The documentary film "Bagels Over Berlin" celebrates Jewish veterans of the United States Army Air Corps who fought in World War II, with stories told by the men themselves.
The project began in 2013 when my wife's then 90 year-old uncle Donald for the first time told us stories about his service as a nose gunner aboard a B-24 bomber during the war. We sat in total silence as he described a bombing raid over the Ploesti oil fields in eastern Romania. Over the past 70 years since the war, neither his wife nor his children had never heard him describe his experiences; no-one asked him to revisit the horrors he experienced. Donald 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. In the twilight of his years, 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 produced a DVD of Donald for the benefit of his grandchildren and afterwards, 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 - a final mission that would have qualified him to go home.) The thought of producing a documentary about the Air Corps began to percolate in my mind and I began a search for veterans of the air war. I received referrals to Air Corps veterans living in my home base in South Florida as well as in Phoenix, Philadelphia, New York City and my hometown of Buffalo. I amassed many hours of interviews and air miles flying around the country. Only one veteran with whom I spoke turned down my invitation to appear in the film, explaining that the horror of the war was still too raw an emotion for him to speak about even after 70 years.
I was careful about whom I selected for the project - wanting only nonagenarians who were both lucid, and eloquent and outspoken. I was looking for men with sharp minds and who maintained a sense of humor as I wanted 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 an authentic and well-rounded story of men at war.
They described what it was like knowing they could be shot out of the sky at any moment - facing the possibility of falling 30,000 feet to their death. I particularly recall a story told to me of a tail gunner aboard a B-17 bomber who was astonished when a tail section from a bomber above - having been ripped from its fuselage - began its descent and passed a mere 50 feet from his position. The doomed tail gunner was trapped in his compartment, unable to escape his fate. The eyes of the two airmen locked for a brief moment while they instinctively exchanged salutes. An image seared forever into the memory of the survivor was of the serene expression on the face of the doomed tail-gunner - a newly minted hero who had served his country well 'til he could do no more.
My focus was originally the air war, not specifically about Jewish airmen. However, I had a number of Jewish flyers on film and 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. Children of recent immigrants, they served the US military in impressively large numbers. More compelling was the fact that a high proportion of the Jews who served volunteered for the Air Corps— the branch of service with the highest mortality rate in the war. At that point, I knew what my focus for the film would be.
Between 2014 - 2017 I filmed more than 30 interviews followed by extensive editing and research. To control the ever increasing 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, some required a fee or donation while others did not. If I couldn't find a free image to illustrate a point 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 everywhere it has screened. It has been seen at film festivals, community centers, commercial theaters, synagogues, and residential communities. The film was also broadcast by PBS in the Buffalo and Toronto markets. My most memorable and satisfying experiences has been accompanying the men from the film who, surrounded by their families and friends, received overwhelming appreciation, applause and love from the audiences. 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. 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, wonderful men and my friends. Click on the 'Photos' tab above to see pictures of both the scene on opening night and other memorabilia they submitted for this site.
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 5/13/20