GI JEWS: JEWISH AMERICANS IN WORLD WAR II tells the profound and unique story of the 550,000 Jewish men and women who served in World War II. Through the eyes of the servicemen and women, the film brings to life the little-known story of Jews in World War II – as active participants in the fight against Hitler, bigotry and intolerance. GI JEWS is Directed and Produced by Lisa Ades, Produced by Amanda Bonavita, and Written by Maia Harris.
Jewish men served in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines, in every theater of war. 10,000 Jewish women volunteered as WACs, WAVES and WASPs, and as nurses overseas, defying their parents’ warning that the military was “no life for a nice Jewish girl.”
These men and women were religious and secular, Zionists, socialists, even pacifists. Some had been in America for generations; others were recent immigrants, with close family members left behind in Hitler’s Europe. Their extraordinary experiences are at the heart of the film, telling the story of World War II from a uniquely Jewish perspective.
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. New York City mayor Ed Koch, who served in the infantry, wrote later, “it wasn’t only Hitler, it was here in America.”
Speaking on-camera are “the greatest generation” of Jewish Americans, both famous and unknown. 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 their homeland to fight as American soldiers. Ellan Levitsky nursed the wounded after D-Day, and Lt. Lester Tanner was saved by his Protestant commanding officer in a Nazi POW camp.
The film also features the stories of Jewish veterans now deceased, 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 soldiers, including Alan Moskin and Eliot Herman, were among the first to reach the concentration camps liberated by American troops. Many spoke Yiddish, so they could offer the survivors their first words of solace and comfort. In archival footage, we watch Rabbi Chaplain David Max Eichhorn arrive at Dachau, praise the survivors for their bravery and heroism, and lead them in a moving moment of prayer.
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.
In the end, the story of the Jewish GIs is the story of becoming American – the story of immigrants who earned their citizenship by shedding blood, and fought for democracy and tolerance abroad and at home.