GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II tells the story of the 550,000 Jewish American men and women who fought in World War II. In their own words, veterans both famous (director Mel Brooks, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) and unknown share their war experiences: how they fought for their nation and people, struggled with anti-Semitism within their ranks, and emerged transformed.
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[ Boys shouting ] -It was 1937. I was 13 years old.
We had a baseball team, just a bunch of kids in a sandlot.
We called ourselves the Spartans, growing up there in Sea Gate and Coney Island.
We had the beach.
We had the ocean, barefoot all summer long.
While on May 4th, the German airship came across from Germany, and it came right over the ball field that we were playing on.
It had a big swastika on the tail, so we picked up bricks and rocks and threw it at it.
It was that swastika.
We could connect with what was happening in Germany with Hitler.
Sea Gate at that point was largely Jewish.
Everybody knew about the Germans.
The extent of their viciousness, that was another matter.
That was another matter.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -More than half a million Jewish Americans served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II.
-As Americans and as Jews, we realized that we had to protect what we have in this country -- liberty, freedom of religion and speech, and as Jews, we did what they thought we couldn't do.
-They were rich and poor, urban and rural, religious and secular.
Most were the children of immigrants who had escaped persecution in Europe and were welcomed onto America's shores.
Now, they would return to battle the hatred that their parents had fled.
They would endure anti-Semitic slurs from their fellow servicemen and be forced to prove that they were also true Americans.
-My fellow soldiers wanted to know, 'How on Earth did you wind up in the infantry on the front lines?
I said, 'Because I wanted to be there.'
-Like all Americans, they fought against fascism, but they also fought a more personal fight: to save their brethren in Europe.
-We went to war to destroy the Nazis, and that was a mission for all of us.
We went to war to save the world.
-They would come home changed and would continue the fight for equality and tolerance in America.
-Hundreds of thousands of Jews returned to the United States and changed the people around them.
It was a transformative moment in the history of the United States and the history of American Jews.
♪♪ -We were there for a reason: to reclaim who we were... and not to forget who we were and where we came from.
That's why we went.
♪♪ ♪♪ -In the 1930s, 4 million Jews lived in America, half of them in New York City.
♪♪ -I came from Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
Families were clustered together in tenements.
Like, my aunt Jenny was on the third floor.
My grandmother was across the hall.
You know, in those days, most of Brooklyn could've been a suburb of Kiev, you know?
-I was born in...Poland.
When I was 4 years old, we came to the States.
This country is a land of milk and honey.
-Jews in the United States were free to practice their religion, and inside their communities, they lived a rich and open Jewish life, but outside their neighborhoods, they discovered an American society that was often hostile and suspicious.
♪♪ -I grew up in The Bronx.
In my neighborhood, it was very Jewish, so we felt very secure there.
However, when I started going to junior high school, I had to walk from 183 Street down 189th Street, and the very first year, I was accosted by an Italian gentleman who took my money, and I could hear the word 'Jew, kike,' whatever.
-There was a great deal of anti-Semitism in the 1930s.
A lot of large companies would not employ Jews.
There were whole neighborhoods where they could not live.
Many schools limited the number of Jewish students who could attend, and lots of hotels, country clubs did not admit Jews at all.
[ Children shouting ] -I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I was the only Jew in the school.
I remember in the third grade, suddenly, the children weren't playing with me, and I didn't know why, and I asked one of the kids, and he said, 'Well, the teacher said you're a Jew.
We're not supposed to play with you.'
That was a very anti-Semitic period.
-In January 1933, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany.
From the beginning, their ideology was steeped in racial hatred and anti-Semitism.
German Jews were segregated from the rest of society, their businesses marked with a Jewish star.
And in 1935, the Nuremberg Laws defined Jews as a separate race and stripped them of their citizenship.
-I grew up in Munich.
There was a general boycott of Jews, and most Jewish stores were closed.
When I was 16 years old, I was kicked out of school.
All the Jewish kids were kicked out.
-My father was a teacher.
Hitler came to power, and my father lost his position.
My mother decided her children would have no future in Germany, and we emigrated in 1938, just before the persecution turned deadly.
-[ Speaking German ] ♪♪ -On November 9, 1938, Hitler's campaign against the Jews escalated into violence.
The Nazis burned more than 200 synagogues and destroyed thousands of Jewish businesses in what would become known as Kristallnacht, 'The Night of Broken Glass.'
Thousands of Jews fled Germany, afraid for their lives.
-One day, my brother Isaac at 16, and I at 14, we left Germany, and little did I know, if anybody would have told me, 'You'll return. You'll return as an American solider,' I would've said, 'Stop this dreaming.'
-On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany.
Almost immediately, Hitler's forces began to round up Poland's 3.2 million Jews and force them into ghettos.
In the next 2 years, Hitler seized most of Europe, marching relentlessly through the low countries into France, Denmark and Norway, and deep into the Soviet Union.
There, the Nazis massacred hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women and children, the first mass killings of Jews in German-occupied territories.
[ Gunshot ] -The rumors were, in the Jewish community, Jews were being slaughtered and, you know, and it was... Something had to be done about it.
-But most Americans did not want to go to war, until December 1941, when everything changed.
-Me and my friends played basketball on December the 7th, 1941, and as we're walking back home, all of a sudden, 'Extra! Read all about it! Pearl Harbor bombed.'
And we looked at each other, and we said, 'Where in the hell is Pearl Harbor?'
That was the beginning.
-The next day, America entered the war.
-The day after Pearl Harbor, I got in line.
There were two lines as far as you could see, people enlisting.
That is Texas. Texas is that way.
A great feeling of patriotism.
Texas, 'draft' is a bad word.
'You drafted?' [ Laughs ] You don't say that.
-Well, I had seen all the footage of the Kristallnacht, what the Nazis were doing, and so I thought I wanted to get in there and do something about it.
They wouldn't take me without my parents' signature, so I got my father to sign, and my mother wasn't that anxious to have me do it.
♪♪ -Baseball star Hank Greenberg joined the service a few days after Pearl Harbor.
