Jewish Americans accounted for a higher percentage of the US military during World War II than the entire US population. On Sunday, May 27 at 9:30 p.m., WNED-TV will broadcast a documentary which celebrates the Jews who contributed to the war effort, specifically members of the US Army Air Corps.
The program is known as Bagels Over Berlin and gets its title from a story shared by veteran Sidney Katz, one of many interviewed for the project.
He explained his sister had written him a letter, concerned that the care packages she had been sending were inadequate. When she asked what he really wanted, he jokingly suggested she send bagels.
"Sure enough, a package arrived. I open the package and there was two bagels," he recalled.
There was a problem, though. Given the length of time required to ship the package to Europe, the bagels were quite hard and inedible by the time Katz got them. But he got an idea what to do with them when he was activated for a bombing mission over Berlin.
"I opened the bomb bay doors, I take the two bagels and I throw them out," he said. "I come back and wrote a letter and I said 'Libby, you want to know what happened to the two bagels? They were bagels over Berlin.'"
Much of the film, though, takes a more serious look at the decision by many Jewish veterans to enlist, including why they volunteered for the Army Air Corp. The participants also discussed their symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, in some cases, how they endured life as prisoners of war.
Irwin Stovroff, who grew up in Buffalo, was on a B-29 which was shot down on a bombing run. During a series of interrogations, the German officer trying to get information finally resorted to revealing personal information including names of Stovroff's relatives, the schools he attended and even a summer job he held.
"I looked at him and said I don't understand," said Stovroff, who died in Florida this past January. "And he said 'well let me tell you something.' He said 'you lived on Claremont Avenue in Buffalo, New York. My parents lived on Ashland Avenue in Buffalo,' which was the next street over. He said 'you were their newspaper boy.'"
Stovroff suggested in his interview that the same former neighbor, who chose to return to Germany to enlist for his ancestral fatherland, also may have saved his life by doing the favor of not listing Stovroff's religion on his prison record.
According to film producer Alan Feinberg, Jews made up about 3.3 percent of the US population during World War II but accounted for 4.3 percent of the entire US military. An estimated 150,000 Jews enlisted. About 11,000 of them were killed in action while about 40,000 were wounded.
They enlisted, Feinberg, because they wanted to defend the country they loved, even with a level of anti-Semitism which existed at home. Feinberg feels many of them felt they had a little more to prove.
"They thought of themselves as Americans first and Jewish second," he said. "They were blended into American society. They were getting educated. They were opening up businesses. They just wanted to be American."
Collectively, Jewish-American veterans received more than 49,000 awards for valor and merit, including two Congressional Medals of Honor, 157 Distinguished Service Medals and 1,600 Silver Stars.
Bagels Over Berlin will be broadcast in Buffalo on Sunday, May 27 at 9:30 p.m.