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Jewish Journal

Films of triumph and despair

by Tom Tugend

April 20, 2011 | 11:00 am

Ira Feinberg as an American volunteer in Israel's War of Independence. Photos courtesy of Ira Feinberg.

Ira Feinberg as an American volunteer in Israel's War of Independence. Photos courtesy of Ira Feinberg.

When Israel fought its War of Independence, embedded TV cameramen were unknown and even combat newsreel photographers were practically non-existent. The newly created state had more important matters to worry about.

More surprisingly, there have been hardly any movies celebrating the near miraculous victories of 1948-49, and later of the Six-Day War in 1967.

Unlike Hollywood, which would have turned out dozens of macho movies showing Yossi Wayne-stein single-handedly wiping out five Arab armies, Israelis just let the facts speak for themselves.

Hollywood made one try at plugging the cinematic hole with “Cast a Giant Shadow,” starring Kirk Douglas in the role of Col. David “Mickey” Marcus, an American World War II officer who went to Israel in early 1948 to aid the country in its struggle. Predictably, the picture was long on drama and short on reality.

Actually, though, there were some Americans and Canadians, mostly Jews but also a fair number of Christians, who put their bodies on the line to realize the dream of creating a Jewish state.

First came the crew members of Aliyah Bet, who manned the rust bucket ships that ran the British blockade to bring some remnants of European Jewry to Palestine in 1947 and early 1948.

While the state was being established, about 1,500 American and Canadians, together with men and women from 43 other countries, made their way to the nascent Jewish state, mostly by illegal means, to fight alongside their Israeli brothers and sisters.

They were called Machal, the Hebrew acronym for Volunteers from Outside Israel. They fought in all branches of the service, but their greatest impact was in applying their World War II experiences to build up the Israeli air force and navy.

In doing so, the American Machalniks clearly broke U.S. laws and risked loss of their citizenship and surprisingly little is known of their deeds in either their home country or Israel.

One of their number was Ira Feinberg, a 17-year old New Yorker, who joined the elite troops of the Palmach.

Sixty years later, in 2008, Feinberg returned to Israel for a reunion some of the remaining Machalniks. Realizing that this was likely to be the last gathering of the aging veterans, he brought along a camera crew to save their reminiscences for posterity.

The result is a 40-minute DVD, “My Brother’s Keeper,” which recreates a real sense of those long-ago years.

Nowadays, when Israeli military prowess is taken for granted, it beggars the imagination to hear the veterans talk of fighting, at the beginning, with World War I rifles and dropping hand grenades from open cockpits.

Feinberg enlivens the testimony with some historic newsreel footage and photos of bare-chested Machalniks posing fiercely with Browning Automatic Rifles, but, of necessity, the film is somewhat static.

The volunteers came to Israel for many and diverse reasons, but what shines through is their pride in having been part of a climactic moment in Jewish history.

Looking back, Canadian Joe Warner observed, “If we failed to have a state, being a Jew anywhere in the world wouldn’t be worth a nickel.”

Story continues after the jump.


Find more photos like this on EveryJew.com

Feinberg himself concluded, “No other experience in my life had such meaning as this period serving in the first army to fight for the Jewish people and for the independence of the State of Israel. This was the pinnacle of my life’s experiences. Nothing comes close to it.”

“My Brother’s Keeper” is produced by Cinema Angeles and can be ordered by going to www.Irafeinberg.com.

The Jewish Film Festival will screen “My Brother’s Keeper” on Israel Independence Day, May 10, at 12:30 p.m. at the Westside Jewish Community Center. For details, go to www.lajfilmfest.org.

If “My Brother’s Keeper” chronicles one of the apogees in Jewish history, “The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City” surely represents one of its nadirs.

The 23 minutes of raw, unedited footage is all that has been found of a Nazi propaganda project to “prove” that the “model” Theresienstadt camp was a veritable paradise for its Jewish inmates.

Shot in early 1944, when the horrors of Hitler’s Final Solution finally trickled out to the West, the film was part of an effort to hoodwink a visiting International Red Cross delegation that all was productive work and wholesome recreation in Theresienstadt, and by extension in other concentration camps.

There contented workers shoed horses, made pottery and designed handbags, in after hours well-dressed man and women attended concerts and lectures, and kids played soccer or gorged themselves on sandwiches.

All this to the incongruous background music from Offenbach’s “Gaite Parisienne” or a jazzy “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.”

Kurt Gerron

The director of what must be one of the oddest scraps of cinematic history was a mountainous Jewish inmate, Kurt Gerron, whose strange story of pride and self-deception is documented in a companion film, “Kurt Gerron’s Karussel (Carousel).”

Gerron, a native Berliner born Kurt Gerson, was a towering figure, both in girth and as a leading impresario in the swinging Berlin cabaret scene of the 1920s.

He was also a successful actor, playing the nightclub owner in “The Blue Angel” opposite Marlene Dietrich, and was featured in the world premiere cast of “The Three Penny Opera.”

Though banned from the German stage in 1933, Gerron persisted in the self-delusion that his talent and charm would triumph in the end.

When Peter Lorre and other German expatriates in Hollywood arranged for Gerron to join them and even pay the travel expenses for the impresario and his family, Gerron refused on the grounds that the proffered ship accommodations weren’t first class.

He did establish a temporary second career in France and Holland, but the Nazis caught up with him and deported him to Theresienstadt.

When “The Fuehrer Gives a City” project came along, Gerron saw a chance to burnish his career and signed on as director. He also swallowed the “word of honor” of the German camp commandant that his life would be spared after he completed the film.

Instead, Gerron was sent to Auschwitz in October 1944 and killed one day before SS chief Heinrich Himmler gave the order to shut down the gas chambers for good.

“Karussel” director Ilona Ziok combines footage of Gerron’s halcyon days in Berlin with testimony of surviving Jewish camp prisoners to draw a picture of Gerron as a tragic, self-deluded figure, “a big, strong man with the mind of a child,” in the words of a fellow Theresienstadt prisoner.

“Kurt Gerron’s Karussel” is available as a DVD, but distribution of “The Fuehrer Gives a City to the Jews” has been sharply limited by the distributor.

A spokesman for Seventh Art Releasing said that the film fragment was available for free, but fearing misuse of the material, it could only be used for educational and scholarly purposes and had to be clearly labeled as Nazi propaganda.

For additional information on both films, e-mail edu@7thart.com or phone (323) 845-1455.

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