During the War of Independence, a Nascent Israel Was Living on a ‘Prayer’


The difference between doing the “right” thing and the “correct” thing is not always clear, but it can make a big difference.

Ask Adolph “Al” Schwimmer and his aviation crew, whose heroic-yet-highly illegal operation to transport weapons to Israeli soldiers during the War of Independence in 1948 is the
subject of the film, “A Wing and a Prayer,” by Boaz Dvir.

Dvir, a film and journalism senior lecturer at Penn State University’s University Park campus, played the hourlong documentary for a packed lecture hall in the Conference Center at Penn State Great Valley on Oct. 15.

Dvir introduced the documentary with the tale of his grandfather’s participation in the war on the Israeli side — and how he wondered why he was fighting with weapons emblazoned with Nazi-German eagle and a small swastika, a “cruel irony” as his grandfather was a Holocaust survivor.

Dvir interviewed many members of Schwimmer’s team — who had served in World War II just a few years before — from pilots to radio operators, including pilots Lou Lenart, Sam Lewis, Shelley Eichel and Harold Livingston, as well as Schwimmer himself, who passed away in 2011.

Born in New York to immigrant parents and raised in Connecticut, Schwimmer worked at the now-defunct Trans World Airlines. He didn’t really identify as Jewish, and his religion did not play a large role in his life. But when he found out what was happening in Israel and the fact that America had barred its citizens from helping as part of a worldwide embargo on Israel, he said in the film, “We’ve got to do it. We’ve got no choice” but to assemble an ad hoc Israeli air force.

The team he assembled, not all of whom were Jewish, smuggled planes out of America using fake airlines, trained in then-Czechoslovakia. There, they received more equipment — such as castoff weapons from the Axis like the ones Dvir’s grandfather used — before eventually making it to Israel with surplus planes and weapons and ultimately changing the direction of history.

After successfully avoiding the FBI for the whole duration of the months-long mission, Schwimmer was indicted for violating the U.S. Neutrality Act. He subsequently moved to Israel, where he founded Israel Aerospace Industries. (He was later pardoned by President Clinton.)

For Dvir, the process of making the film was a long and educational one. Seven years after starting the project, he had over 140 hours of film. The hardest part was the editing, or “killing the babies” as he put it. The interviews weren’t always easy to get, were quite long and had a lot of information.

Dvir started talking to Schwimmer in 2007 when he first embarked on the project, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the two sat down to talk on camera.

“He didn’t want to talk about it initially. I pestered him,” he said, with a laugh. “I called a lot.”

Dvir found footage to use in the film through typical outlets such as national archives as well as traveling to places in the film such as what is now the Czech Republic. He also asked for photos and files from those he interviewed.

Sometimes he found nothing useful, other times he found something like a flight log that showed that an unauthorized bombing of Cairo that the team had done.

According to Dvir, the story was important for him to tell because it was a part of history that wasn’t well-known.

“First of all, I believe any part of history that we don’t know needs to be told,” he said. “I’m a big believer if it’s the truth, we need to know it.”

When people think of the war, he explained, they often think of the Israeli soldiers who won it or even of the United States government’s help. But there was also this ragtag team of American pilots who crossed oceans and were on the FBI’s most wanted list who helped Israel win independence.

“On one hand, we thought it was the U.S. government, but on the other hand it was a group of patriotic Americans,” he said, noting the misconceptions when it comes to the U.S. involvement in creating Israel.

As a professor who teaches courses in film in addition to journalism, Dvir made his films open to his students for critique, including this one. If a student suggested any edits, he or she got a credit line in the film. Three or four students have such credits in the film, he said. Those who came to the screening were surprised by the story, even if they had a little background at first.

Deborah Volkmer came from West Chester, because she had always been fascinated by history — her father had served on the ground in World War II.

“It was excellent,” she said after the film. “I really didn’t know what the story was. I was surprised by the men who risked their lives and made such an extraordinary decision to buck the government and assist Israelis.”

Dennis Ayotte, from Downingtown, knew that arms had been smuggled out of Czechoslovakia, but didn’t know by whom.

“Sometimes, just a few people can make a difference is the big thing,” he said of what he learned from the film.

This was exactly the lesson Dvir was hoping others would take away with them as the credits roll.

“What I hope people take from this screening is an inspiration,” he said. “Even though it’s a chaotic world and there are so many challenges and complexities, if people have enough conviction in what they’re doing and are willing to be innovative, they can make a difference.”

The documentary originally aired on PBS in April and can be purchased for $19.95 plus $5 for shipping and handling by calling 1-800-222-9728.

Contact: mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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