World War II Vets Are the Focus of Locally Produced Film

By Amy Krakovitz

More than 500,000 Jewish people served in the armed forces in World War II. An estimated 8,000 were killed. The remainder have lived their lives with honor, members of “The Greatest Generation.” But soon these voices will be gone. And yet, a small group of Charlotteans was determined not to let the voices of our local Jewish War Veterans be lost to the ages. They have joined forces to create a documentary that features the stories of our local Jewish World War II veterans.

It began in November of 2013, when Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran Barry Ross was determined to breathe new life into the local Jewish War Veterans’ Post. He sent out notices to local vets to start meeting again and by February 2014 they had their first meeting. “Veterans’ Posts are not supposed to be social clubs,” Ross said, “so we were looking for a project to benefit the local members.” Ross realized what most of us already know about Holocaust survivors, that the voices of the World War II veterans will soon be gone. And he knew that their stories were both fascinating and precious.

So he, Steve Russak, another member of the local JWV post, and Eileen Schwartz, who operates Flags Across the Nation, a non-profit organization that supports the arts for US military veterans, came together to brainstorm.

Their solution was to record the stories of local area Jewish veterans and create a video testimony, similar to what the Library of Congress already has done with many war veterans. “The mission of the project was not simply to document stories, but rather to create an engaging and dynamic video that would especially impact younger viewers,” states Russak, the current Post Commander.

It was Schwartz’s experience in the Jewish community that led her to suggest applying for an Impact Fund grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, and when they received the award, they were elated.

Seeking Assistance

With no real video experience among them, they sought out partners in the production industry and found Glenn Fishkin at Full Scale Productions. As a member of the Jewish community who has “always had a special place in my heart for our veterans,” Fishkin heard the proposal from Ross, Russak, and Schwartz and said, “I was in.”

ith his expertise, he knew he could deliver a professional and dynamic film.  And while the funds received from the Impact Fund were a great start, they needed to raise more money for a full length documentary.

Together they set up a GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/jews-ww2-doc) where they have nearly reached their goal. “We are moved and blessed by everyone’s donations,” Fishkin said, with a special thanks to Barbara and Jerry Levin.

It was Schwartz who managed to locate most of the Jewish WWII vets with initial help from Jewish Family Services. “At first the vets were so humble,” she said, “they felt that they didn’t deserve this recognition.” But their stories were compelling and mesmerizing, not to mention both humorous and poignant. “How could we NOT tell these stories?” Fishkin asked rhetorically.

The interviews revealed a complex situation for the Jewish soldiers in World War II. Their Judaism did indeed play a role in their identities, but it was difficult. Very few comrades were Jewish. They were subjected to the expected taunting. But their commanding officers were never anti-Semitic, giving them leeway to stand up for themselves, or coming to their defense if necessary.

And they were proud of themselves, too, as the consensus among non-Jews was that “Jews don’t do that; they don’t fight or serve in the military.”

Once interviewing and filming began, the amount of work and time involved in making a film of this scope became apparent. Many volunteers were enlisted, including Morry Alter, a former feature reporter from WCBS in New York.

Since the project began, four of the interviewees have passed away, highlighting the urgency of the project.

Now that Fishkin has the film in the editing stage, Ross, Russak, and Schwartz are thinking about future plans for the completed piece. There will be a red carpet premier on Veterans Day weekend at Ballantyne Theater, with the remaining vets in attendance. Tickets will be free and there will be a dessert reception following the film. The trailer for the film can be seen at the gofundme site: https://www.gofundme.com/jews-ww2-doc.

But the team also sees more possibilities for the final product: submission to the Library of Congress, entries into Jewish Film Festivals, becoming part of the public school curriculum, being shown nationwide on PBS, and becoming a resource item in libraries. Anything is possible.

The team would like to thank the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte and Susan Gundersheim and Jeff Turk of the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival for their assistance.jwv large poster

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