Fight and Flight

Al Schwimmer (left) and David Ben-Gurion (Provided)
Al Schwimmer (left) and David Ben-Gurion (Provided)

There are many ways to honor Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, but one Pikesville synagogue chose to shine a light on a little-known (and unsanctioned) post-World War II operation that proved critical in the creation of the Jewish state.

Beth El Congregation, in partnership with the Center for Jewish Education, hosted a screening the evening of May 4 of “A Wing and a Prayer,” a documentary that chronicles the illicit operation by several U.S. pilots to assist the young Israeli army in its War of Independence.

“[A member of the congregation who had seen the film] came to me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘You have to bring this to Beth El,’” said Eyal Bor, the director of education at Beth El.

So he did. He and the CJE decided to host not only a showing of the documentary, but also invited the filmmaker, Boaz Dvir, and one of the pilots, Harold Rothstein, for a post-screening Q&A.

 It’s an astonishing — and astonishingly unknown — story.

“It’s really a Jewish tradition, putting the joys and oys together,” said CJE director of Israel and Overseas Education, Amalia Phillips, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. “First, the remembrance, which is the oy. Then the act of heroism [in the documentary], which is the joy.”

The documentary mostly recalls the year 1948, three years after the end of WWII and about a year into the Cold War. American pilot Al Schwimmer was disturbed by the United States’ lack of support for the Jewish fighters up against the more well-resourced armed forces of the surrounding Arab countries.

Movie poster (Provided)
Movie poster (Provided)

So Schwimmer recruited a number of his pilot friends and set up an illegal operation to smuggle weapons from then-Czechoslovakia (the only country willing to sell to them) into Israel — all while evading the FBI. Many of the pilots in the film remember thinking of what they were doing as helping to prevent a potential second Holocaust.

It’s an astonishing — and astonishingly unknown — story.

Rothstein, now 94 and living in a suburb of Chicago, met Dvir at a previous showing in New York. He is not in the documentary, but has been traveling with Dvir for some of the recent screenings. Seeing the documentary brought up a lot of memories he hadn’t thought about in decades, he said, but he is happy it exists. He hopes that people take away “the realization of how close they came to losing Israel,” he said. “It was by hours, not just days. Hours.”

“What I love getting across is the message that these guys were in their 20s when they did that and they changed the world,” Dvir said.

Rothstein’s response was just to laugh. “Although, at that time, we really didn’t realize it.”

Dvir originally became interested in the story through his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, who moved with Dvir’s grandmother to Palestine after WWII to fight for Israeli independence. His grandfather told him that he and the other soldiers fought with rifles branded with the German eagle, and asked him if he knew how they got those weapons.

“I said, ‘No, I don’t know, but I am a journalist, so give me a couple days and I can find out.’ Well, it took me 10 years, but here is the answer,” Dvir said, while introducing the film. It turns out, those guns were the ones sold to them by Czechoslovakia and carted to Israel by the American pilots.

More than 350 people attended the screening. And once Rothstein took to the stage post-screening, the audience rose in a respectful — and awed — standing ovation for his efforts nearly 70 years ago.

Harold Rothstein (left) and Boaz Dvir (Photo by Hanna Monicken)
Harold Rothstein (left) and Boaz Dvir (Photo by Hanna Monicken)

“It was marvelous,” said Linda Mondel, who attended with her husband Jerry. “I thought it was such a beautiful story.”

Many in the audience had never heard the story before and were both sad it was not more well-known, but also excited to see it now being told.

“I thought it was incredible. I also liked the style, the humor. He told [the story] well,” said Ali Weinberg, whose father fought in the 1948 war. She added that she wished she could have had the chance to ask her father about this story.

Dvir doesn’t usually attend synagogue showings, but felt this was a special exception. Not only because it was Holocaust Remembrance Day, but also because he loved the energy of those organizing the event. And he was not disappointed, he said.

“I always love the Q&As,” he said. “This was a great crowd. They asked great questions.”

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