GI Jews Interviewee Biographies

POSTED ON February 14, 2018
Mel Brooks, then Melvin Kaminsky, at age 19, in France

Mel Brooks, then Melvin Kaminsky, at age 19, in France, c. 1944. Photo courtesy Brooksfilms Limited

Men and women who served in all branches of the military are among those who gave on-camera interviews for the documentary GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II. Learn more about their backgrounds, as well as those of historians and experts featured in the film. Some of the veterans from the film are part of a photo gallery.

Veterans

Harold ‘Hal’ Baumgarten

Harold ‘Hal’ Baumgarten landed at the Normandy beachhead on D-Day, wearing a field jacket he had painted with a Jewish star and the words, “Bronx, NY.”  He barely survived that day, and was wounded five times. After the war, and many reconstructive surgeries, he decided to become a doctor himself, so he could save people’s lives. He is the author of Eyewitness on Omaha Beach and D-Day Survivor: An Autobiography, and some of his experiences were incorporated into the film Saving Private Ryan. He resided in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, before his death in 2016.

Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks, then Melvin Kaminsky, grew up in Brooklyn. He enlisted in the Army and served as a forward artillery observer and a combat engineer in Europe, where he deactivated land mines. His three older brothers, Irving, Lenny and Bernie, also served in the war. After the war, he became a television writer, often collaborating with his best friend, Carl Reiner. For many years, Brooks had considered the idea of writing a musical comedy about Adolf Hitler, and it finally came to fruition as his first feature film, The Producers, in 1968. The film’s biting satire sparked great controversy, and it went on to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, becoming an underground hit, and later a successful Broadway musical. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Morton D. Brooks

Morton D. Brooks, from Brooklyn, NY, served in the infantry and was captured by the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge. Segregated from the other prisoners because he was Jewish, Brooks was sent to Berga, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, which was a Nazi slave labor camp. Brooks tells a little-known chapter in the history of World War II, the story of 350 American servicemen, mostly Jews or “suspected Jews,” who were forced to endure concentration camp conditions at Berga. Sent there to dig underground tunnels for an ammunition factory, most of the prisoners were worked to death, and Brooks was one of only 63 men to survive. He currently resides in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Bea Abrams Cohen

Bea Abrams Cohen, an immigrant from Romania, grew up in Los Angeles, and enlisted in the U.S. Army to pay back the country that took her in. She served in England, working in communications with top-secret documents. After the war, she was an active member of the Jewish War Veterans in southern California, as well as numerous charities and veterans organizations – helping veterans from all wars. When she was interviewed for this film she was 104, the oldest living female veteran in California. She passed away one year later in 2015.

Paul Cohen

Paul Cohen, raised in Chicago, served as an infantryman in the Pacific. As a forward observer, he went ashore in the first wave on Leyte Island and fought in the invasion of Okinawa. After experiencing anti-Semitism from his fellow servicemen during basic training, Cohen worked hard to defy the stereotypes of Jews as cowardly and weak. During combat in the Philippines, he rescued his wounded commanding officer from a burning village, and earned a Bronze Star for bravery. After the war, he became an active member of the Jewish War Veterans.

Harry Corre

Harry Corre enlisted in the U.S. Army before the attack on Pearl Harbor and was sent to serve in the Philippines. Stationed in Corregidor, he was captured by the Japanese and taken on the Bataan Death March. After seeing many of his fellow soldiers shot by the Japanese, he escaped — only to be captured again and imprisoned in a POW camp. He spent four years there, in charge of a burial detail. He now lives in Los Angeles where he works as a patient advocate at the VA Medical Center and a service officer for the American Ex-Prisoners of War.

Leonard Everett Fisher

Leonard Everett Fisher grew up in Coney Island. Before the war, even as a boy, he was fully aware of Hitler’s threat. In 1937, he watched the Hindenburg floating over New York, saw the swastika on its side, and threw rocks at it. He enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor, was recruited for a top-secret topographical unit, and served in North Africa and Hawaii, making maps of enemy territory. After the war, he became a successful author and illustrator of books for young people, and he currently resides in Westport, Connecticut.

Max Fuchs

Max Fuchs emigrated to the U.S. from Poland with his family at the age of 12. Raised in an Orthodox family, he was studying to be a cantor when America entered the war. He fought in the Army infantry in the European theater, and became an assistant chaplain. In 1944, he served as cantor for the first Jewish service to be held on German soil since the rise of Hitler, broadcast on NBC radio in Germany and across the United States. After the war, he became a diamond cutter in New York City, and continued to serve as a cantor throughout his life.

Eliot Hermon

Eliot Hermon grew up in Brooklyn and was the seventh generation of his family to serve in the U.S. military. He served in field artillery in France, Germany, Austria and Belgium, including the Battle of the Bulge. In April 1945, he was among the first American troops to liberate a concentration camp — Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald. Returning home, he resolved to deepen his commitment to Judaism and pass its traditions on to his children. He also joined the National Guard and remained in military service until his retirement.

