Deborah Dash Moore grew up in Manhattan, where it seemed everyone had a father who had been in World War II.
Moore’s father served on the USS McCormick. His war stories were humorous, like the time, while serving as the destroyer’s navigator in foggy weather in the Gulf of Mexico, he had to ask a passing tanker the way to the Panama Canal.
The ship answered, via Morse code, that he needed to turn the McCormick around. A U-turn. He was headed the wrong way.
“It was funny. He made it seem like he was on a cruise ship,” said Moore, Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History and Judaic Studies.
“He didn’t talk about what it was like in the North Atlantic. He didn’t talk about what it was like escorting ships to North Africa. He didn’t talk about what it was like taking them to Cherbourg in 1944. He dropped all of the dangerous pieces,” she said.
In 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, most commemorations focused on the victory over fascism or the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Moore wondered where her father, a Jewish veteran, fit into the narrative. “I thought: let me see if my father will tell me the real story,” she said.
She asked him, and he did. Moore recorded the interview, and then she started talking with his buddies, friends from his Brooklyn neighborhood. In their seventies, these men were ready to talk about the war.
Slowly, she pieced together an understanding of what these Jewish soldiers experienced. This was the basis of her book GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation (2004).
Around 500,000 Jewish GIs served in World War II. They experienced the war as soldiers and as Jews. Those in the European theater had the unique position of confronting an enemy that was bent on the wholesale eradication of Jewish life. At the same time, antisemitism was pervasive in American society—including the military.
On the battle front and home front, Jewish participation prompted “a shift in the legitimation of Jewish identity, one that would deepen the sense that Jews were at home in America,” Moore writes in GI Jews.
Her book landed on the Washington Post’s best-of-year list and won the American Jewish Historical Society’s Saul Viener Book Prize.
In 2012, eight years after the publication of GI Jews, documentary filmmaker Lisa Ades was immersed in a project on the history of Syrian Jews. When Ades was interviewing Jewish Americans of Syrian descent about their experiences in World War II, she was struck by their unique position in the conflict.
“Their stories were fascinating and surprising,” said Ades. “I was surprised that even though several films had been made on aspects of Jewish Americans in WWII, no one had yet made a comprehensive documentary on the subject.”
Ades was up to the challenge. She was familiar with GI Jews, and she contacted Moore, who agreed to serve as senior advisor for the project.
“We would be able to tell the stories of Jews not only as victims of the war, but as Americans fighting for both their nation and their people,” said Ades.
This wasn’t the first time someone tried to turn GI Jews into a film. In 2006, it was optioned for a documentary, but the project stalled due to funding problems. Six years later, funding would still be a challenge, but the project took on a greater sense of urgency.
Moore began doing interviews in the 1990s when most World War II veterans were in their seventies. Two decades later, most were in their nineties, and according to Ades, less than 6 percent were still alive. It was a race against time to get their memories on film.
After receiving a significant grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ades appealed to the agency to release “emergency funds” so she could start production right away.
“Our first day of shooting in December 2014 was at 92-year-old Carl Reiner’s house in Beverly Hills,” said Ades. “A gentleman and a mensch, he sat for an interview and then allowed us to interview his close friend and fellow GI Jew Mel Brooks there that same afternoon. It was an auspicious start to the project.”
Ades, as producer and director, retained full creative control of the project. The documentary was Ades’s vision of Moore’s monograph. But the film largely adheres to the book, with the notable addition of depicting the experience of women veterans.
Moore, as senior advisor, helped with the narrative arc of the film and reviewed scripts and cuts at different stages of the production.
Because so many of the soldiers carried cameras, the film is able to show what Moore had taken great pains to describe. Snapshots depict soldiers in uniform on the front lines. Family movies show GIs on the home front. Military and news footage portrays the horrors of combat.
While Ades relied on the war’s extensive visual archive and modern-day interviews of veterans, Moore had other materials at her disposal.
“I had letters. That’s the one difference between the movie and the book,” said Moore. “She had to rely on the memories.” And these were seventy years old.
The letters from soldiers are insightful, introspective, and immediate. They were sharing their feelings in real time. As US forces marched east during the liberation, Jewish GIs first encountered the remains of Jewish society. Later, they helped liberate Nazi death camps.
“In the letters, people are ambivalent. There are a lot of different reactions,” said Moore. “How do you do justice to the mix of anger, shame, disgust, fury with God?”
It’s impossible to distill the nuance and detail of a 300-page book into a 90-minute documentary, but the film allows viewers to see what Moore describes in the book. When broadcast nationwide, it has the potential to reach millions.
“This was a book I wanted to reach a wider audience,” said Moore.
On April 11, 2018, GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II debuted on PBS stations nationwide. It’s been screened at film festivals in Ann Arbor, Dallas, Miami, and Philadelphia. Moore has arranged a showing in Ann Arbor, in conjunction with a visit by Ades, on November 6, 2018.