A hero to Jews throughout the nation, he had endured anti-Semitic slurs his entire career and famously refused to play ball on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.
-Greenberg is the home-run king in the American league.
-Greenberg later said, 'I didn't pay too much attention to Hitler at first or any of the political goings-on at the time, but I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler.'
[ Cheers and applause ] -♪ You're in the army now ♪ You're not behind the plow ♪ You'll never get rich while digging a ditch ♪ ♪ You're in the army now -What you had to understand, the all-embracing quality of that war.
It's like nothing ever since.
My older brother was a naval officer.
Six of my older first cousins were in the military, including my cousin Anna, who was a WAC, Women's Army Corps.
That was typical.
-While many Jewish men enlisted, many more were drafted.
In all, one half of Jewish men old enough to serve would join the fight.
-You got a letter from the government.
When you opened the envelope, I remember seeing, 'Greeting,' like you're going to a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah, but it was, 'Greetings,' and then you go on, 'You will report for a physical exam.'
I heard my mother talking to my father, and I heard her say, 'Can't you do something? Does Alan have to go?'
And when I heard that, I got so... I said, 'Mom, if you say that once more, I'm running away from... I'm leaving.'
-When I went into the service, we sang the songs.
♪ Over there, over there ♪ Send the word over there ♪ That the Yanks are coming ♪ The Yanks are coming ♪ The Yanks are coming everywhere ♪ -♪ Over there ♪ Over there ♪ Send the word, send the word ♪ -10,000 Jewish women signed up as well... disregarding their parents' warning that it was no life for a nice Jewish girl.
-♪ Over there -They would serve as WASPs in the Air Force, WAVES in the Navy, WACs in the Army and as nurses overseas.
-♪ Over there -I wanted to be a nurse in the Army.
My sister Dorothy and I quit our jobs, and if my mother knew that we even thought of going into a goishe army, a gentile army, I don't know what she would've done.
-The first taste of military life for the Jewish enlisted men and women was in training camps scattered across the United States.
♪♪ ♪♪ 16 million Americans came to basic training.
For 8 weeks, 10 hours a day, the Jewish servicemen prepared for combat surrounded by men from every part of the country.
-My basic training was in Camp Crowder, Missouri.
I remember this, the night we went to bed, and across the barracks, I hear this voice, 'Reiner. Reiner.'
It was one of these anti-Semitic blondies from Louisiana, and he said, 'You a Jew?'
J, E, W, U, U, W.
'You a Jew?'
I says, 'Yes, as a matter of fact.
Why do you ask?' And then the strange thing.
He said, 'I'm from Louisiana. You know a Jew named Goldfarb?'
I says, 'No. There are many Jews I don't know.'
'You don't know Goldfarb?' And I said, 'No.'
He said, 'Well, he's not a bad guy.'
That was the last thing he said, and that was it.
♪♪ -In the early 1940s, many Americans who lived outside major cities had never seen a Jew before they met one in uniform.
They had heard only the negative stereotypes, that Jews were unpatriotic and shirked their military duty.
-They didn't think much of us.
Actually, they didn't think there were any Jews in service.
I'm seventh generation in my family to wear an American uniform.
My great-great-grandfather served during the Civil War.
-Jews came from every background.
Some were recent immigrants, and some had been in the United States for generations.
They were Zionists, socialists, and even pacifists.
-Jews in the military represented a very broad spectrum of Jewish life.
You had Jews who were Orthodox and observant, kept kosher.
On the other hand, you had a whole spectrum of Jews who were much more easygoing.
♪♪ -I never had a cheeseburger until I got to basic training.
Jews generally weren't allowed to mix milk and meat, so these kids are eating cheeseburgers, and I ordered one and tasted it, and I said, 'This is good.
Why have the Jews denied me this wonderful thing called cheeseburgers?'
-We were Orthodox, but in the army, you couldn't observe everything.
They tried to cater to the Jewish GIs, you know?
They even sent us some food sometimes, like for Passover.
They used to send some matzos, gefilte fish sometimes.
♪♪ -Far from home, many servicemen and women took comfort in their religious traditions.
The Jewish Welfare Board sent supplies, including candles for the Sabbath and tens of thousands of miniature prayer books.
♪♪ -Isaac Ashkenazi, he was very observant.
Being Orthodox, he prayed a couple of times a day, and Carl Frishman and I would just look at him and wonder, you know, and say, 'When is the next shoe going to fall, and when -- Is he putting us at risk?'
We thought about this.
-Many Jewish GIs feared harassment or insults from their fellow servicemen.
As New York City native Ed Koch would write later, 'The entire world seemed Jewish to me growing up.
Suddenly, being Jewish was not the norm.
Anti-Semitism revealed itself directly to me for the first time, and I did not like what it felt like.
It wasn't only Hitler.
It was here in America.'
-My bed partner in the barracks, I was in the upper bunk, and he was in the lower bunk, and we became very friendly.
At Passover, I said to him that I'm going home to Chicago, and he said, 'You're Jewish?'
I says, 'Yes. Why?'
He didn't say anything, and for the rest of the time that we were in the barracks, which was approximately 6 months, never spoke to me once.
I was so shocked and surprised that I didn't know what to say, and we never talked again.
-A lot of the women in the WACs, they were kind of tough.
I wasn't happy there being Jewish because sometimes the way they talked against the Jews, so... I didn't advertise the fact that I was Jewish.
-I put a picture on the wall.
We won some sectional basketball tournament back home because I was proud of it, and it was myself, a Catholic buddy of mine and three black kids.
We all have our arms around each other, and the Southern boys are walking by, and I hear, 'You got your arms around that nigger,' and then every day on the bulletin board, in red letters, 'Moskin the nigger lover.'
And then the next day, it was 'Moskin the kike.'
I was a young soldier.
We're the good guys.
We're going over to fight the Nazis, the bad guys, and then I got guys, so to speak, on my side talking like that about blacks and Jews.
It was something that I didn't expect.
To me, it's shameful.
♪♪ -Many Jewish servicemen from the North had never witnessed racial segregation until they came to basic training.
Now, they saw it all around them in the whites-only signs near the bases in the South, and in the fact that African-Americans served in separate units.
