A natural storyteller, Steve Waxman just had to share what he found at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU three years ago.
The "Jews in the Military" exhibit spoke to the South Florida filmmaker of heroes — both known and unsung — who'd risked it all in campaigns ranging from the Seminole Wars of the 1800s to the more recent battles in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The result is the new documentary, "A Call to Serve: Florida Jews and the U.S. Military," which will air at 9 p.m. May 13, 18 and 29 on WLRN-Ch. 17. A screening Wednesday at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale has sold out.
"These people who were all Jewish wanted to pay back the country for being so good to them,'' says Waxman, of Hollywood, who has also produced other locally-based WLRN documentaries including 2011's "Prohibition and the South Florida Connection'' and last year's "Instruments of Change'' on segregation.
"There were so many fabulous photos and so much interesting paraphernalia [in the exhibit]," he says. "Here is a documentary that was waiting to be made."
It took some time for Waxman to track down soldiers, pilots, medics and prisoners of war, as well as family members and descendants, for interviews.
The hourlong film highlights figures such as: Mack Katz, who served in the U.S. marine corps during World War I before launching Fort Lauderdale's first women's clothing shop, Mack's; famed Miami Beach architect Morris Lapidus, who designed the signal search light used by the military to send codes during World War II; and Miami Beach Mayor Mitchell Wolfson, who resigned from office to fight the Nazis.
But unsung veterans make up the bulk of the documentary, like Lettie Bien, a retired U.S. Army colonel who fought in Iraq.
"I went into the military on a dare. I remember thinking, 'What was this nice Jewish girl from Miami doing in the military?' " she tells viewers, noting that Iraqis "looked at American women almost like a third species. We commanded men. We wore weapons. We were just sort of shocking in a way to the Iraqis."
Also featured is Boca Raton resident Irwin Stovroff, a retired Army Air Corps lieutenant who was a prisoner-of-war in Germany after his bomber was shot down during WWII.
Stovroff helped connect Waxman with other local vets including Delray Beach's Mel Pollack, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew 78 missions in Vietnam, then spent five years and eight months as a POW.
Waxman says the documentary serves as a visual diary of today's veterans, many of whom are well into their 80s and 90s.
"These guys aren't a dime a dozen," Waxman says. "A lot of these guys are dying and you want to get them on record."
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When: 9 p.m. May 13, 18 and 29
Where: WLRN-Ch. 17 in Fort Lauderdale-Miami and West Palm Beach TV markets