Screening ‘Hallowed Grounds’: District filmmaker examines U.S. military cemeteries overseas

Filmmaker Glenn Marcus kneels beside the grave of his uncle, Milton Marcus, who was killed during WWII and is buried overseas at Lorraine American Cemetery in France.
Filmmaker Glenn Marcus kneels beside the grave of his uncle, Milton Marcus, who was killed during WWII and is buried overseas at Lorraine American Cemetery in France.

Glenn Marcus grew up in the flickering light of the old-style movie house, not today’s corporate multiplex cinemas. The smell of must and popcorn still takes him back to the Hollywood Theatre in Arbutus, outside of Baltimore, which his grandfather owned and ran as a mom-and-pop business: his aunt sold concessions, his dad helped out with the books on the weekends, and his grandmother routed out anybody who got too comfortable or couples who were too close for comfort.

Little wonder then that today Marcus, who spent a dozen years at PBS, is a documentarian with an Emmy-winning film to his credit and a partner in a small film production company that researches and produces primarily historical documentaries. The District resident grew up in the Fallstaff and Mount Washington neighborhoods of Baltimore.

Hallowed Grounds: America’s Overseas Military Cemeteries, Marcus’ documentary, which aired on PBS, is directed by his partner Robert Uth, and examines the U.S. military’s overseas war cemeteries. It will be screened next Tuesday, Dec. 2 at the Library of Congress Pickford Theater. Marcus will be on hand to introduce the film and respond to questions.

An overview of 22 U.S. military cemeteries spanning eight countries and containing war dead from both World Wars, the film commemorates the fallen and recounts the history of some of the brave soldiers who fought overseas. Of course, Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France, the landing site for D-Day troops in 1944, is just one of the locations filmmaker Uth included in this documentary. Uth, the director, and Marcus, the “content guy,” who writes the narration, conducts interviews and compiles research, frequently focus on historical topics. Their production company, New Voyage Communications, created the Emmy-winning Korean War Stories, Tesla, Master of Lighting and The World War II Memorial: A Testament to Freedom, all of which aired on PBS.

Marcus’ father and uncle were both WWII veterans, members of that “greatest generation,” as Tom Brokaw so succinctly named the men and women raised during the Depression who went to war between 1940 and ’45. His father, Sydney Marcus, was part of the operation that landed at Normandy Beach, while his father’s brother, Milton, never came home. Milton Marcus is buried overseas at Lorraine American Cemetery in France.

Marcus appears at his uncle’s graveside in Hallowed Grounds, which features memorial burial grounds across Western Europe, North Africa and, the largest of all, in the Philippines. While director Uth is not Jewish, Marcus noted that whenever a wide-angle shot of the vast cemetery graves was called for, Uth ensured that a Jewish grave, indicated by a Star of David, was captured amid all the crosses.

Marcus pointed out that Jews fought in the American Armed Forces in greater number than their percentage of the population. “We are glad this film suggests that,” he added.

Marcus’s on-film appearance in Hallowed Grounds fulfilled a vow he made to his father: one day he promised to visit and say mourner’s Kaddish over his Uncle Milton’s grave. He believes that this is the only recorded sequence depicting a relative saying Kaddish at an American soldier’s grave in an overseas military cemetery. He said it aired in prime time and, thus, was seen by millions of viewers.

That moment in Hallowed Grounds was, Marcus recalled, completely unplanned, but it remains one of his life’s most moving experiences – and one of the film’s most powerful segments. Asked what he knew about his uncle, Marcus replied, getting choked up, “I only knew that he died in the war and was buried in France. I can barely even talk about it now, but it was so profound.” His father wouldn’t – or couldn’t – talk about his late brother. It was that way with that generation, Marcus said: “That was classic, that generation and the way men were about not sharing feelings. [The war] was a nightmare they didn’t want to relive. If you’d been in combat, you could never really explain it to someone who hasn’t been there. When those guys came home, they wanted to get on with their lives.”

What the older generation wanted to forget, their children choose to remember. For Marcus that means commemoration and preservation, and what better way to do that than by exploring how a nation takes care of and commemorates its war dead via the medium of documentary film. Judaism, in particular, values and upholds memorializing as an integral aspect of individual and communal observances.

“My father was very reluctant to talk about his war-time experiences,” Marcus said. “I knew not to ask. It was just hush, hush because of Uncle Milton’s death.”

Marcus, who lives in Woodley Park, is also on the faculty of the advanced governmental studies program at Johns Hopkins University in the District. He’s a former youth director at Washington Hebrew Congregation and was proud to be married at Sixth & I Synagogue.

These days Marcus and Uth, via New Voyage Communications, are working on another war documentary, this one telling the story in words, pictures and film of World War I, which has not been done (in series form) from a primarily American point of view, Marcus noted. “The crucible of the home front in particular has never really been examined as a whole from a social history viewpoint,” he said. “As one example, the complicated evolution of the Jewish-American experience during that conflagration will be addressed in some depth.”

Hallowed Grounds screens, Tuesday, Dec. 2 at noon, Pickford Theater, Madison Building, Library of Congress. The event is free and open to the public. For information, call 202-707-9897.

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