Nazi weapons for Jews: New documentary reveals little-known chapter of history
Imagine learning that your grandfather’s rifle was stamped with a swastika.
Now imagine that you make that discovery as a young Jew in Israel.
Boaz Dvir doesn’t have to imagine. It happened to him.
His grandfather, Ozer Grundman, told him that his Mauser rifle, which he used during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, bore not only the hated Nazi symbol, but the wreathed eagle that formed another symbol of Hitler’s regime.
“Do you know where we got these Nazi rifles?” he asked his grandson.
The riddle drew Dvir on a years-long quest for the answer — a quest crowned with success later as a documentary: A Wing and a Prayer. The film tells a little-known chapter of World War II: how American and Canadian veterans smuggled tons of weapons — from rifles to whole planes — to the nascent Jewish state for its first struggle to survive.
Released in 2015, the hour-long documentary has been screened in places like New York, Paris, Philadelphia and Jaipur, India, as well as over PBS. And today (Nov. 11) and Sunday (Nov. 13), it’s scheduled as part of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. (See details below.)
It’s clearly become something of a personal cause for Dvir, 49, a journalist, and educator.
“I wondered, how this story have been ignored all this time?” he said in an interview. “I’m eager for it to become part of our understanding of history. And it’s getting there.”
A Wing and a Prayer tells of Americans and Canadians who helped save Israel in its 1948 War of Independence. Knowing Israel was outgunned and outnumbered, the volunteers bought not only surplus American items, like B17 bombers, but surplus Nazi items from Czechoslovakia, like Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter planes — and Mauser rifles, like Dvir’s grandfather’s firearm.
The task was full of dangers — not only from Israel’s Arab enemies, but from the U.S. government, which had passed the Neutrality Act to keep out of the brewing conflict. To pull it off, the small knot of men launched an elaborate scheme of quiet fundraising, dummy corporations, shadowy contacts and daring flights in rickety planes. They finally got the gear to Israel just as the 1948 war broke out.
Dvir tells the story through archival photos and war footage, plus narration by actor William Baldwin. He also interviews some of those who carried out the mission. Click here to see a clip.
A second-generation Sabra, or native Israeli, Dvir was born in Petah Tikvah, near Tel Aviv. He came to the United States in 1980 and worked for various newspapers, including the South Florida Sun Sentinel while I was the religion editor.
Dvir also has worked as a writer for New York Newsday and editor at the Jacksonville Business Journal. And in 1994, he produced a study of Jewish spirituality before, during and after the Holocaust under a grant from the Religion News Service.
In 2003, he went into academia, first in the School of Journalism at the University of Florida, then his current position as assistant professor of journalism at Penn State. He also lectures on documentaries and multimedia there.
Meanwhile, he kept digging into his grandfather’s question and decided in 2008 to produce a film on it. The project cost $130,000, much of it from travel expenses to Israel, Canada, Europe and around the U.S. Besides his own pocket, he got grants from the likes of the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami.
Dvir finally finished A Wing and a Prayer last year, and PBS aired it that April. He was elated to learn that it came in at #7 for PBS programs that month.
He has personally shown it to roughly 6,000 people in 20 screenings; others, including Jewish organizations, have screened the film independently in hundreds of other events. All told, he estimates, some two million people have seen A Wing and a Prayer via the various venues.
Aiding future research
Although the film title sounds spiritual, Dvir, like many in his generation, isn’t especially religious. He’s not a synagogue member and attends mainly on occasions like the High Holy Days. And as a boy, he studied the 1948 war in a secular school that gave secular explanations for the Israeli victory.
But ever since boyhood, he’s thought there was “something bigger at play” in the Israeli victory — a notion that has only been reinforced as the tale he retells in A Wing and a Prayer.
“You could say it wasn’t God, it was these guys. And yes, they were superheroes. But still, they needed something else to help them. They had the State Department, the FBI and MI5 on their tail. They had planes that should have crashed and burned.
“I get the sense that God was with them.”
With the film finally in the can, Dvir is thinking about how to follow up. He has a dream of an interactive website, which would include a locator map plus outtake clips from the main film. He would make his findings freely available, to the public as well as to scholars for future research.
“I would just want the knowledge spread,” he says.
Besides shedding light on little-known history, Dvir has several distinct goals for showing A Wing and a Prayer.
One is to show that you can’t always accept what official histories relate. “Things are not always as they seem,” he says.
Another goal is to inspire young people. “These guys [in the documentary] were in their teens and 20s, and they fought the biggest war in history. Then, when they’d paid their dues, they changed history again, still in their 20s.”
His final stated goal is evident in the making of A Wing and a Prayer itself: commitment.
“People always say, ‘Believe in yourself,’ ” he says. “To me, it’s not about believing in yourself. It’s about believing in the work, in the story, in having it done right.”
If you go
A Wing and a Prayer will be shown twice this weekend for the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.
First showing will be 6 p.m. today (Nov. 11) at the Sunrise Civic Center, 10610 W. Oakland Park Blvd., Sunrise.
The film also will be shown at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at Savor Cinema, 503 SE 6th St., Fort Lauderdale.
Tickets for each showing are $6-$11. For information, call 954-525-3456 or go to the Film Festival website.