"Bagels Over Berlin" is a documentary film that focuses on the Jewish veterans of the United States Army Air Corps who fought in World War II, with their stories told by the men themselves.
The project began five years ago when my wife's 90 year-old uncle Donald Katz (who served as a nose gunner on a B-24 bomber) came to our home for dinner and began to tell us stories about his service in the Air Corps and the bombing raid over the Ploesti oil fields in eastern Romania. We sat in total silence as he spoke about the war. His children had never heard him describe his service nor had his wife; over the years no-one had asked him to revisit the horrors he experienced. He quietly returned home at the conclusion of the war, hung up his uniform and enrolled at Ohio State University. Now, in what were his last years on earth, Donald 'opened up' about his service and shared his wartime experiences. He died at the end of 2018 at the age of 95.
I recorded video of Donald for the benefit of his grandchildren and he strongly suggested I reach out to his childhood friend Irwin Stovroff who had a powerful POW story to share. (Irwin was shot down on his 35th mission - the final mission that would have qualified him to go home.) The idea of producing a documentary began to percolate since I had now stumbled upon all the necessary elements of a good historical documentary - 'a good story, a cool sounding title and access to several of the participants.' I knew I could find the necessary 'B-roll' to illustrate the spoken word with authentic photos and movie footage. For the interviews I received referrals to Air Corps veterans living in my home base in South Florida as well as Pennsylvania, Arizona, New York and my old hometown of Buffalo. I amassed many hours of interviews as I flew around the country. Only one veteran turned down a request to appear in the film, explaining that it was still too raw an emotion for him to speak about even after 75 years.
I was careful about whom I accepted for the project - wanting only nonagenarians who were both lucid and eloquent. I was looking for men with sharp minds and who maintained a sense of humor as I was trying to avoid dwelling on sadness and loss. Instead, my goal was to focus on danger, comradeship, survival but also any of the war's 'lighter' moments they might recall so as to present a well-rounded story of brave men at war.
They described what it was like knowing they could be shot out of the sky at any moment with a resultant fall of 30,000 feet to their death. An example I was told that I cannot forget was of a tail gunner in a B-17 who was astonished when he saw the tail section of another bomber falling earthward - passing within 50 feet from his position. The doomed tail gunner was trapped in his compartment which had been torn from his B-17 flying above. Unable to escape his fate, the eyes of the two men met for a brief moment while they instinctively exchanged salutes. An image seared forever into the memory of the survivor was of the doomed tail-gunner maintaining a serene expression even knowing his life was about to end.
My focus was originally for the film was on the air war, not specifically about Jewish participants. However, I had a number of Jewish flyers on film and after a discussion with my brother, I began to realize that during the 1930's, when these boys were growing up - Jews in America were regarded as mostly poor, recent immigrants whose loyalty to America in a European war was questioned. Concentrating on the stories of Jewish American war heroes (Donald, Irwin and many of their wartime buddies were Jewish) appealed to me especially after I learned that Jews comprised a larger percentage of the armed forces in WWII than their share of the population. Despite a 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; I found no ‘culture of avoidance’ of military service by Jewish men which was in sharp contrast to the prevailing stereotype. Furthermore, a high percentage of Jews who served had volunteered for the Air Corps— the branch of service known for experiencing the highest mortality rate of all the services in the war.
Between 2014 - 2017 I filmed more than 30 interviews with Jewish veterans of the war, followed by extensive editing. To control the mounting costs 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 organizations such as veterans groups and military museums allowed me to use their historical footage. If I couldn't find a particular image or scene for the film, I paid to acquire it from film archives. The costs were high but I considered them to be necessary.
I have been thrilled by the wonderful reception the film has received from audiences around the country where it has screened at film festivals, community centers, commercial theaters, synagogues, and residential communities. The film was also broadcast by PBS in the Buffalo and Toronto markets. One of my most memorable and satisfying experiences has been accompanying the men, surrounded by their families and friends, receiving the love and overwhelming appreciation of audiences at screenings. 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 has received. They shared their war stories for future generations who will remember them not only as proud veterans but also as the young and loyal men they were who fought to save our democracy. Not surprisingly but sadly, many of the men have by now passed away since the first screening of the film. I will never forget any of them - American heroes all, wonderful men and my friends. Click on the 'Photos' tab above to see pictures of the opening night.
The following is a copy of an email from an audience member at one of the first screenings (in Boone, NC). She was writing to a friend to encourage her to see the movie and thought I would like to read it. The letter gave me tremendous satisfaction that I had achieved my goals in producing the film.
I received permission to reproduce the letter here:
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.
Alan Feinberg 9/11/19