By: SPC Jacob Perez, USA
G.I. Jews: A thoughtful documentary that explores the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of Jewish American WW2 soldiers. If you’re reading this, chances are good that you’re serving in the U.S. military, have served, or are a close friend or relative of a veteran. It’s also likely that, if you’re reading this, you’re Jewish. As such, you’re probably somewhat familiar with the difficulties American Jewish service members face on account of their religion and/or ethnicity. However, the PBS documentary G.I. Jews reminds us of how fortunate we are to live in an age of relative tolerance, and pays fitting tribute to those who paved the way. Paved the way for Jews to be accepted as equals among their non-Jewish brothers-in-arms. Paved the way for Judaism to be accepted as an “American” religion—the cultural shift from explicitly Christian to Judeo-Christian that marks a level of acceptance from the majority culture rarely experienced by Jews at any point in human history.
G.I. Jews lets us see the war through the eyes of those who were there, with a number of poignant, deeply personal interviews. These include famous Jews you might not realize are also World War II veterans, such as comedy luminaries Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. What makes these interviews particularly fascinating to this viewer is their dual focus. Jewish-American servicemembers, whether former refugees or native born, were in essence fighting two wars at once. In addition to taking on the Nazis (and of course the other Axis powers, depending on where they were deployed), they also faced the slings and arrows of their fellow Americans. Granted, even today, unpleasant encounters are a fact of life for Jews in the military. Many of us have probably been told “you’re the first Jew I’ve ever met!” (a benign, if awkward comment) or worse, been subjected to tasteless gas chamber “jokes” during CBRN training. But in an age of EO, these instances are the exception rather than the rule. Anti-Semitism never went away, but at least most people who harbor such views are smart enough not to express them out loud, let alone act on them.
This was not always the case in the 1940s. It wasn’t all bad, however. G.I. Jews highlights multiple examples of philo-Semitism (that is, anti-anti-Semitism) and moral courage of the highest order from non-Jewish service members. One particularly moving example: MSG Roddie Edmonds (z”l), a devout Christian who was taken prisoner with over a thousand other Americans during the Battle of the Bulge. When their captors called for all Jewish prisoners to present themselves (for torture, or more likely, summary execution), MSG Edmonds stood firm, and not one soldier under his charge broke ranks. When the Nazis reiterated the command, the heroic sergeant defiantly declared: “We’re all Jews here.” What a bad@!
War affects everyone differently. It’s said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but when faced with the horrors of war, some people find faith, some people lose it. It’s painful to hear from these veterans the deep spiritual challenges they faced, and heaven forbid we should judge anyone who’s been through and witnessed such misery. G.I. Jews also recounts some truly uplifting experiences however, such as the first official Jewish prayer service held in Nazi Germany, under the auspices of the U.S. Army, with mortars still landing in the distance.
For anyone seeking more knowledge of what life was like for our military predecessors, or who just wants to know a little more about this aspect of the Jewish-American experience, G.I. Jews is a valuable resource. It’s a story that bears repeating; may it continue to be a source of inspiration, and nachas (pride), for generations to come.
SPC Perez is the former managing editor of the Jewish Voice of New York and a recovering journalist. He is also the founder of Maccabee Apparel, a line of clothing and décor based on Jewish warrior themes. Check it out at www.MaccabeeApparel.com.
Originally published in the Passover 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.