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‘GI Jews’ review: Battling bigotry while serving in World War II

In October 1944, Max Fuchs (left, in prayer

In October 1944, Max Fuchs (left, in prayer shawl) sings in Aachen, Germany, during the first Jewish service to be held on German soil since the rise of Hitler, as recounted in PBS' "GI Jews." Credit: Max Fuchs

THE DOCUMENTARY “GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II”

WHEN | WHERE 10 p.m. Wednesday on WNET/13

WHAT IT’S ABOUT More than half a million American Jews served during the Second World War. In this film, Lisa Ades explores their unique experience during the war, as they sought to observe religion, confront anti-Semitism and reverse bigoted impressions among some service members that they were less than patriotic or courageous. The film, airing on Holocaust Remembrance Day, also explores how the war changed the trajectory of the Jewish-American experience.

MY SAY The wide arc of the Jewish GI’s experience between Dec. 7, 1941, and Aug. 14, 1945, was built upon thousands and thousands of stories, no two the same. Max Fuchs recalls singing as cantor at the first Jewish service on German soil since Hitler had come to power, on Oct. 29, 1944, in Aachen. Alan Moskin remembers embracing a skeletal camp survivor, then “I started to cry and I’m not embarrassed to say it was very emotional.” Facing the same unrelieved horror, after having faced so many others, Si Lewen broke down, and was soon on a hospital ship returning home.

Lester Tanner, taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge, had been sent to Stalag IX A, where the commandant demanded that the Jewish prisoners step forward. Instead, all 1,275 prisoners stepped forward, while a gentile, the senior noncommissioned officer in charge, Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, Tennessee, declared, “We are all Jews here.” The commandant backed down, and Edmonds, who died in 1985, was credited with saving 200 of his fellow soldiers that day.

What’s so good about “GI Jews” are the stories, but what’s so stirring are the men and women telling them. They are old now, their voices waver and occasionally falter when an emotion crowds their memory. Almost all of them wear the cap that bears their unit or service insignia. Members of that Greatest Generation, they seem like so many other veterans who have spoken on countless other documentaries over the years. But as Jews, their role was uniquely perilous, especially if they were captured in the European theater. They also had to stare down anti-Semitism from the boot camp to the battlefield. Many of the veterans on this program can recall some searing incident of bigotry — a wayward comment, a brutal gesture, or in one instance, a Dear John letter from a GI breaking up with his girlfriend, also in the service, after he found out she was Jewish.

But attitudes evolved as the war progressed. Recalling the death of his brother, a tank commander, Albert Horowitz says, “Jews were not looked upon as fighting . . . [but] someone who served in the tank with my brother said they loved him and that he was a terrific commander. They called him the Fighting Jew.”

“GI Jews” is also framed by a discussion of the prewar Jewish experience and the postwar one, and how those four years in between profoundly affected the course of the latter. Some of the servicemen and women who returned “were overwhelmed by the horrors they had witnessed,” including J.D. Salinger, who “sat alone on his bed with a loaded pistol” on V-E Day.

But the wide arc of this story would also change American culture and history: “The returning servicemen,” the program says, “would challenge America to live up to the values they had fought for so fiercely.”

BOTTOM LINE Moving, vivid, important.

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