Boaz Dvir’s latest documentary began as a search for an answer to a personal question. His maternal grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, had fought in Israel’s war of independence. Stationed with his platoon in the desert, he was given a Mauser rifle that still bore Nazi insignia.
This incongruity struck Dvir as cruelly ironic, and he began wondering how Jewish freedom fighters had ended up using discarded German guns. “I wanted to know how in the world they ended up with these weapons,” said Dvir, who now works as a journalism and documentary senior lecturer at Penn State University. “It really started as an interview with my grandfather. At that time I wasn’t even making documentaries.”
The result of that quest is the hour-long A Wing and A Prayer, distributed by American Public Television to about 100 PBS stations. WPBT Channel 2 will show the film April 14 and 19. It chronicles the little-known story of World War II aviators who returned to war — and risked their lives yet again — to prevent a second Holocaust and give the fledgling state of Israel a chance.
Narrated by William Baldwin, of Parenthood and Hawaii Five-O fame, the film includes exclusive interviews with the secret operation’s leader, Al Schwimmer, and its chief pilot, Sam Lewis. It also features several South Florida connections.
Schwimmer smuggled three B-17 bombers through Miami. The man who sold Schwimmer two of those planes was Charlie Winters, a Miami resident later sentenced to 18 months in a federal penitentiary for violating the U.S. Neutrality Act. What’s more, two members of the operation who are still alive — Shelly Eichel and Gideon Lichtman — live in south Broward County.
Much of the funding for the documentary also came from Florida, namely through the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the Jerome A. Yavitz Charitable Foundation and a research grant from Ralph Lowenstein, a former University of Florida dean. Dvir, who wrote, filmed and edited the documentary, put up half the money. “One [donor] led me to another who led me to another,” Dvir said. “There was a real commitment there in Miami to have the story told.”
And what a story it is. About 1,250 volunteers from North America volunteered to fight for Israel when five Arab states attacked the new Jewish homeland a day after leaders declared independence on May 14, 1948. They were part of a 5,000-strong volunteer corps from 58 countries who would later come to be known as “Machalniks.”
While the Arab armies were supplied with Western military equipment, the Jewish state had to make do with castoffs smuggled from behind the Iron Curtain — hence Dvir’s grandfather’s German rifle. In fact, the United States, as part of a worldwide embargo on Israel, barred its citizens from helping. To get around this, Schwimmer and his accomplices created fake airlines and bought decommissioned transport planes. They smuggled weapons out of foreign countries.
Dvir, who interviewed Schwimmer a year before he died in 2011 at 94, “convinced others to risk their lives and their U.S. citizenship” for a greater good when he could’ve settled into a quiet life in the United States. In 1950, he was convicted of violating the U.S. neutrality law for smuggling the planes and then stripped of his voting rights and veteran benefits, though he never served a prison sentence. Decades later, President Clinton would pardon Schwimmer.
“He changed history,” Dvir now says of the man who later became a successful entrepreneur and confidant to several Israeli leaders.
Of the North American volunteers, most were World War II veterans and still in their early 20s. Most, but not all, were Jewish. For example, Eddie Styrak was a Christian radio operator. To join the fight for independence, he broke out of a British prison in Palestine where he was serving time for bringing Holocaust survivors into the country.
“It’s incredible what these men did after having paid their dues, after risking their lives in another war,” Dvir says. “I truly think they were made of a different substance. They had another spiritual DNA from us. People like them don’t exist anymore.”
Dvir, a University of Florida graduate, would go on to interview 25 aviators, family members and historians, mostly in the U.S. and Israel. “The key,” he added, “was to get the full trust of each one of them so they could tell their story.”
One of these veterans was Licthman, now 91 and living in Pembroke Pines. He is credited with shooting down the first fighter plane in the 1948 war. Growing up in a Zionist household in New Jersey, Licthman says, he didn’t think twice about volunteering — though he can still recall his shock and disappointment when he saw the ragtag air force he had joined. The German Messerschmitt fighters had terrible engines and poor gear.
Lichtman is happy the story of the volunteer pilots is being told, but “I don’t really care if people know about it,” he says. “I was involved because I wanted to do what I could for the Jews. I didn’t do it for the glory.”
To make sure the film stayed true to history, Dvir insisted that every story had to be corroborated by two independent sources. One of the scholars Dvir consulted was Lowenstein, dean emeritus of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. A Malchanik himself, Lowenstein spent 30 years collecting information for the archives of the American Veterans of Israel. He believes Dvir’s film demonstrates how America played a small but significant part in Israel’s war on independence, supplying most of the trained pilots for its new air force.
“The documentary is history exposed,” Lowenstein says. “The story of these volunteers and the diaspora’s aid to Israel has appeared in articles and theses, but now it’s going to reach a wider audience. Millions of Americans will now see this on PBS stations all around the country.”
For Dvir, the documentary does more than answer the question he asked in 1991 as a curious twentysomething interviewing his grandfather. He hopes it tells the story of how a few idealists effected change despite great obstacles.
“I hope it shows young people that you can still make a difference if you commit yourself to something, if you put your heart into it.”
‘A Wing and A Prayer,’ a one-hour documentary about World War II aviators who fought in Israel’s war of independence, airs at 9 p.m. April 14 and 4: 30 p.m. April 19 on WPBT Channel 2.
Watch a clip at https://vimeo.com/124045279.