By CPL Jacob Perez, USA
Jewish tradition contains within it a comprehensive set of guidelines to lead a happy, fulfilled life. As history has shown us, however, that happiness (and even life itself) can be taken from us through events beyond our control. The Torah also contains laws on how to respond to injustice, and how to conduct ourselves with honor in even the bleakest of circumstances. In the book of Vayikra, (Leviticus) chapter 19, we are commanded: “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood.” When innocent blood is being shed, we have a moral responsibility to what we can to stop it. For some people, that means escaping a dangerous situation, and if one has the wherewithal to do so, helping others to escape. “About Face” is the story of those brave Jewish souls who, after escaping the horrors of the Holocaust, volunteered to re-enter the fray as members of the Allied Forces, 20th century goelei hadam, avengers of the blood being shed across Nazi-occupied Europe. Originally released in 2005, it recently became available to a wider audience via Amazon Video.
The first half hour of this feature-length documentary provides context on the Jewish experience in Europe leading up to and during the Holocaust. Against a backdrop of rampant assimilation, many Jews, who felt fully integrated into their societies (particularly Germany), were shocked and disillusioned by Hitler’s meteoric rise to power, and the horrors that ensued. The fortunate ones got out before the Final Solution (that is, the near total annihilation of the Jewish People), many of them finding refuge in the UK, the U.S., or the Land of Israel.
Real-life Inglourious Basterds
“There were some who said ‘well we have been through enough’ and ‘let somebody else do it now,’ and we would say hell, this is ours. Look at what we’ve done to our friends and families. Look what they’re doing now. The only way to end it is to strike back.”
These are words of one of many heroic Jewish World War II veterans whose harrowing personal stories are the most engaging part of “About Face.” Interestingly, among those interviewed was former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a former refugee who served with distinction during the war. Firsthand accounts blend seamlessly with wartime footage and contemporary newsreels to immerse the audience. This viewer couldn’t help but kvell a little when watching foreign volunteers, among them many fellow Jews, being inducted as U.S. citizens while serving on the front lines.
“About Face” tells us about many Jewish refugees who made it to the United Kingdom, and suffered discrimination there as “friendly enemy aliens,” though to hear it from people who went through it, this milder persecution was a relief compared to the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. Many of these so-called enemy aliens volunteered for wartime service and were routed to the British Army’s Pioneer Corps, a non-combat unit largely comprised of less fit or injured soldiers, and immigrants. However, from there, many Jews were recruited, thanks to their native fluency in German, by an elite commando unit!
Meanwhile, in the United States, Jews volunteered and served in a wide variety of roles. While many were pigeonholed into what one veteran said was called the “Jewish army” by his gentile contemporaries (e.g. noncombat roles like the Medical Corps), some went out of their way to go infantry, and many were assigned to military intelligence (again, language skills) and trained as interrogators. A Jewish veteran, Martin Selling, shares one of his experiences interrogating Germans during the war: “He said, ‘May I inquire where you learned to speak such good German? And I told him, I learned how to speak German in Germany, and I learned how to interrogate prisoners when I was (an inmate) in Dachau.” Upon hearing this, Mr. Selling tells us, the detainee promptly soiled himself.
“About Face” is a fascinating account of Jewish military service, from the beaches of Normandy, to the fight across Europe, to the liberation of the Nazi death camps. And its message still resonates today. With overt anti-Semitism again on the rise in western society, Jews are often maligned as a group, and treated as foreigners in their own countries of birth. The myth that Jews don’t do their fair share, are cowardly, and don’t serve in the military, are some of many hurtful lies leveled against us. The heroes of “About Face” found the American dream (or its British equivalent) by escaping the Hitler’s grasp, and becoming citizens of their adopted countries by helping topple the Nazi regime to the benefit of all of mankind.
As a visibly Jewish service member, I am keenly aware of the stereotypes some folks hold about us (and this despite frequently hearing from my battle buddies “you’re the first Jew I’ve ever met”). As it happens, my entry onto active duty fell on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) a few years back. But I don’t think of it as mere coincidence. We’ve all learned to say “never again,” but Jewish soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen live those words, and at no time was this truer than during World War II. If you live those words, or admire those who do, you’ll probably enjoy “About Face.”
Jacob Perez is an American Jewish soldier and former editor of the Jewish Voice of NY. He can be reached at [email protected].
Originally published in the Tishrei 2020 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.