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San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: 'From Philadelphia to the Front'

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By Gail Feinstein Forman

LA JOLLA, California– In the visually affecting movie, From Philadelphia to the Front, we meet six Jewish World War ll veterans who recall their wartime experiences and the impact it had on their lives.

Though the film is a short 35 minutes, it is dense with historical and emotional weight.

 The photographer and filmmaker, Judy Gilles, had come across WWll memorabilia of her father-in-law who had never talked about the war, and this became the impetus for this movie.

With great sensitivity, the film echoes the experiences of many WWll Jewish veterans who found themselves aggressively fighting Hitler and anti-Semitism both at home and in their ranks.

Coming from the ghettoized streets of Philadelphia in the 1930’s and 1940’s, these men, though from different family backgrounds, were street wise and used to fending off and quelling neighborhood anti-Semitic taunts with aggressive personal actions.

Hair-raising archival footage is inserted of the German Bund meeting and marching during this time period in Philadelphia that increased local, open displays of anti-Semitism.

These men all encountered similar experiences in the military, and being conditioned from these experiences at home, also fought it directly.

One Jewish veteran said he felt compelled to volunteer for the most dangerous missions just to erase the stereotyping of Jews as soldiers who could not fight.

Another veteran urgently stopped an anti-Semitic rant during a bus ride with his military company with actually threatening violent action against the perpetrator.

When one of the veterans asked for a pass to be able to attend a Passover Seder, the company commander said “You’re not one of those, are you?”

Time after time, these men were reminded they were members of a discriminated against minority.

Though the anti-Semitism permeated their stories, it was incidental to the main thrust of their wartime experiences.

War was what they experienced-fear, danger and death.

When first asked to talk about these experiences on film, each man responded that it was behind him, and that he never thinks about it anymore.

 Each said he had moved on and at first it appeared as if the conversation was over.

 But the filmmakers draw each man out, and capture the ways the war and the early years after, were defining moments in their lives.

Whatever their travails, there was purpose and promise in the service they rendered for their country- and their people. 

As one remarked, “Can you just imagine what would have happened if we didn’t win?”

The film also includes related archival footage and stills and newsreels of Shabbat and Passover Seders during the war.

Of particular note is footage of the first Jewish service at Dachau after liberation, on June 5, 1945.

Viewers will be swept up in the emotion of this scene and its ironic twists.

We watch as a survivor presented a smiling American Jewish wartime chaplain with flowers while the chaplain approached the platform for his speech.

The chaplain then made a welcoming a speech to a huge crowd of survivors, mostly men. They looked at him quizzically, in a daze. The chaplain spoke clearly and resolutely in English, but few spoke the language.

You soon realize, that in this setting, with the Dachau “barracks” in the background, it was, indeed, a world gone upside down.

But as the chaplain turned towards the makeshift Torah ark, and began the service in Hebrew, the survivors, without needing to understand the words, wept.

The film can be seen on February 17 at AMC LA Jolla at 4:30 PM.

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Gail Feinstein Forman is a San Diego-based freelance writer

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