The U.S. military had been segregated by race since the Civil War, but now with more Jewish men serving than ever before, it would have to address the religious hatred within its ranks.
-Suddenly, you have several hundred thousand Jews in the military, and you needed these soldiers to assist and support one another and not to hate one another.
The military understood that it was in their interest to tamp down religious prejudice and to promote religious cooperation.
-To smooth over religious differences, the military launched a campaign promoting the three fighting faiths, reminding the men that they were all in this war together.
From synagogues across the nation, more than half of America's 2,000 rabbis volunteered as chaplains.
311 received commissions.
David Max Eichhorn, a 36-year-old rabbi from Pennsylvania, arrived at Camp Croft in South Carolina in July 1942.
-My grandfather said it was his patriotic duty.
He was an American first, then a soldier and then a Jew.
He really felt he had a place and a calling.
Really all the chaplains administered any type of religious solace to anyone of any faith.
They were all working to help prepare the men to go overseas and possibly never come back.
♪♪ -Millions of young men and women boarded troopships to go off to war.
They were issued dog tags stamped with their name, their serial number, and also their religion, so they could receive appropriate last rites and burial.
'P' for Protestant.
'C' for Catholic.
'H' for Hebrew.
For Jews serving in Europe, the H put them at greater risk.
They had heard rumors that the Germans mistreated or even murdered Jewish prisoners of war.
♪♪ -My parents said to me, 'If you're captured, get rid of your dog tags.'
My father, the first time I ever saw him cry, I got a special pass to come from Fort Belvoir, and I went straight to his office.
He said, 'What are you doing here?'
So he knew that something was up, and I said, 'I'm going overseas.'
♪♪ And that was it.
-In January 1942, when the first American troops arrived overseas, Hitler and the Axis powers, Italy and Japan, were winning the war.
The Nazis had conquered large parts of the Soviet Union and defeated the British in the deserts of North Africa.
[ Gunfire ] Jewish GIs landed in the midst of unimaginable violence and destruction.
-I learned, it was just a matter of kill or be killed, so that's what you go into combat with.
Either you kill the enemy, or they're going to kill you.
-I was a United States Army nurse.
My job was operating room, to give anesthesia.
You always had a patient in front of you.
When they carry one out, they bring one in.
Some of them just didn't make it.
It was -- It was rough.
And they cried.
The kids cried.
-I became a bombardier.
I saw many planes blow up in front of me.
I don't care what they say.
Everybody had a religion when they fought in combat.
When the flag came up, and the fighters came in, I said, 'If there's anybody up there, look over me.'
♪♪ -Being Jewish, and Judaism was an important part of virtually every Jew's experience during World War II, and it didn't matter if they were religious or not.
They identified as Jews because they were fighting a people that were trying to destroy the Jewish people from the face of the Earth.
-In December 1942, reported, 'It is believed that two million European Jews have perished, and that five million are in danger of extermination.'
'160,000 German Jews had been deported to death camps,' wrote.
'More than 600,000 had been murdered in Poland.
Most of the Jews in Eastern Europe had been massacred, forced into ghettos or sent to concentration camps.'
[ Typewriter keys clacking ] Sergeant Dahlia Pobianski served in the Office of Personnel Records in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with a group of servicemen deemed unfit for combat.
-They all had some kind of... You know, they either had glasses.
They had asthma.
Archie was from Oklahoma.
They had one eye that wasn't good, and there was chatter all the time, but suddenly, I heard Archie saying, 'Well, you know, you have to say something good about Hitler.
You know, he got rid of all the Jews,' and I said, 'Well, he didn't get this one,' or something like that.
That room got so quiet, and everybody was, you know, digging for something out of their desk drawer or whatever, and it just stayed quiet until... It must've been about an hour before it was time to go to lunch again.
But nobody said anything to me afterwards, but they got the point, that's for sure.
-For many Jewish Americans assigned to the European theater, England was the first stop.
[ Air raid sirens blare ] -The noise that you hear at the moment is the sound of the air-raid siren.
-For 2 years, the Nazis had been attacking Britain from the air, bombing its cities into rubble.
To escape the bombing, 3 million children had been evacuated from the cities to live in the countryside in the homes of strangers.
-Bea Abrams, a WAC, was stationed at Rougham Air Base in rural England.
Her official job in the service was clerical work, but she also wanted to help as a Jew.
-In England, there are a lot of Jewish children.
The parents sent them out into the country to keep them safe from the bombing in London.
-As Hanukkah approached, she and some other soldiers invited a group of displaced Jewish children to celebrate the holiday.
-We collected all the food we could get.
We gave them a party, and they loved it, and we all...We prayed.
It's good to have a belief.
♪♪ -In London, Judah Nadich, the senior rabbi chaplain in Europe, told the age-old Hanukkah story to a group of Jewish orphans.
It was the story of the Maccabees, a small band of Jewish fighters who defeated an entire army.
They stood up to a powerful enemy and won, saving Judaism for centuries to come.
-We have a lot of echoes of the Chanukah story in World War II with American Jewish soldiers playing the Maccabees of that era.
You see the Jewish soldiers as kind of the spiritual warriors.
-I went into the Air Corps to become a bombardier navigator.
I flew 54 missions.
I was motivated.
I was angry.
I was angry at the German arrogance, the German brutality, and I felt a strong affinity.
My parents were from Europe.
I was a first-generation American or maybe the last generation Europe.
I used to write on my bombs, 'Hitler, here's a gift for you,' and we'd drop the bombs on them.
I would say, 'Here's a gift from us Jews'... and it gave me some satisfaction.
It's a terrible thing.
It was a terrible thing, but when you're fighting an enemy that is so brutal and so inhuman, you have to do it.
I was angry at the Germans for making me do that.
-The German-Jewish GIs who had escaped the Nazis just a few years earlier were now American servicemen, and they returned to Europe to fight.
For them, the war against Hitler was profoundly personal.
-Getting out of Germany and then back again in Europe, it was my great chance to get even, not just against the Nazis but with anti-Semitism all together.