Dahlia “Pobie” Johnston

Dahlia Paubionsky

Dahlia Paubionsky


Dahlia “Pobie” Johnston grew up in Philadelphia, and joined the WAACs in 1942, two days after her 21st birthday. She served stateside, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where she was promoted to Sargeant and put in charge of discharging personnel. Her brother,who also served, was killed in a bombing raid over Germany. After the war, she settled in Stamford CT, where she became active in the Democratic Party, and ran for mayor three times. She passed away in 2017.

Sam Kessler

Sam Kessler was born in Poland and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He served in the Army Air Corps as a radio operator on a bomber called the Pale Ale. One day, on his way to bomb munitions factories in Nuremberg, his plane had mechanical difficulties. He managed to parachute out and found himself caught on a church steeple in Belgium. Hanging there, he said the traditional Jewish mourners’ Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Remarkably, he was rescued, returned to his unit and flew several more missions before returning home. After the war, he became a successful businessman and now resides in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, a refugee from Nazi Germany, emigrated to the United States in 1938 at 15 years old, and settled with his family in Washington Heights in Manhattan. He was drafted in 1943 and served in the Army infantry as a rifleman. After several months, he was recruited into counterintelligence because of his knowledge of German language and culture. In this capacity, Kissinger served in headquarters during the Battle of the Bulge, interrogating German prisoners of war and identifying German spies disguised as Americans. After V-E Day, he was instrumental in the de-Nazification of Germany, supervising the occupying government of the town of Hanover. He found out later that thirteen members of his family, unable to leave Germany, had died at Auschwitz. Kissinger went on to serve as the U.S. Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977.

Mildred Landis

Mildred Landis grew up in Chicago and became a WAAC, where she cared for returning wounded soldiers, as a nurse in a hospital in California. Her older brother also served and died in a German POW camp. Landis left the service after a year to care for her grieving mother but continued to volunteer in a general hospital after the war was over. She currently resides in southern California.

Si Lewen

Si Lewen fled Nazi Germany as a teenager and studied art in New York City. He enlisted in the Army and fought in Europe in a counter-intelligence unit made up of émigré European Jews, fluent in German, who were trained in psychological warfare. Going back to his homeland as an American G.I., his job was to convince German soldiers to surrender. He witnessed the Buchenwald concentration camp soon after its liberation and was devastated by the experience. After the war, Lewen resumed making art in the United States, incorporating his experiences of the war and the Holocaust into his work. Towards the end of his life, Lewen joined forces with cartoonist Art Spiegelman to re-publish his early work, The Parade. Lewen passed away in 2016 in his home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Robert M. Morgenthau

Robert M. Morgenthau enlisted in the Navy before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and served in the North and South Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific Theater, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. The son of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., he survived the explosion of the battleship U.S.S. Lansdale and volunteered to serve another term. After the war, he became an attorney and prosecutor, serving as the Manhattan District Attorney from 1975 until 2009 at age 90. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, and currently “of counsel” at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in NYC.

Alan Moskin

Alan Moskin was raised in New Jersey and served in the Army infantry in France, Germany and Austria. In 1945, he was a liberator at Gunkirschen Lager, a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. 18 years old at the time, he spoke Yiddish, and was able to communicate with the survivors. After the war, he became an attorney, and after 50 years of silence, he began to speak publicly about the war and the Holocaust. At the age of 91, he still travels the country sharing his experiences with community groups and schools.

Ellan Levitsky Orkin

Ellan Levitsky Orkin and her sister Dorothy, children of immigrants, grew up in Salem, New Jersey, and enlisted together as nurses in the Army. They were stationed in France during the bitterly cold winter of 1944, and helped care for the terrible casualties from the Battle of the Bulge. For their dedicated service, both sisters received the American Theater Ribbon and the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Campaign Ribbon. After the war, both continued their nursing careers at civilian hospitals. Ellan currently resides in Milford, Delaware.

Maurice Paper

Maurice Paper grew up in an orthodox home in Baltimore, MD and had joined the Maryland State Guard before the U.S. entered the war. Soon after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army and served in North Africa as a liaison officer to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and later became company commander for an Engineering regiment, serving in Europe. After the liberation of Paris, he looked for his long-lost French relatives, only to discover that many had been murdered by the Nazis. In April 1945, he was among the liberators of the Dachau concentration camp.

Jack Pathman

Jack Pathman served stateside in the Army Air Corps, as well as in defense plants. His two brothers also served. Pathman was trained as a radio operator, served as an instructor, and later produced USO shows to entertain the troops. He is active in the Jewish War Veterans in California.

Carl Reiner

Carl Reiner was raised in the Bronx, NY, and was drafted in 1943. He trained in the Signal Corps as a radio and teleprinter operator. An entertainer before the war, he was soon transferred to the Special Services entertainment unit. For two years, he traveled around the Pacific theater, performing for troops in Hawaii, Guam, Saipan and Iwo Jima. After the war, Reiner performed in Broadway musicals and television comedy, eventually teaming up with Mel Brooks. The duo became famous for their skit, 2000 Year Old Man, with Reiner as the straight man. He went on to a decades-long career as a television and film director, including The Dick Van Dyke Show and four movies starring comedian Steve Martin. He continues to write novels and personal memoirs, and currently lives in Los Angeles, where, at 95, he is one of the oldest celebrities active on Twitter.

