JCC to show documentary featuring Jewish-American airman from Wilkes-Barre
Lew Lenart’s life story is the stuff movies are made of, according to a story in the Times Leader’s archives.
And thanks to a member of the Spielberg family, that’s literally true these days.
Lenart was a Wilkes-Barre resident who fought with the Marines in the Pacific during World War II.
After the war ended, Lenart and others helped smuggle planes out of the U.S., trained behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, and flew for Israel in its War of Independence in 1948.
The story of Lenart and his compatriots is told in the documentary “Above and Beyond” produced by Nancy Spielberg, sister of legendary movie producer and director Steven Spielberg. The movie will be shown for the first time locally at the Jewish Community Center at 6:30 p.m. May 2.
“They should have been at home getting their lives back on track,” Spielberg said of the airmen.
Instead, they were fighting against what the believed would be another genocide, aiding a county that was ill-equipped to defend itself.
“Israel hardly had a rifle (at the time),” Spielberg said. “And if they did have a rifle, they didn’t have any bullets.”
Then, the United States had a strict neutrality policy when it came to the Middle East, so Lenart and the others who were helping Israel were breaking the law, according to Spielberg.
“They went from heroes to criminals overnight,” Nancy said.
Spielberg was quick to point out that the motivation of the airmen wasn’t necessarily religious.
“They weren’t Zionist. They weren’t necessarily happy to be Jewish,” she said, adding airmen faced a lot of anti-Semitism before the war.
She mentioned Lenart in particular faced a good deal of it growing up.
“Lew knew he was going to have to be tough if he was going to survive,” Spielberg said. “So he joins the Marines, and they made him a tough guy.”
According to the Times Leader archives, Lenart would agree.
“I’ll tell you what Wilkes-Barre did for me,” Lenart is quoted in the article from 2010. “It motivated me to become powerful. I started lifting weights, and as soon as I graduated from GAR, I joined the Marines.”
The Marines made him tough enough to leave the safety of the United States to fight another war after seeing the ravages of World War II.
“I was born to be there at that moment in history,” Lenart says in the documentary. “It’s the most important thing I did in my life.”
Lenart, who died in 2015, was born in a small Hungarian town to Jewish farmers, according to his obituary in the Cleveland Jewish News. To escape anti-Semintism, Lenart’s family moved to Wilkes-Barre when he was 10.
His obituary also said he had 14 relatives in Hungary that were killed in Auschwitz.
After Israel’s War of Independence, Lenart helped airlift Iraqi Jews to Israel and became a pilot for El Al Airlines, as well as a film producer.
As for “Above and Beyond,” Spielberg says it’s not just a Jewish story.
“It’s a great Yankee story,” she said. “I’m a Jewish person and I’m an American, so I’m proud this movie has both.”
“If these Americans hadn’t helped Israel …”
And the documentary may not be the end of the line for the story of the American airmen coming to Israel’s aid. Spielberg said she hopes to see a feature movie made of the story.
“But things move slowly in Hollywood,” she said. “I’m 60 now, and I hope to see the movie made before I’m 70.”
Reach Joe Soprano at 570-991-6393 or on Twitter @TLnews.