Our mission was psychological warfare.
♪♪ -As natives of Germany, they knew the language and culture of the enemy better than anyone else, and the U.S. military began to recruit them for counterintelligence.
Henry Kissinger was drafted in 1943 and was serving as a rifleman in the 84th infantry division.
One day, he was on duty cleaning the latrine when his commanding officer pulls him aside.
-The commanding general said, 'Soldier, explain this situation map to me,' so I did, and he turned to his aide and said, 'Take that man's name,' and then I became part of the counterintelligence, in which we were supposed to find spies and security risks, but that sounds very dramatic, except I didn't really know what a spy looked like or what a spy was likely to do.
-As the war raged on, 20,000 American women were sent overseas to take over non-combat jobs and free the men to fight.
♪♪ Mimi Rivkin was serving in Calcutta as a photo-lab technician when she met a pilot named Mike.
-He was darling, Mike. I was very fond of him.
I can tell you that.
He was a nice guy, and he was darling, and, you know, I really liked him.
-Mike and Mimi dated until Mike's tour of duty came to an end.
The fact that Mimi was Jewish never came up.
-When he went home, he didn't say anything.
He just was being discharged from the Army, and I thought, 'That's it,' but his friends kept telling me, 'You're going to hear from him. You're going to hear from him,' you know, and I sure heard from him.
He went to see my parents.
He learned that they were Jewish.
I didn't really know that he had planned to marry me.
I got a letter from him.
Instead of a 'Dear John' or 'Dear Mary' letter, you know, that, 'Your kind and my kind don't mix,' and that sort of thing.
So he told me that, you know, 'I'm not interested in marrying a Jew,' so that was the end of that little romance.
-Most Jewish servicemen hoped to serve in the European theater to do their part against Hitler, but some were assigned to the Pacific theater instead.
Among them was Norman Mailer, the grandson of a rabbi and an aspiring novelist.
He had been drafted just after his graduation from Harvard.
-Norman Mailer was trying to write the great American war novel, but he found himself in the Pacific rather than in Europe, and as he wrote home, the real battle was being fought in Europe.
He was in this peripheral place.
He felt the center of the battle was in Europe.
-Mailer wrote nearly every day to his wife, Bea, who was serving as a WAVE in the Navy.
In the Pacific, he would find plenty of material for his novel about the brutality of war.
'It is not that the violence is horrible,' he wrote.
'It's also natural, so much a part of life, that you are never surprised and never shocked.
It is this which frightens me.'
[ Gunfire and explosions ] Harry Corre, an 18-year-old soldier from an observant Jewish family in Boston, had been sent to the Philippines early in the war.
He was on the Bataan Peninsula when American troops were forced to surrender to the Japanese army and was taken on what became known as the Bataan Death March.
-The Japanese gathered us together and started us on a march.
We didn't know where, just that we were marching.
If a man had to go off to the side of the road or something to urinate and he didn't get permission, he got shot or bayonetted, or he got his head chopped off.
The slightest infraction, a man got killed.
-The Bataan Death March was a terrible event.
20,000 Americans were captured on Bataan and marched, I think it was, 60 miles to their prison camp.
It was a tremendous effort of will to survive.
Anybody that survived that one, boy, is a hero.
-I was put on the burial detail.
I was burying about 150 bodies a day.
They were all POWs, all American soldiers.
I have to admit that I lost a lot of my religion because I saw too many of the guys that were in combat praying while they were in combat get killed, so that's when I lost a lot of my religion.
-From Egypt, British and American planes launched the first phase of a broad and well-timed attack.
-The Allies' first victory on the continent of Europe was the successful invasion of Sicily in July 1943.
As the Nazis retreated, rabbi chaplains, working hard to sustain the servicemen's faith, traveled across Sicily's mountainous terrain to hold services for all of the Jewish men.
On October 9, hundreds of Jewish GIs gathered to observe Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, praying and fasting all day.
-I remember Yom Kippur in Catania, Sicily, and we took over the movie theater, and we filled it up with soldiers, wall-to-wall soldiers, and instead of yarmulkes, they had steel helmets, and I'd never had a service like that, such an intense, beautiful service.
That's really praying.
It was wonderful, and they were praying with my tallit, my prayer shawl on, and so I said, 'Jack, what are you doing? You're supposed to be flying.'
So I put the tallit on the chair.
I rushed out, and my crew is going to the plane on this mission, and it was a rough mission.
♪♪ I remember weeping coming back, and twice in my life I cried, that time and when my mother died.
It was a terrible thing to be flying on Yom Kippur and bombing.
Can you imagine?
♪♪ -One week later, in Rome, the Nazis S.S. troops rounded up more than 1,000 Jews and deported them to Auschwitz.
Sam Kessler was a radio operator, part of a tight-knit crew flying a B-24 bomber called The Pale Ale.
-On the very first mission, we lined up to go to the plane.
There was a Catholic priest in front of the plane to give last rites, and nine people marched up there, and I realized that I was the only Jewish flier there, and I remained behind.
They went up, and he blessed them.
We flew the mission, and we came back safely, and I decided that if they was safe, I would be safe, too.
The second time, I marched right up with them.
He blessed me, and I certainly accepted that.
For the next 10 missions, we were very, very successful.
-On the morning of Kessler's 11th mission, the weather was bad.
He was flying over Belgium toward Nuremberg when something went wrong with his plane.
-All of a sudden, I heard a crack.
The pilot, Bob Gordon, was trying to keep the plane as level as he possibly could, and I'm pounding away, 'S-O-S. S-O-S. S-O-S.'
He ordered me to bail out, and I waved to him to come follow me.
I never saw him again.
I had the luck to pull my rip cord, and the next thing I knew, I blacked out.
When I woke up, I was floating in the air.
All I saw was church steeples, church steeples, and church steeples.
I slammed into the side of the steeple.
My parachute caught the top of the steeple, and I hung there.
I prayed the Kaddish.
Kaddish was designed for people who were gone.
In my particular case, I knew I was going to die.
I was positive, of course.
Once I say Kaddish, you know... [ Speaking Yiddish ] ...and about 20 minutes later, would you believe that church steeples have trap doors?
