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Above & Beyond

There was a wrench to the gut last week when we read that Leon Frankel, one of the US military veterans who helped found the Israeli Air Force, passed away. We felt the same back in July, when Lou Lenart passed on. The two are key figures in the film “Above & Beyond,” which documents the unlikely story behind the early days of Israel’s Air Force.

When they died, these two men were in their nineties, and surely lived fulfilled lives, having accomplished by their early twenties what some never accomplish in a lifetime. Yet there is a deep sadness, embedded in a sense of the inevitable, that one by one these inspirational veterans — ordinary people who did extraordinary things — are leaving us.

Despite their longevity, both of the men’s departures feel untimely because they passed away so soon after we discovered their stories at the screening of “Above & Beyond” on February 5, 2015, at the Denver Jewish Film Festival. Others featured in the film, including Al Schwimmer, the mastermind of an operation that essentially smuggled US military planes and pilots to Palestine, also died in recent years.

Anyone who was at the screening — it was a sold out audience — can attest to the palpable sense of awe when the closing credits rolled. That reaction to the bravery, the courage, the gutsiness, the sheer chutzpah of these fighter pilots is evidence as to why they and their comrades are referred to as the Greatest Generation.

Frankel and Lenart grew up in an America different from today’s, an America where anti-Semitism was quotidian. Lenart, when questioned by a Marine whether he, as a Jew, could do the job, retorted, “If you’re able to do it, then I certainly can.” These men fought for the opportunity to die for their country. How many of us would do the same? Then, after they finished winning the war in Europe, having risked life and limb there, they embarked on a pie-in-the-sky mission for what in their minds was the biblical Land of Israel.

We are living through an historical transition; a generation, one we revere and laud, is slowly disappearing. It is inevitable, but that doesn’t stop the pain, doesn’t stem the feeling that we are losing something so very important, something ineffably valuable, forever. With Frankel’s passing last week, another piece is gone. There is no surviving member of Denver’s “Laven- dar Hill Mob,” which secretly smuggled weapons to Israel, 1947-1949.

We are fortunate, at least, that a film captured the essence of these pilots before it was too late. We are ever so lucky that “Above & Beyond” is once again playing in Denver, this time at the JAAMM Festival, on Sunday, Oct. 25. Go. You won’t be disappointed.

Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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