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 when my wife's uncle Donald Katz told us stories over dinner about his experience as a nose gunner on a B-24 bomber during the war. We listened in total silence as he described a bombing raid over the Ploesti oil fields in eastern Romania. Over the past 75 years since the war, neither his wife nor his children had ever heard him talk about his war experience - Donald simply returned home at the end of the war with little fanfare, hung up his uniform and enrolled at Ohio State University - where he met his future wife. That night, over dinner, Donald 'opened up' about his time in the Air corps and I decided to make a film about WWII Air Corps veterans. Donald lived to see the final product though he died in 2018 at the age of 95.
When I began planning the film Donald told me to reach out to his childhood friend Irwin Stovroff who had a powerful story to share about his experience as a POW. (Irwin was shot down on his 35th mission - the last mission that would have qualified him to go home.) I received many other 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 accumulated lots of air miles flying to the interviews. Only one veteran turned down my invitation to appear in the film, tearfully explaining that the horror of the war was still too raw an emotion for him to speak about even after 75 years.
I wanted nonagenarians for the film who were lucid, eloquent and had good recall. I wanted to avoid dwelling on sadness and loss in the film and instead focus on the danger they faced, comradeship, survival and even some of the war's 'lighter' moments they might recall so as to present a well-rounded and authentic 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 - or landing safely only to be pitch-forked by local farmers whose families, homes and livelihoods had just been destroyed. One story I recall was of a B-17 tail gunner who was shocked when he saw the tail section floating down from a bomber flying above. It had been blown of its fuselage and passed 50 feet away on its way down to earth. An enemy tail gunner was trapped in the falling part - unable to escape his certain fate. The eyes of the two tail gunners locked for a brief moment as they passed each other. They instinctively exchanged salutes. This was the image seared forever in the memory of the survivor, including the serene expression on the face of the falling tail-gunner. An enemy who had served his country until he could do no more.
My focus was originally limited to the air war, not Jewish airmen. However, 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 their formative years - Jews responded to the Japanese sneak attack on their homeland with an overwhelming determination to fight for the country they loved. Children of immigrants, they served the US military in impressively large numbers. A large percentage of Jews volunteered for the Air Corps— the branch of service with the highest mortality rate in the war. I quickly narrowed my focus for the film to the Jews in WW II.
Between 2015 - 2018 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 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 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 satisfying experiences have been accompanying the vets to the many screenings where, surrounded by their families, they received overwhelming love, appreciation and applause the 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 has 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, many of the men, my heroes, have passed away. I will never forget them - American heroes, wonderful men and my friends. They have enriched my life just to be their friends.
Click on the 'Photos' tab above to see pictures 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 11/16/20