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Jewish Celebrities who Served in World War II

May 25, 2015 | by Marnie Winston-Macauley

In honor of Memorial Day, we acknowledge Jewish celebrities who served in World War II.

We’re coming to the end of an era. When I was young, WWll (1939 to 1945) was a fairly recent event, not quite yet “history.” The men and women who survived in defense of the Allies had come home. I remember that the vast majority, even those who suffered greatly, were proud, optimistic, and eager to create families, careers, and make America, now a super-power, a beacon of democracy and goodwill for the world to follow.

Three things stood out in my young memory. The first … how these young families helped each other without question. Most had seen the ravages of war, and now prized peace among neighbors. The second was one neighbor who had lost an arm. As a young child, curious if not tactful, I asked him about it. He said “I lost it defending our country, Marnie. And this was a small price to pay.” The third was my late father who was many times decorated and served for over four years in the Pacific Theater, also as a Merrill’s Marauder, body guard to Lord Mountbatten, and with the Military Police. He often told “war” stories … from the hysterically funny, to the profound, to the tragic. One thing he didn’t do, until he was on his deathbed. He never called anyone “buddy.” He loved many and used words of love, but “buddy,” I learned, was reserved for his Army buddies, when he saw them through the years. I also noticed a special look they had when they met. It was indescribable, a comradery that could never quite be duplicated. (On his deathbed, he called my late husband “buddy.”)

Today, WWll, is “history” to our young people who didn’t often know the people, the feel of it, the sense of the times. And, as we lose more and more heroes of the Second World War, I was compelled to write a little about those men and women, known to us in a very different way, who served the allied cause. You may be surprised. Some are still with us, more are not. We honor those who are gone, and are deeply grateful for those who are with us today.

1. Mel Brooks: Melvin James Kaminsky, born in 1926, is a legendary, multi-award-winning American film director, screenwriter, comedian, actor, producer, composer, and songwriter.

"I was a Combat Engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering." – Mel Brooks

While attending Brooklyn College working on a degree in psychology, he was drafted, serving as a corporal in the 1104 Engineer Combat Battalion, 78th Infantry Division as a combat engineer. He diffused land mines, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. It has been reported that when the Germans played propaganda recordings over loudspeakers, Brooks set up his own sound system mimicking Jewish Al Jolson singing "Toot Toot Tootsie." In typical humor, when asked about that time, he said: "War isn’t hell... War is loud. Much too noisy. All those shells and bombs going off all around you. Never mind death. A man could lose his hearing."

2. Beatrice Arthur: Bernice Frankel born in 1922 and died in 2009, was an amazing, enterprising, everything but tranquilizing, star of television (“Maude” and “The Golden Girls”) and theater.

She enlisted in the Marines in 1943 where she spent two and half years as one of the first members of the Women’s Reserve. She started basic training in March, 1943, was assigned to be a typist in Washington D.C. During the next two years, she was transferred to Marine and Navy air stations in Virginia and North Carolina. She reached the rank of staff sergeant upon being honorably discharged in 1945. Note: For reasons unknown, she didn’t discuss or acknowledge her military background.

3. Peter Falk: Peter Michael Falk, born in 1927 and died in 2011, was a top TV star, with memorable films to his credit as well. He made history with his brilliant portrayal as the never-to-be-underestimated, Lt. Columbo. In 1996, TV Guide ranked Falk number 21 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.

Falk fans know that as a result of a tumor at age three, he wore a glass eye throughout his life, which makes his War contribution, typically “Falkian.” Never afraid to step up, he tried to join the Marines, and even got as far as passing his first eye test, using “creativity.” A second round rousted him out. Undaunted, several months later he joined the Merchant Marines as a cook. NOTE: He also tried to join the Israeli Irgun. The man was a definite mensch.

4. Kirk Douglas: Issur Danielovitch, born in 1916, is the epitome of the great American actor, producer, director, and author. Not only did the superstar appear/star in 90 films, he was active in ending the Hollywood blacklist in 1960.

He enlisted in the Navy in 1941, reaching the rank of Lieutenant. Despite his imperfect eyesight, he was a Communications Officer in antisubmarine warfare in the Pacific Theater. He received a medical discharge for war injuries in 1944. He is still haunted by these war images and has frequently expressed the true horrors of war vs. conscience, and that ultimately it’s about killing.

5. Don Rickles: Donald Jay Rickles, born in 1926, is a comedy legend who turned “the insult” into not only a comedic form, but a source of pride and hysterical laughter from victims – including the most celebrated.

The “Merchant of Venom” who gets away with it, because of both his talent – and his underlying love-ability, enlisted in the U.S Navy on Destroyer Duty. He was honorably discharged in 1946. With typical humor, he describes one deployment as follows: "It was so hot and humid, the crew rotted."

6. Carl Reiner: The Master of all crafts funny, the legendary creator, producer, director, writer, was born in 1922, and still going strong, wondering if there’s a future with “Elka” (Betty White, “Hot in Cleveland”)

In 1942, he entered the army, and received training as a radio operator. He also studied French on the way to becoming an interpreter. He served in the Signal Corps. Ah, but on route to Iwo Jima, he was assigned to Maurice Evans’ Entertainment Unit, where he toured the South Pacific as a comic for almost two years.

7. Henry Alfred Kissinger: The much decorated diplomat, high U.S. government official and political scientist was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Bavaria in 1923. Among his many roles, he was a Former, and one of the best known Secretary of State’s in U.S. history under both President Nixon and Ford. He received the Nobel Peace in 1973, and remains a force in high-level U.S. politics.

After escaping the Nazi scourge at age 15, he underwent basic training in South Carolina. He became a naturalized citizen at age of 20. Ultimately, he was assigned to the 84th Infantry Division where, given his knowledge of German, Kissinger worked in the military intelligence division, where he saw both combat and dangerous intelligence work during the Battle of the Bulge. His assignment included tracking down Gestapo officers for which he earned the Bronze Star. At war’s end, in 1945, Kissinger was in charge of de-Nazification of the Bergstrasse district of Hesse.

"I look back at those years with great pride. World War II was a war without any moral ambiguity." – Henry Kissinger.

Other Jewish celebrities who served during The Second World War

Martin Balsam (1919-1996): Jeff Chandler (1918-1961): Tony Curtis (1925-2010): Norman Fell (1924-1998): Lorne Greene (1915-1987): Shecky Greene born 1926: Buddy Hackett (1924-2003): Harvey Korman born 1927: Jack Klugman (1922-2012): Walter Matthau (1920-2000): Tony Randall (1920-2004): Soupy Sales (1926-2009): Larry Storch born 1923: Mike Wallace (1918-2012): Eli Wallach (1915-2014): Judge Joseph Wapner born 1919: Ephraim Zimbalist (1918-2014).

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