Mimi Rivkin

Mimi Rivkin grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and experienced anti-Semitism as a young girl. She enlisted in the Army without telling her parents, and served as in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (WACs) in the China-Burma-India Theater as a photographer and photo lab technician. While overseas, she dated a non-Jewish serviceman, who broke off the relationship after finding out that she was Jewish. Also an accomplished artist, she keeps a scrapbook of her cartoons about military life. She currently resides in a veterans retirement home in Washington, D.C.

Peter Selz

Peter Selz was born in Munich and fled Nazi Germany as a teenager, leaving his family behind. He was drafted in 1942 and served in the Signal Corps, then recruited for military intelligence, joining the Office of Special Services, as an interrogator, but the war ended before his training was completed. An art historian after the war, he was chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, then a Professor of the History of Art at the University of California Berkeley, where he currently resides.

Sid Shanken

Sid Shanken grew up in San Antonio, Texas and enlisted in the Army immediately after Pearl Harbor. He served as a bombardier-navigator in North Africa, Italy and the European theater, flying 54 missions. On Yom Kippur, 1943, he was attending services in Sicily when a crew member told him he was scheduled to fly — he left the synagogue and took to the skies, deeply saddened to be bombing on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. After the war, determined to restore his people’s faith, he became a rabbi, and also became active in the civil rights movement, marching in Selma and Birmingham alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He currently lives in Florida.

Art Sherman

Art Sherman grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and in 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Refusing to serve as a flight instructor, he went overseas as a bombardier with the 464th bomb group in Italy, and flew 20 missions until he was wounded and could no longer fly. He continued to serve as an intelligence officer with the 5th Wing, on the ground in Italy, until the end of the war. He is active with the Jewish War Veterans.

Irwin Stovroff

Irwin Stovroff was raised in Buffalo, New York in a reformed Jewish family. He enlisted soon after Pearl Harbor and became a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator, in the 44th Bomb Group in the 8th Air Force. On his 35th mission, an effort to destroy the bridges the Germans still held, he was shot down over Germany, captured by the Nazis and held in a POW camp for a year. Currently a resident of Boca Raton, Florida, he runs a foundation that pairs wounded veterans with service dogs.

Lester Tanner

Lester Tanner grew up in the Bronx and at 18 went into the service, in the infantry. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was taken prisoner by Nazi forces. At the POW camp, when a German officer ordered all of the Jewish servicemen to identify themselves, Tanner’s Protestant commanding officer, Roddie Edmonds, refused to allow it, saving Tanner, and 200 other Jewish soldiers, from possible murder by the Nazis. After the war, Tanner went to law school on the G.I. Bill and became an attorney in a law firm in New York City.

Historians and Experts

Deborah Dash Moore

Deborah Dash Moore is a leading authority on Jewish Americans in World War II. Her book GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation (2004), received the Saul Viener Prize for Best Book in American Jewish History, 2003-2004. She is currently the Frederick C. L. Huetwell Professor of History at the University of Michigan, where she also directs the Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. Other work includes At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews (1981) and American Jewish Identity Politics (2008), Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (Co-Editor, 1997), and Gender and Jewish History (2010). In addition to appearing on camera, she was a Senior Advisor on the film.

Leah Garrett

Leah Garrett is Professor and Director of Jewish Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, and the author of Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Re-invented the American War Novel. Her research focuses on the relationship between Yiddish, English, German and Hebrew literature and the modern world, and she teaches courses on 20th century American literature. Her other work includes Journeys Beyond The Pale: Yiddish Travel Writing In The Modern World, The Cross And Other Jewish Stories By Lamed Shapiro.

Elihu Rose

Elihu Rose is an independent scholar and historian of World War II, as well as a real estate developer and philanthropist. He has taught military history at New York University, Yale University, Columbia University and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1954 and fought in Korea, and his older brother, Frederic, served in World War II in the U.S. Navy Seabees.

Michael Rugel

Michael Rugel is Programs and Content Coordinator at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C. For many years, he has gathered and curated records, artifacts and stories of Jewish servicemen and women who fought in the U.S. military from the American Revolution to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Jonathan D. Sarna

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Chief Historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. He has written, edited, or co-edited more than thirty books on Jewish culture and history, including American Judaism: A History (2004), Jews and The Civil War: A Reader (2010) and When General Grant Expelled the Jews (2012), and is one of the nation’s leading commentators on American Jewish life. He also served as an advisor to the project.

Mark S. Zaid

Mark S. Zaid, an attorney in Washington D.C., is the grandson of Rabbi Chaplain David Max Eichhorn, and the editor of The GIs’ Rabbi: World War II Letters of David Max Eichhorn.  Rabbi Eichhorn served in the European theater, landing in Normandy in the weeks after D-Day. He arrived in Dachau soon after its liberation and tended to the survivors’ spiritual needs, including leading them in a religious service — this moving and powerful moment was captured on film by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Zaid speaks frequently about his grandfather’s contribution to the war effort.