Saratoga Jewish Community Arts, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Northeastern NY, presents a discussion of the documentary GI Jews: Jewish Americans in WWII (directed by Lisa Ades and released on PBS in 2018) in honor of Veterans Day and in remembrance of Kristalnacht. This documentary is the first to tell the profound and unique story of the 550,000 Jewish men and women who served in World War II as active participants in the fight against Hitler, bigotry, and intolerance.
For many U.S. soldiers in basic training, it was the first time they met someone who was Jewish, for at the time about half of all Jews lived in New York City. For Jewish GIs, the experience was stinging as they worked to counter stereotypes and prove themselves to be just as American as anyone else. As the film GI Jews moves on, it becomes clear that serving in the armed forces during the second world war could be considered an equalizer, a piece of history that ultimately served to integrate the Jewish population into mainstream American society.
Jewish Americans fought on two fronts: for America and for Jews worldwide. Like all Americans, they fought against fascism but they also fought a more personal fight – to save their brethren in Europe. In the midst of it all, they battled anti-Semitism within the ranks of the U.S. military – facing slurs and violence from their fellow servicemen. This film tells the story of WWII from a uniquely Jewish perspective. It is a story of immigrants who had close family remaining behind in Hitler’s Europe, and who earned their American citizenship by shedding blood.
The film also explores other facets of the soldiers’ experiences, such as those who fought in the Pacific theater, the plight of Jewish POWs in both theaters, and what it was like to come home from such a harrowing experience.
Writer/directors Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner tell stories of being Jewish in training with humor and pathos. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and artist Si Lewen escaped Nazi Germany as teenagers, then returned to fight as American soldiers. Ellen Levitsky nursed the wounded after D-Day and Lt. Lester Tanner was saved by his Protestant commanding officer in a Nazi POW camp. We hear the stories of other Jewish veterans, including baseball star Hank Greenberg, and writers Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Leon Uris, and Joseph Heller, who transformed their war experiences into powerful literature. Jewish servicemen and women were changed forever by their military service and their encounter with Hitler’s atrocities. Returning home, they continued to fight for the values for which they had risked their lives – for religious freedom and civil rights in America.
“The film is sadly relevant today,” says SJCA Coordinator Phyllis Wang. “With the rise of alt-right xenophobia and anti-immigrant animus in the U.S. and around the world, these stories of the children of Jewish immigrants fighting anti-Semitism at home in order to fight it abroad – and thereby becoming more American and Jewish in the process – resonates profoundly.” Director Lisa Ades says, “Over the course of making GI Jews, I have learned from this ‘greatest generation’ of American men and women what it means to be both Jewish and American – and that the fight again nativist intolerance is never really over.”