"Bagels Over Berlin" is a new documentary film that honors Jewish veterans of the United States Army Air Corps who fought in World War II, as told by the men who served.
Five years ago, my wife's then 90 year-old uncle Donald Katz (nose gunner in a B-24 bomber based in Italy during World War II) came to our home for dinner where he told us stories of his service in the Air Corps and the bombing the Ploesti oil fields in eastern Romania. We were spellbound as we listened to his experiences. Even his children had never heard these stories nor had his wife, who had never wanted to ask him to talk about the horrors of war. When Donald returned home in 1945 - like most veterans - he hung up his uniform and enrolled in college (Ohio State) while others went to work. In what is probably his last decade, Donald was now willing to share his wartime experiences while he could still do it in his own voice.
I recorded video of some of Donald's stories for the benefit of his grandchildren and he then insisted I reach out to his childhood friend Irwin Stovroff who lived nearby. He, too, was a veteran of the Air Corps and survived a POW experience in Germany after being shot down on his 35th and what would have been his final mission before qualifying to go home. Following subsequent interviews the idea of producing a documentary began to percolate since I had now stumbled upon all the necessary elements of a documentary - 'a good story, a cool sounding title and access to several of the participants.' I knew I could find 'B-roll,' the fourth component, to illustrate the spoken word with authentic photos and movie footage. I had referrals to Air Corps veterans living in South Florida to Pennsylvania, Arizona, New York City and also to my original hometown in Buffalo. Flying around the country I amassed many hours of interviews. 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 his experiences in the war, even after 75 years.
I was careful about whom I chose for the project - picking only nonagenarians who were lucid and eloquent. Looking for men with sharp memories and who still maintained a sense of humor - I hoped to avoid dwelling on sadness and loss but, instead, to focus on danger, survival and any of the war's lighter moments they might recall.
They described what it was like knowing they could be shot out of the sky at any moment and fall 30,000 feet to their death. A tail gunner described to me how he had witnessed a fellow tail gunner from another plane falling earthward to certain death - passing only 50 feet away from each other. The doomed airman was trapped in his compartment that had been torn from the fuselage of a doomed B-17 flying above. With no more than a minute until impact and still strapped in his seat, the eyes of the two men met and they exchanged salutes. The serene expression of the doomed tail-gunner who knew his life about to end, was seared forever into the memory of the survivor.
My focus had been on the air war, not specifically about its Jewish participants. Then, in a discussion with my brother I realized that during the 1930's, when these boys were growing up - Jews in America were mostly regarded as poor, recent immigrants whose loyalty to America was often doubted. Telling the story of Jewish American war heroes who played a major role in winning the war appealed to me. 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 and I found no ‘culture of avoidance’ of military service by Jewish men which was in sharp contrast to the prevailing stereotype. A large percentage of the Jews chose the Air Corps— the branch of service with the highest casualty rate in the war.
Between 2014 - 2017 I filmed more than 30 interviews with Jewish veterans of the war, followed by many months of editing. To maintain affordability I was forced to do 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 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 'out of sight' but necessary expenditures.
I have been thrilled by the wonderful reception the film has received from audiences around the country where it has screened at film festivals, Jewish community centers, commercial theaters, synagogues, and residential communities. The film was also broadcast by PBS in several markets. One of the most memorable experiences has been observing the men in the film surrounded by their families and friends while attending the screenings and receiving the love and overwhelming appreciation of the audience. These 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 and as they were as young, patriotic men who fought to save our democracy. Not unexpectedly, but sadly, some of the men have passed away since the 'Premiere' of the film in 2017, including Uncle Donald. I will never forget any of them.
Following is an unsolicited email I received from audience member Linda Lentin who attended a screening in Boone, NC. She was encouraging a friend to see the documentary. I received permission to reproduce the letter:
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 3/24/19