"Bagels Over Berlin" is a documentary film that celebrates 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 in 2013 when my wife's then 90 year-old uncle Donald came to our home for dinner and began to tell us stories about his service as a nose gunner aboard a B-24 bomber during the war. We were in total silence as he described his part in a bombing raid over the Ploesti oil fields in eastern Romania. In the intervening 70 years, his wife nor his children had never heard him describe his service during the war; over the years no-one had asked him to revisit the horrors he experienced. He simply returned home at the conclusion of the war, hung up his uniform and enrolled at Ohio State University - where he met his future wife. Now, in the twilight of his time on earth, Donald finally 'opened up' about his time in the Air corps and shared his experiences and exploits. Donald died at the end of 2018 at the age of 95.
I made a video DVD of Donald for the benefit of his grandchildren and he 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 in my mind as I had stumbled upon all the necessary elements of a good historical documentary - 'a good story, a cool sounding title and access to several of the living 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 in Pennsylvania, Arizona, New York and my hometown of Buffalo. I amassed many hours of interviews as I flew around the country. Only one veteran turned down my invitation to appear in the film, explaining that the war was still too raw an emotion for him to speak about even after all these years.
I was careful about whom I selected 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 in the film. Instead, I determined to focus on danger, comradeship, survival and 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. I cannot forget one story of a tail gunner aboard a B-17 who was astonished when the tail section of a bomber above - torn from its fuselage - fell earthward and passed 50 feet from his position. The doomed tail gunner was trapped in his compartment, unable to escape his fate. Their eyes met for a brief moment while they instinctively exchanged salutes. An image seared forever into the memory of the survivor was the face of the doomed tail-gunner - maintaining a serene expression knowing he had served his country til the last and aware his life was about to end.
My focus was originally the air war, not specifically about its Jewish airmen. However, I had a number of Jewish flyers on film and after a discussion with my brother, I began to realize that concentrating on the stories of Jewish American airmen appealed to me especially once 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 that suffered 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 scene on opening night.
This is a copy of an email I was sent from an audience member at one of the first screenings (in Boone, NC). She wrote to a friend to encourage her to see the movie and thought I would like to read its contents. The letter gave me the satisfaction of knowing that I had achieved all my goals in producing the film.
Reproduce 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. 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 11/3/19