On his 78th combat mission, Lt. Col. Melvin Pollack was shot down in Hanoi in 1967.
After surviving the crash, Pollack was taken to a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp where he says he and John McCain, now a U.S. senator, were interrogated to try to get them to reveal U.S. military plans. (They didn’t.) He says the two communicated through small holes between the cells.
Looking back at the five years and eight months he was held in captivity, Pollack, of Delray Beach, says there was one thing that helped him keep his spirits high.
“My Jewish heritage — believe it or not — played a huge role in this,” said Pollack, 72.
Pollack’s story is one of several chronicled in the documentary, A Call to Serve: Florida Jews and the U.S. Military, by South Florida filmmaker Steve Waxman. The show will air at 9 p.m tonight on WLRN-TV Channel 17. Among those featured in the film: Fontainebleau hotel architect Morris Lapidus, who designed the signal search light used by the military to send codes during World War II, and former Miami Beach Mayor Mitchell Wolfson Sr., who resigned from office to fight the Nazis.
Waxman, a Hollywood resident, came to WLRN with the idea of making a documentary after he visited an exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in 2010, Florida Jews in the Military. Waxman worked with the Jewish Museum to locate Jewish veterans dating back to World War II. He also credits an article in the Palm Beach Post that introduced him to Boca Raton resident Irwin Stovroff, a 91-year-old veteran who served for four years in World War II and was held as a prisoner of war in a Nazi camp.
Through Stovroff, Waxman met Pollack and others with compelling stories, including Lettie Bien, a retired U.S. Army colonel who fought in Iraq, and Jenneatte Jacobson, 93, a former supply seargent in the U.S. Army who served during World War II.
“I went into the military on a dare. I remember thinking, ‘What was this nice Jewish girl from Miami doing in the military?’ ” she tells viewers.
The documentary traces the service of Jews from the Seminole Wars in the 1830s to the more recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Waxman said he wanted to let each voice tell his or her own story.
“This piece was very challenging, like a jigsaw puzzle,” Waxman said. “I wanted to make sure each role and each story was well represented.”
At a film screening held at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale last week, those in attendance –– the film subjects and friends and family members –– said Waxman met that challenge.
Alan Tomlinson, director of original programming for WLRN and a writer/producer behind the film, Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, said he noticed something special as the audience watched Waxman’s documentary.
“I like to watch, not so much the documentary when I come to these things, but the audience. I like to see their reactions,” Tomlinson said. “This time I didn’t have to. I could just tell from the silent intensity in the theater that everyone was just glued to these amazing stories.”
Richard Rosenzweig, a Deerfield Beach city commissioner and member of Honor Flight South Florida, an organization that aids senior veterans wishing to visit the memorial sites of the wars they fought in, said keeping the stories alive is important.
“The old canard still exists that Jews don’t fight,” said Rosenzweig, 75. “In most countries people don’t join to serve. But in World War II, a lot of Jews joined to serve. They were waiting to be called up.”
Rosenzweig says Waxman’s documentary will help highlight the strong feelings many Jews have about military service.
“Jews have always understood that the importance to protect the freedoms that this country offered,” he said.
This report was supplemented by reporting from the Sun Sentinel.