Two men with a ladder, villagers, got me down, and that's why I'm still here.
-By June 1944, the Allies had gained ground against the Nazis in Italy, but Hitler still controlled most of the European continent.
Allied leaders now readied the troops for the most ambitious operation of the war, D-Day, the invasion of occupied France from the sea.
More than 160,000 British, Canadian, and American men would be placed into harm's way, making it the most dangerous battle of the war.
-Right before D-Day, I was in England training for the invasion.
They told us, 'Two out of three of you are not coming back.'
I wrote to my sister, Ethel, 'Get the telegram before my parents and break it to them gently because I'm not coming home.'
I decided to draw a huge Star of David on the back of my Army field jacket.
I wrote 'Bronx, New York' around the Star of David.
I had to let the Germans know where I was coming from.
My fellow soldiers couldn't believe that I was going to do that.
Guys in the outfit said, 'The Germans are going to cut your so-and-sos off when they see that.'
♪♪ We landed about 6:40 on Omaha Beach.
[ Explosions and gunfire ] In landing, the man that I was covering came off the runway first, and he got machine-gunned.
I was right behind him.
Everybody in that boat was killed except for two of us.
About 30 of our guys are hiding behind two tanks to survive.
I decided, being Jewish, I better go straight in.
I didn't want to look like a coward.
I wanted the fellas to see that I didn't have the fear.
I'm not going to take cover.
My object was to reach the seawall.
That was the only protection on the beach to the machine guns firing, and finally I got hit.
A shell came in and blew this cheek right off and broke the upper jaw.
My best buddy from the boat, he was laying facedown in 2 inches or 3 inches of water, and I could see his high school ring on his hand.
There was my best buddy dead.
I prayed the Shema during that day out loud.
[ Speaking Yiddish ] Here, oh, Israel, the Lord our God.
The Lord is one.
That was the only prayer I said on the beach.
♪♪ It was a horrible day.
It was the longest day.
You're lucky to live through all of it.
I did get wounded five times.
-Everybody understood the enormity of that event.
We went to synagogue that night.
There was actually kind of an emergency service.
I mean, that's how important that was.
This was the beginning of the end.
D-Day was the harbinger.
It was also the, 'What's coming next?'
-D-Day was successful, placing an enormous Allied army in Northern Europe, but the losses were devastating.
Rabbi chaplains held services for the Jewish dead.
The surviving men gathered together to honor the friends they had lost.
-You make friends.
You lose them, and then it becomes very hard.
Archie Stein was his name, sounded Jewish, and they picked on him.
He happened to be a Lutheran from Aitkin, Minnesota, and he was my best friend, and unfortunately he was killed in action.
♪♪ -My brother, Buck, he was a tank commander, and he was a very, very good soldier.
His tank was hit head on, and he didn't survive.
Jews are not looked upon as fighting.
Someone who was in the same tank as my brother said the men loved him.
He was a terrific commander, and they called him The Fighting Jew, The Fighting Jew.
He was proud of being a Jew fighting for his country.
♪♪ ♪♪ -In combat together, our lives depended on each other.
Religion was far in the back.
Maybe they were biased at some point, but the Army knocks that out of you because what you find out about a person is his character and what his values are, not what his religion is.
-Jews were largely perceived as the other part of World War II, but during the war and these relationships that developed amongst these individuals really helped Americans begin to perceive Jews as Americans.
-On August 25, 1944, American troops marched in triumph down the Champs-Elysees.
After 4 long years of Nazi control, the city of Paris was free.
The streets filled with victorious American soldiers and joyful French men and women.
But the few remaining Jews stayed in hiding, still afraid.
Captain Maurice Paper arrived in Paris soon after liberation with a personal mission: to discover if any of his French relatives had survived.
-I had a list from the family back home of about 10 names of relatives that never got to America.
They stayed in France, and I see a man is leaning on a lamppost, and he's reading a Yiddish newspaper, and I get up close to him, and I said... My God!
The paper comes down. He looks at me.
He says, 'Yeah, it's Yiddish.'
I said, 'Yes, I speak Jewish.'
He says, 'Leave me your list, and I'll make some investigation.
We have a Jewish underground.
We find out who's dead, who's alive, where they live.'
Within a week, I actually found my relatives that were not killed, the ladies.
The men were all gone, but I found two aunts and four cousins.
♪♪ -Rabbi Chaplain David Max Eichhorn had landed in France a few weeks after D-Day, attached to an infantry unit.
He stayed with his men in the thick of combat, driving a Jeep marked with a Jewish star.
-He talks about how he'd be driving down the road in his Jeep, and, you know, Nazi planes with swastikas on them would come strafing down the road, and they'd have to dive out of the Jeep.
He went through occupied France as we were liberating.
One of their missions, as a chaplain, was to find Jews, and they would go to the synagogues, most of which had been completely desecrated by the Nazis.
Manure was put into the synagogues, and the buildings were destroyed and just used for all sorts of horrific things.
As he would go from town to town, he would be presented at times with Torahs that the townsfolk had saved from the Nazis.
-Rabbi Eichhorn held services for the GIs, reading from the desecrated Torah scrolls, the Jews' most sacred text.
'The more they see and hear about what has happened to the Jewish communities of Europe,' he wrote, 'our men are more intensely and proudly Jewish than I have ever known.'
In September 1944, American troops crossed the Siegfried Line, a massive Nazi fortification 400 miles long.
The Jewish servicemen had finally entered Hitler's Germany.
Among them was Private Si Lewen, who had fled the Nazis as a teenager only 10 years before.
He drove along the front lines in a truck outfitted with loudspeakers trying to persuade the Germans to surrender.
-My very first mission, I was afraid that when I would stop talking to them, my voice would give me away that really I'm very much afraid, but then I would close my eyes, and I just belted into it.
[ Speaking German ] You know, and once that was out, it was out.
As I would say to the Germans, 'You're all in this boat together so let's be done.
Give up now.'
-Little did they know, when they put down their weapons, that the American soldier they were surrendering to was in fact a German-Jew.
