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TWINSBURG — As America’s veterans are honored this Memorial Day, a rare and fascinating perspective from behind German lines in World War II — crafted for the silver screen by a Twinsburg filmmaker — is gaining traction.
Joseph Cahn, of Windsor Way and owner of Victory Films, began filming “The Unimaginable Journey of Peter Ertel” in 2012 when the late Mr. Ertel was 96 and living in Richfield. The former German platoon leader died in December 2013, and Cahn’s film went on to win the Local Heroes competition at this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival.
Cahn, who is Jewish and struck a close friendship with Ertel, says he wanted to make “a film for posterity.”
“It was astonishing,” Cahn said. “There are very few German infantry stories. I met [Ertel] for lunch, and he was so engaging. He tells his story in a wonderful fashion.”
As well as its accolades from the Cleveland International Film Festival, the documentary has won awards at the GI Film Festival, winning the Founder’s Choice award. The film has been selected for screening at the Normandie-World War II International Film Festival in Normandy, France, for the 63rd anniversary of D-Day this June.
Ken Ertel, the youngest son, says most of the family has seen the documentary.
“It was wonderfully done, artistic and thorough,” Ken says. “Joe managed to show the real Peter Ertel in the film. It brought most of us to tears. [Cahn] got to know and love my father as we do while making the film — and he has become like another brother to us. Cahn and my father became so close ... it was a wonderful thing. Tolerance and love like this is what the world really needs today.”
Mr. Ertel was conscripted into the German Army as a platoon leader, though as a Nazi-opposer Ertel states in the documentary that his service was not of his own volition.
And the party in charge knew it, giving Ertel some of the most brutal and dangerous missions.
Ertel was taken prisoner by United States forces following the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, and soon after was recruited by the U.S. State Department to work as an agent for the U.S.
According to information from Mr. Ertel’s obituary, he was sent to a POW camp in Alabama, where “American authorities, aware of his anti-Nazi attitude, took him out of the camp and educated him at a special military academy in Rhode Island.”
“They needed Germans they could trust with democratic leanings,” Cahn said.
Ertel states in the film that he “hated the [German] military” and was “interrogated by the Gestapo about my anti-Nazi attitude.” Mr. Ertel’s obituary states that he “strongly disliked the military and the Nazi party, and was an outspoken peace advocate.”
Ertel immigrated to the U.S. in 1953 and worked for 25 years “for a small company owned by Orthodox Jews,” Cahn said.
The business owners knew his background, as Ertel “made no attempt to hide it during his interview.”
Cahn, who moved to Twinsburg in 1999, first connected with Ertel in spring 2012 after attending a program through the War and Remembrance series hosted by the Twinsburg Public Library.
“Tim Burns ... began a community lecture series,” Cahn said. “Many years ago, there were more World War II veterans around.”
At the time, Cahn was working on a documentary on U.S. Army Air Corps veterans and asked Burns for contacts.
“About a week or so later, [Burns] emailed me about a dozen names,” Cahn said.
The final name on the list — Ertel’s — had a side note that piqued Cahn’s interest: Ertel was not an American veteran. It was interesting, Cahn thought, that Burns chose to include Ertel in the War and Remembrance series “and [Burns] gave me a thumbnail of the story.”
Ertel’s family assisted in the project.
“His sons were quite helpful,” Cahn said. “Rob [the oldest] was a great help in setting up the interview sessions. They let me do what I wanted to do. They were wonderful to work with.”
Ertel’s wife, Johanna, who died in 2004, is “an important part of the story,” Cahn says.
“They were both musicians, but his wife was much more accomplished,” Cahn said. “Both were members of amateur orchestras, and that’s how they met. They met in Munich, before the war.”
Robert says his father often listened to classical music.
“I was introduced to classical music by Dad,” he said. “He and I enjoyed listening to the music of J.S. Bach, which gave us a common bond.”
Ken Ertel says his father and brothers were thrilled about the idea of a documentary.
“We were all excited,” Ken said. “Both for my Dad, as we knew he’d want to tell his story, and also that his message of peace and tolerance would be shown to many people. My father was a great story teller with a sharp memory all the way until he passed away. He was kind and outspoken. As a father, he was very fun to be around.”
Robert said he “is pleasantly surprised” with the film and viewers’ reactions.
“I was pleased to see the interest the audience expressed following each showing [in Cleveland],” Robert said. “My only real sorrow is that Dad did not live long enough to see the documentary. Nevertheless, I know that he is smiling, with Mom, to see the phenomenal and continued success of the film.”
The documentary cost about $150,000 to produce and runs 104 minutes, Cahn said. He added he’d like to market it to a wider audience but needs to secure the rights to some archival footage.
“It’s quite pricey to appropriate the use,” he said. “It can cost $12 to $30 per second to use archival footage.”
Fundraising efforts are underway to cover the costs, Cahn said. For details, visit peterertelfilm.com online.
In the meantime, Cahn has returned to his original project, interviewing those who fought in the U.S. Army Air Corps (the precursor to the USAF), and particularly those in the “Mighty Eighth” Air Force.
“I’ve interviewed vets locally, as well as in Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania,” Cahn said. “They were recruited to do daytime bombing over Germany, the most dangerous job for an Air Corps member at that time.”