PBS documentary looks at Jewish soldiers of World War II

On Oct. 29, 1944, Max Fuchs (left in prayer shawl) sings in Aachen, Germany during the first Jewish service to be held on German soil since the rise of Hitler. The service was broadcast on NBC. Photo courtesy Max Fuchs

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Much has been said about World War II and the Greatest Generation, but less has been said about the Jewish soldiers who served. A new PBS documentary, “GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II,” sets out to remedy that gap, and shows how this generation helped win the war while transforming the place of Jews in American society. 

More than half a million Jews served in the American military during the war, and the film has the right blend of the historical and the personal to keep viewers hooked. Beyond patriotism, young Jews in the American military – both men and women — had an extra reason to serve. Many were the children of European immigrants, returning to the continent their ancestors fled to come to the aid of fellow Jews. 

However, the documentary goes well beyond a film about Jewish American soldiers fighting Hitler in Europe. 

Director/producer Lisa Ades brings together a host of Jewish veterans to tell their stories, along with never-before-seen photos and film footage. Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Henry Kissinger are among the famous veterans in on-camera interviews, but the film includes details about other famous Jewish Americans who served, such as baseball great Hank Greenberg, as well as writers J.D. Salinger, Herman Wouk and Leon Uris. 


Some of the most moving stories come from non-famous Jewish veterans who tell their stories, often highlighting little known facts and instances of bravery. Among these are the late Bea Cohen, who served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), and relatives of the late Rabbi David Max Eichhorn, one of the chaplains who served the troops during and after the war. 

Ades, who has produced and directed films for PBS and cable TV for more than 25 years, said she felt compelled to make “GI Jews” after hearing some of the veterans’ stories. 

“It came from people I had interviewed about World War II. The Jewish stories that I heard were really extraordinary and surprising,” Ades said in a phone interview. “We’ve heard so much about World War II, so much about Jews and the Holocaust, but this part of the story hasn’t really been told.” 

In her research for the film, Ades said she was surprised by some of her findings, including “the depth of the anti-Semitism that these men and women experienced in basic training.”

As the film reveals, Jews faced a high degree of suspicion and discrimination in pre-WWII America. To prevent religious differences from tearing apart the army the United States was building to fight fascism, the government embarked on a pubic relations campaign to promote religious tolerance of Jews and Catholics in the predominantly Protestant military. The nation included Jewish chaplains for the first time and took other steps to try to accommodate Jewish religious observance, such as including matzah in rations for Passover. 

While many Jewish soldiers encountered anti-Semitism for the first time in basic training, they had other discoveries about the world outside the Jewish communities where they grew up. Some of these were comic, like Mel Brooks’ story about his first cheeseburger, but many also saw racial segregation in the South for the first time. While Jewish soldiers trained in units together with white Christians, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asians, only black soldiers were segregated into separate units, a fact that stuck with many Jewish soldiers after the war.

The documentary is filled with compelling film footage and photos. Among the most moving images is of a young soldier, Max Fuchs, who aspired to become a cantor, praying with other Jewish soldiers on the battlefield. Another is of Rabbi-Chaplain Eichhorn holding a Torah that French Jews hid from the Nazis and praying at the Nuremberg Stadium where Hitler held many of his biggest rallies. 

The documentary continues to follow the veterans after combat. After the war, America had the largest Jewish population in the world and Jewish veterans returned to a changed country that they continued to transform into the Civil Rights era and beyond.

“GI Jews” is an eye-opening and uplifting documentary about the Jewish members of the Greatest Generation and how they came home ready to take a new, bolder place in American life.