-I'm a little guy there.
I would always stand on the highest part of my truck to seem taller than I really am.
I felt tall, and then of course these Nazis surrender.
I felt elated.
I felt elated.
♪♪ -The first German city to fall to American forces was Aachen on Germany's western border.
There, on October 29, with Nazi artillery still exploding in the distance, a group of American-Jewish GIs held a service that was broadcast around the world.
[ Singing in Hebrew ] ♪♪ -Lieutenant Max Fuchs, who had been studying to become a cantor, volunteered to sing that day.
-You know, they asked me to do the service in Aachen, Germany.
The GIs wanted to do some praying, you know, and some singing, so this was my part of the service.
-Since the U.S. is beginning to occupy Germany, in the middle of these tank barriers, they held a Jewish service, and it was broadcast both over the air in Germany and was also broadcast by NBC, and it was just an extraordinary statement about the defeat of the Nazis, about overturning the horrible policies of Germany against the Jews.
-The Jewish chaplain spoke about peace on Earth and things like that in part of the service.
It was a wonderful thing, a Yiskor service.
Yiskor means a remembering, remembering all the GIs that had fallen.
You say a prayer for those GIs.
[ Singing in Hebrew ] -That's when it really hit me, you know, what was happening in Europe.
While I was doing that service, things sort of hit you.
You know, you get melancholy because you start to think about your family, you know, all the people that I knew.
You see, I knew these people because I was 12 years old when I came here from Poland.
The cousins, I knew the uncles.
I knew grandparents.
When I looked out and I saw so many Jewish GIs, I wasn't the only one.
There wasn't one GI there that didn't have an extended family in Europe somewhere lost.
They all perished.
[ Singing in Hebrew ] -As American forces marched through Hitler's Europe in the winter of 1944, rumors that the Nazis were murdering Jewish prisoners of war continued to spread.
Hearing news that Jewish soldiers in the Soviet army had been singled out and shot, some American officers encouraged their men to destroy their dog tags.
On December 16, deep in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, the Germans launched a massive assault on American forces, what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
-So this huge German onslaught came as an absolute surprise.
That was just the beginning of what became a very brutal battle.
You had whole American, you know, regiments that were... American prisoners by the score were taken there.
-19,000 Americans died in the Battle of the Bulge, and 15,000 more were captured.
-The Germans came at us in force, pushed through on our flanks.
I threw away my dog tags, which had my religion on it.
-Sergeant Lester Tanner and his unit were taken prisoner, and in late January, he and the other officers were moved to a prison camp called Stalag IX A.
-They announced that the Jews had to form up in front of the barracks the next morning, and those who do not will be shot.
-Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, a Protestant from Knoxville, Tennessee, was known for his strong leadership and deep moral conviction.
He was the commanding officer in charge of the 1,275 American prisoners.
-Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds told his officer, 'We will all be there in the morning in formation, and I will be at the head.'
The next morning, we were lined up.
Major Siegmann strides over.
He says, 'You can't all be Jews.'
Roddie said to him, 'We're all Jews here.'
You don't tell a Gestapo man that you're not going to listen to his order.
The German takes out his Luger, points it at Roddie's forehead, and he says, 'You will order the Jewish-American soldiers to step forward, or I will shoot you right now.'
And he said to him, 'Major, you can shoot me, but if you do, you're going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are, and this war is almost over, and you will be a war criminal,' and the major just spun around and went back to his barracks, and Roddie dismissed the men.
-Edmonds saved nearly 200 Jewish-American men that day.
They would never forget the extraordinary risk he took on their behalf.
Private Morton Brooks was also captured during the Battle of the Bulge.
He was taken to Stalag IX B and imprisoned in separate Jewish barracks under S.S. guard.
Then, they were told that 350 men would be moved to another camp.
Because there weren't enough Jews, they also sent men who looked Jewish or had Jewish-sounding names and those who were considered troublemakers.
[ Train whistle blows ] -We pulled in to what we saw was Berga.
We saw that it was one of the concentration camps, striped outfits behind the barbed wire.
The people behind them were Jewish.
Then, of course, we knew that it wasn't a POW camp.
That was clear.
-Berga, a subcamp of Buchenwald, was one of hundreds of slave-labor camps, where prisoners were deliberately worked to death.
Each morning, the men marched through the snow and worked 10 hours a day, digging tunnels for the Nazis' underground ammunition factory.
-The overseer in the mine shaft that I was in was a particularly brutal man.
He carried a rubber hose and a pickax handle, and if he didn't think you were working hard enough, he would use it on you.
There were some fellows who tried to escape, and, of course, they were shot.
-Of the 350 American POWs who were sent to Berga, only 63 survived.
I used to dream about revenge and what I would do.
The cruelty was unbelievable.
I was almost half my weight.
I was about 74 pounds.
To go through a German concentration-camp experience never entered my thoughts.
Of course, we didn't really know about those things at the time.
-By early 1945, millions of Americans had been sent into combat.
Wherever servicemen went, chaplains went with them, offering spiritual comfort in the face of the horrors of war.
Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn was stationed in the Pacific, the only Jewish chaplain with the Fifth Marine Division.
A committed pacifist before the war, the fight against Hitler's evil had changed his mind.
'According to Jewish law,' he wrote, 'It was a war of obligation.
In such a war, every Jew must fight.'
On February 20th, Rabbi Gittelsohn went ashore with the Marines in the invasion of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Afterwards, he was asked to lead an interfaith service honoring the dead, but some of the other chaplains objected to a Jew presiding over a memorial for men of all religions.
Reluctantly, the head chaplain agreed to hold three separate services instead.
Rabbi Gittelsohn spoke at the Jewish service, reading the words he had originally written to honor all of the men.
[ 'Taps' plays ] ♪♪ 'Here lie officers and men, black and white, rich and poor together.
Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together.
Among these men, there is no discrimination, no prejudices, no hatred.
Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates an empty, hollow mockery.'
-'This was,' Gittelsohn said, 'The reason why these men died, and if you, the living, don't carry on this vision of equality to eliminate these distinctions between men, then you will be betraying the deaths of your fellow soldiers.'
