Over the past several years, PBS and its affiliate networks have released relevant documentaries around the time of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Last year, it was a NOVA piece about the destruction of Vilna, Lithuania, and several prisoners who escaped from the killing pits at Ponary. This year, PBS focused on the Americans who fought in World War II with “GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II,” a riveting film about what it meant to be a Jewish American in the armed forces at that time, and the experiences of a wide range of people involved.
The documentary begins with an unsurprising but disheartening exploration of the anti-Semitism that Jewish GIs faced from their own countrymen during basic training. About half of American Jews lived in New York City at the time, and for many of the soldiers, it was their first time meeting a Jewish person. In the interviews, it is clear that some of those interactions still sting, as they worked to counter stereotypes and prove themselves to be just as American as anyone else. As we move through the film, however, it becomes clear that serving in the armed forces during the war could be considered an equalizer, a piece of history that ultimately served to integrate the Jewish population into mainstream American society.
We are treated to especially moving portions when we learn about American forces coming upon concentration camps as they invade Germany. Several of the former soldiers interviewed were recent immigrants to the U.S., and their testimony is especially harrowing as they describe the suffering of people who very well could have been their neighbors or extended family before they immigrated. In fact, one interviewee notes that almost all the Jewish GIs in his unit had extended families in Europe that were no longer alive. Among the former soldiers, encountering the concentration camps served to galvanize their Jewish identities, and added even more emphasis to the fact that their Jewish identities and their American identities were now inextricable.
The roughly 90-minute documentary is filled with interviews with famous American Jews who fought in the war, like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, regular Jewish corpsmen and women with extraordinary stories, and historians of American Jewish life, like Brandeis University’s own Jonathan Sarna. Though he only makes a few brief appearances, I must admit that as one of his former students, it’s always exciting to see your professor on national television! Furthermore, “GI Jews” explores several other facets of the soldiers’ experience, like those who fought in the Pacific Ocean theater, the plight of Jewish POWs in both theaters, and what it was like to come home from such a harrowing experience. This documentary is not to be missed, as it provides both tight storytelling and fascinating interviews about an important time in America and American Jewish history.
“GI Jews” airs periodically on PBS and can be viewed in full online here.