to see the premiere of the film (in which he appears) though he died shortly thereafter at age of 95.
The first veteran I reached was Donald's childhood friend Irwin Stovroff, who shared with me a riveting story about his experience as a POW. Irwin was shot down on his 35th and what was to be his final mission before qualifying to go home. Instead, he became a prisoner of war in Germany for the balance of the war. He was the first interview and over time, word of the project spread and I began to find Air Corps veterans living in my home base in South Florida, was well in Phoenix, Philadelphia, New York City and my hometown of Buffalo. Many hours of interviews were amassed over a three year period with the accumulated many air miles! Of all the contacts I made, only one veteran turned down my invitation to speak about his experience during the war. He became emotional as we spoke and tearfully explaining that the horror of the war was still too raw an emotion even after all the years since the war.
I was fortunate to find nonagenarians who were lucid, eloquent and had very good recall. We avoided dwelling too much on the tragedy of war and focused instead on the comradeship, stories of survival, discrimination that some experienced and even some of the war's 'lighter' moments that taken together contribute to an authentic story of men at war.
Typical conversations did include facing the prospect of death. What was it like knowing they could be shot out of the sky with the possibility of falling 20,000 feet to their death? Could they parachute safely from a burning aircraft before it exploded - only to be pitch-forked by local farmers whose homes and livelihoods had just been destroyed. I veteran told me a story (not in the film) of a B-17 tail gunner who saw the tail section of a bomber floating past him as it fell toward earth. It had been blown from the fuselage of a bomber hit by shrapnel and inside was a tail gunner who was trapped in his seat - unable to escape his fate. The eyes of the two tail gunners locked for a brief moment as they passed close by. Instinctively they exchanged salutes. That moment was seared forever in the survivor's mind, including the serene expression on the face of the doomed tail-gunner. An enemy who had served his country until he could do no more.
My focus was originally limited to the heroics of the air war, not about Jewish airmen. However, I learned that Jews surprisingly comprised a larger percentage of the armed forces in WWII than their share of the population. Despite a history of exclusion and discrimination, Jews responded to the Japanese sneak attack on their homeland (and Germany's declaration of war one week later) with a determination to fight for the country they loved. The offspring of immigrants who had mostly arrived within the prior generation, Jews served in the US military in impressively large numbers. The great percentage of Jews who volunteered chose the Air Corps. — which was the branch of service with the highest mortality rate of all the services during the war - more than the navy and marines combined. I then decided to narrow the film's focus to stories of the Jews who fought for America in WW II.
Between 2015 - 2018 I filmed more than 30 interviews followed by extensive editing and research. To minimize the growing costs of production, I did much of the the work on the film myself - camera, audio, research, writing, editing and narration. Several others gave their time and talent and for that I am grateful. Organizations such as veterans groups and military museums allowed me to use their historical footage, some requiring a fee. If I couldn't find a free image to illustrate a point in the film I paid license fees for use of the material. I did what was necessary.
I have been thrilled by the reception the film has received from audiences. It has been seen at film festivals, community centers, commercial theaters, synagogues, and residential communities. The film was also broadcast on PBS in the Buffalo and Toronto markets, where the station manager informed me that 'Bagels Over Berlin' was the highest rated program on TV in its time slot. My most satisfying experiences have been accompanying the vets from the film to the many screenings where, surrounded by their families, they received overwhelming love, appreciation and applause from the audiences in packed full theaters and auditoriums. The vets were proud to contribute their personal stories and I am particularly pleased that the film was completed in time for all the participants to experience the tremendous reception it (and they) have received. They shared their war stories for future generations of Jewish (and all) Americans who will remember them not only as proud veterans but also as the young and patriotic soldiers they were who fought to save our democracy. Sadly, most of the men have now passed away. I will never forget them - American heroes, wonderful men and my friends. They have enriched my life just to know them.
Click on the 'Photos' tab above to see their pictures from their youth and taken at the first screening.
Following is an excerpt of an email I received from an audience member at the screening in Boone, NC.
Reproduced with permission:
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. ....... 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...........Our overflow audience loved every minute of the film and the discussion as well.
Alan Feinberg 5/19/2021