-'We here solemnly swear that this shall not be in vain.
Out of this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.'
By April 1945, after 4 long years of fighting, the Allies had advanced deep into Germany.
American troops triumphantly marched into Nuremberg, the symbolic center of the Nazi regime.
-[ Speaking German ] -It was there, in the Zeppelin Stadium, that Hitler had held his massive rallies with huge crowds of Germans cheering him on.
On April 21st, Rabbi David Max Eichhorn drove into the stadium carrying a portable arch and a small Torah in his Jeep.
At the very podium where Hitler had stood, the Rabbi and a group of Jewish GIs began to pray.
-My grandfather said how proud they were to give a different type of symbol to Hitler to demonstrate that, you know, now we are here, and you are no longer.
This is where the American forces blew up the large swastika that was on top of the stadium, which he was there to witness.
They, you know, they relished it.
-As the Nazis retreated, they began to abandon their vast network of concentration camps, which stretched across all of occupied Europe.
By January 1945, the Soviet Army had liberated the Nazi death camps in Poland, including Majdanek and Auschwitz.
On April 4, 1945, American troops on patrol south of Gotha, Germany, came upon Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald.
-None of us were prepared for what we saw when we hit that camp.
As a Jew, I had heard stories, but we were not prepared.
The prisoners, they worked them to death.
They starved them, and when they died, they burned them.
I was not the only one who threw up.
I was not the only one who cried, but it made us angry, very, very angry.
-One week later, Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower visited Ohrdruf.
Shocked by what he saw, Eisenhower ordered all American units in the area to visit the camps.
'We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for,' he said.
'Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.'
Allen Moskin was an 18-year-old soldier with the 71st Infantry Division when his unit discovered Gunskirchen Lager, a subcamp of Mauthausen Concentration Camp, in Austria.
-All of a sudden, the most overpowering, nauseating stench, it was a smell that got into your nostrils, into your body.
It's a smell I can never, ever forget.
I'm going to tell you, entering that camp was the most horrific sight I've ever seen or ever hope to see the rest of my life.
Their cheeks were all hollowed out, their eyes sunken back into their sockets of their heads.
They all looked alike.
I remember seeing many chanting prayers, looking skyward.
Some were crawling.
-My buddies, they couldn't have been nicer to myself and another Jewish fellow.
Just pissed off, I tell you, as much as I was, if not more.
They were going to kill every Nazi S.O.B.
They screamed and hollered, 'My god. These are civilians.
How can you treat people like this?'
-The horrified servicemen tried to help, handing out rations to the desperate prisoners.
Most of the survivors did not speak English, and so when they could, Jewish GIs spoke to them in Yiddish, the language shared by most European Jews.
-The lieutenant knew I was Jewish, and he said, 'Moskin, say something in Yiddish.'
So when I said, in German... [ Speaking German ] That means that I am also a Jew.
I remember this elderly man, he came toward me, and then he wrapped his arms around me.
[ Speaking foreign language ] You know, 'American Jew soldier, thank you,' and then I felt tears on my cheek as he came up.
He was holding me tight, and I started to cry, and I'm not embarrassed to say that it was very emotional.
-Many more soldiers on patrol throughout Germany would also bear witness to the camps.
Henry Kissinger was with a division that liberated Ahlem, a subcamp of Bergen-Belsen.
-They knew they were free, but they didn't know exactly.
I just told them they were free and what we would do.
-Years later, Kissinger discovered that his grandmother had passed through the same camp he had helped liberate.
-The Germans kept meticulous records, so I found out that my grandmother died on the death march 3 days before the end of the war.
Thirteen members of our family died in concentration camps.
Three sisters of my father, my step-grandmother, second cousins were all sent to Auschwitz.
♪♪ -Si Lewen went to Buchenwald, where 20,000 survivors had been liberated by the American Army.
-I had gone to the crematorium, and the ovens, they still had the ashes in them, you know.
You can tell that they were still burning bodies very recently, and...I broke down.
I completely fell apart.
I went to the medical station, and I told them, 'I can't go on.'
♪♪ The war was over for me, and within a few days, I was on the hospital ship... ♪♪ ♪♪ ...going home.
♪♪ -Rabbi David Max Eichhorn arrived at Dachau on April 30th, the day after he was liberated.
'We cried not merely tears of sorrow.
We cried tears of hate,' he wrote later, 'Combat-hardened soldiers, gentile and Jew, black and white cried tears of hate.'
[ Singing in Hebrew ] -After 6 days of tending to the survivors at Dachau, Rabbi Eichhorn held a religious service for them.
♪♪ -Today, I come to you in a dual capacity as a soldier in the American Army and as a representative of the Jewish community of America.
We are proud to know that we have had a share in the destruction of the most cruel tyranny of all time.
We are proud to salute you who have been the bravest of the brave.
We know your tragedy.
We know your sorrows.
We know that upon you was centered the venomous hatred.
♪♪ [ Singing in Hebrew ] -The Torah Eichhorn prayed with had been given to him in France, salvaged from a desecrated synagogue and hidden from the Nazis.
[ Singing in Hebrew ] -Eichhorn would discover later that one of his own family members, his namesake, Uncle Max, had been murdered at Dachau.
♪♪ Nearly 6 million Jews had been killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
One thousand years of Jewish life and culture in Europe had all but been destroyed.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered to the Allied forces.
Just one week earlier, Adolf Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, where he had been hiding for months.
Although the war against the Japanese still raged in the Pacific, the Allies declared victory in Europe.
-'It's V.E. Day!'
Everybody was yelling and screaming and running in the streets.
-V.E. Day happened.
We were in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia.
That's where all the good beer comes from.
So we had a good drink of beer.
♪♪ -While many celebrated, some Jewish servicemen were overwhelmed by the horrors they had witnessed.
26-year-old Sergeant J.D. Salinger, the grandson of a rabbi from Lithuania, had survived D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate the concentration camps.
Throughout it all, he had carried with him a collection of stories he had written during his service, the first draft of 'The Catcher in the Rye.'
Now, he spent V.E. Day alone sitting on his bed, holding a loaded pistol.
Soon afterward, he checked himself into a hospital in Nuremberg and was diagnosed with battle fatigue.
♪♪ -J.D. Salinger experienced firsthand many of the most horrific campaigns in Europe.
If you look at his stories, the shadow is so strong of the war, particularly in the short story he wrote in which the main protagonist is a Jewish GI, and the story ends with him committing suicide.
So it's this deep shadow over this notion of what it meant to be a Jew after the war.
[ Explosions ] -Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the Allies continued to battle the Japanese.
Then, in August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On August 14th, Japan formally agreed to an unconditional surrender, and the Allies declared victory over Japan.
Now, finally, World War II had come to an end.
-I recently came upon a letter that I had written from camp to my parents on the day the war ended.
The last sentence was underlined and said, 'Fred will be coming home soon.'
My brother, in the Pacific, would be coming home.
Just multiply that by 15 million families who also had somebody saying, 'And now, Charlie will be coming home.'
♪♪ -The servicemen were joyfully reunited with their parents, their siblings and their wives and girlfriends.
-I saw my wife. We didn't talk.
We sat in the back of the car that picked us up 5 to 10 minutes without saying one word, just staring at each other, just staring.
No words were spoken.
Then finally, we broke down and hugged and kissed each other.
It was wonderful.
-Synagogues stayed open around the clock to accommodate all of the couples who wanted to marry.
Some rabbis performed as many as eight weddings a day.
♪♪ ♪♪ In the years after the war, the returning servicemen would challenge America to live up to the values they had fought for so fiercely, democracy, equality, and religious tolerance for all.
♪♪ -One of the things that happens to Jewish soldiers after the war is that the military teaches you how to fight, how to stand up for yourself, and Jewish servicemen in Miami, for example, would put on their uniforms and go from hotel to hotel that had these signs of, you know, 'No Jews, no dogs,' and say, 'We're Jews.
You should not discriminate. We served.'
-I think seeing what had happened to Jews and knowing that people were trying to wipe us out completely, I knew I had to do more about being a Jew than just being a Jew.
I had to be active in some way.
♪♪ -Some Jewish veterans chose to fight for a Jewish homeland in Israel.
They smuggled arms into Palestine, helped refugees emigrate from Europe and even joined the Israeli Air Force.
-Many American soldiers became stronger Zionists after they witnessed what had happened in the Holocaust.
They believed that Israel was the solution.
They worked hard for it to become the Jewish state in the years after the war.
-In May 1948, the state of Israel was established.
One-third of its citizens were survivors of the Holocaust.
The United States now had the largest Jewish community in the world numbering some 5 million.
It would be their responsibility to create a new Jewish-American culture and society.
♪♪ In the next decade, they broke ground on thousands of synagogues and supported hundreds of philanthropic organizations at home and abroad.
♪♪ -I joined the B'nai B'rith right after the war.
I became active in United Jewish Appeal I just think you had to remember, you know, where you came from.
♪♪ -In the 1950s, Judaism really becomes an American religion.
You can't talk about a Christian country anymore.
Now you talk about a Judeo-Christian country, and discriminating against people who are Jews or who are blacks makes us like the very Nazis whom we defeated.
-For some of the GIs, getting involved in civil rights was really an extension of what they had been fighting for in the war.
Fighting for democracy or for equality, all of this translated into fighting for civil rights.
-I went on five Freedom Rides.
I spoke to many churches down South.
I went with Martin Luther King across the bridge in Selma.
I'm not going to be part of a silent majority when people are being persecuted.
I want to help people.
♪♪ -The triumphs and horrors of World War II had changed the Jewish servicemen and women forever.
Some would become the voices of their generation, describing the war they had lived through with a critical eye.
Norman Mailer's novel, 'The Naked and the Dead,' based on his service in the Pacific, would skyrocket its 25-year-old author to fame.
J.D. Salinger would draw on the pain of his own experience in 'The Catcher in the Rye,' which would become a great classic of American literature.
Other Jewish veterans of World War II, including Herman Wouk, Leon Uris, and Joseph Heller would also write bestselling novels, bringing a Jewish perspective to the story of war.
♪♪ Si Lewen, who would become a celebrated artist, incorporated his memories of the war into his painting.
In 1951, Albert Einstein sent Lewen a letter after seeing his drawings.
'Our time needs you and your work,' he wrote.
-Perhaps it makes people think I hated war.
Much of my work consists of what I like to think of anti-war material.
-Max Fuchs became a cantor in 1946, continuing the religious singing he loved so much.
He would always remember leading his fellow servicemen in prayer that victorious day in Aachen, Germany.
-After the war, I went back to orthodoxy, religious all over again.
-After the war, I was badly scarred.
I'm badly scarred and no teeth.
I looked terrible until I got my plastic surgery.
I thought, 'God saved me for a reason, to help people and do good in the world.'
I became a doctor.
I helped a lot of people, saved people's lives.
-Dahlia Pobianski became actively involved with the League of Women Voters and the local democratic party and ran for mayor of Stamford, Connecticut.
-The greatest thing, personally, was I found that I could do things that I had no idea I was capable.
I think it has strengthened me in terms of what I knew I could do.
After the war, there was nothing I was afraid to do.
-After the war, I had to decide, what am I going to do now?
I thought, 'I've done so much destruction.
I want to help people now.'
I thought, 'I'll become a rabbi.'
I encouraged Jews to maintain their faith, not to lose faith.
We have to improve mankind.
That's our mission.
-I didn't talk about my service for 50 years, but now, I speak all over.
It's like a calling with me.
I want these young people what happened back then.
I've always felt proud to be a Jew, and I try to get along with all different people.
I always repeat what Maya Angelou said, 'We are more alike than different,' no matter whether you're Jewish or Catholic or black or white.
I do the best I can to try to get rid of the hate.
That's the only reason I talk about it.
I'm just telling how it affected me as a young American GI because I want the young people to know the truth.
I want to be sure that they have a better world.
♪♪ ♪♪ -'GI Jews' is available on DVD.
To order, visit shop.pbs.org or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.
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