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Date:         Fri, 27 Dec 1996 11:50:41 CST
Reply-To: H-NET List for History of the Holocaust 
Sender: H-NET List for History of the Holocaust 
From: Sheldon Wernikoff 
Subject:      Jews in Hitler's military

COLUMN ONE
The Jews in Hitler's Military
A young American is documenting the stories of hundreds of German
veterans of Jewish descent. Many lost family to the Holocaust while
serving the Nazi regime.
By WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO, TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles Times   Tuesday December 24, 1996
Home Edition
Part A, Page 1
Type of Material: Non Dup

   LONDON--Sustained by scholarship, peanut butter and a sense of mission,
American Bryan Rigg is exploring an eerie and uncharted no man's land of
Holocaust history.

   Rigg interviews former German soldiers of Jewish heritage, some of
them high-ranking officers, who fought for Adolf Hitler's Third Reich in
World War II--during the Holocaust, when the Nazis slaughtered 6 million
Jews.

   "Thousands of men of Jewish descent and hundreds of what the Nazis
called 'full Jews' served in the military with Hitler's knowledge. The
Nazis allowed these men to serve but at the same time exterminated their
families," Rigg said.

   On a heady journey of personal and professional discovery, the
25-year-old Texan has talked with more than 300 of these veterans,
including a handful in California. Passed along from one old soldier to
another, he has crisscrossed Germany over four years, often by bicycle,
sometimes sleeping in railroad stations to stretch his budget.

   Rigg said he has documented the Jewish ancestry of more than 1,200 of
Hitler's soldiers, including two field marshals and 10 generals, "men
commanding up to 100,000 troops." In about 20 cases, soldiers of Jewish
heritage were awarded the Knight's Cross, Germany's highest military
honor, he said.

   This fall, Rigg, Yale '96, arrived at England's Cambridge University
to begin a graduate degree in history, lugging his clothes, computer and
documentation in a bulging knapsack. Jonathan Steinberg, a Cambridge
historian, read Rigg's files and hurried to find a safe place for them.

   "When I saw Bryan's archive, I couldn't believe it. He's like the
sorcerer's apprentice, calling these sources up from the depths. People
keep coming and coming to him," Steinberg said. "I guess what we are
dealing with psychologically is people who have felt guilty all these
years. A classic all-American boy comes along, and they open up to him."

   Along the way, Rigg, who is of German extraction and was raised as a
Protestant, has discovered that he too has Jewish ancestry. Like many of
the families he has visited, Rigg had distant relatives who were killed
for being Jewish--and others who died fighting in battle for Nazi
Germany.

   The old soldiers give Rigg both documents and their stories of war,
peace and suffering. He says many still struggle with a question that is
a challenge to history: If I fought in the German army while my mother
died in a Nazi concentration camp, am I a villain or a victim?

   The focus of Rigg's research are so-called Mischlinge--Germans who
were classified as Jewish by the Nazis because of their parentage and who
faced proscriptions under Nazi racial laws, even though most did not
consider themselves Jews.

   It is an ugly word, Rigg said: For the Nazis, it stood for "mongrels,
hybrids, bastards." They fit neither in Hitler's Aryan Germany nor in the
large community of observant German Jews he targeted for annihilation.

   *

   Many of the men Rigg meets cling to Nazi terminology, describing
themselves as half-Jewish, half-German. Sometimes they weep as they
reminisce, these Germans now in their 70s and 80s, many of whom killed on
the battlefield for a monstrous regime while their families were being
killed by it.

   "In many cases, these men have not talked about it for 50 years. When
I come, it is as if they have opened up a coffin they thought they buried
so long ago. It all comes out," Rigg said.

   One of his discoveries was a 1944 German army personnel document
listing 77 high-ranking officers "of mixed Jewish race or married to a
Jew." Two generals, eight lieutenant generals, five major generals and 23
colonels are on the list.

   "I don't think it ever occurred to anybody to go to a general's
personnel file to see if he was Jewish," said Steinberg at Cambridge.

Hitler personally signed declarations for all 77 on the 1944 list
asserting that they were of German blood, thereby exercising his right of
exception under 1935 Nazi legislation that barred anyone with a Jewish
grandparent from becoming an officer. Deciding exactly who was to be
classified a Jew stirred great internal debate among Nazi leaders. Hitler
loathed Jews, but he also needed experienced commanders and fighters.

   "What's fascinating is how involved Hitler was in the screening
process," Rigg said. "At the height of the war, he was personally
deciding whether this private or that should be of German blood. A
private!"

   By Hitler's command, any soldier asking for a declaration of German
blood had to submit a complex application--including photos of his head
and body, and skull measurements.

   "He would look at these photographs for a long time and decide whether
this guy was worthy to be an Aryan," Rigg said.

   He said there were at least a dozen exception lists approved by
Hitler--naming ranking officials not only in the armed forces but in the
civilian administration that worked with the military. One German
civilian of Jewish heritage was in charge of key factories in the
tank-making industry, he said.

   World War II historians have written about these men in passing, but
Rigg's research is yielding new breadth and depth--and chilling detail: a
German officer in uniform visiting his Jewish father in Sachsenhausen
concentration camp in 1942; mothers begging Nazi officials to accept that
the real fathers of their sons were Christian lovers, not their
Jewish-classified husbands.

   "When Bryan proposed this project, I told him there were anomalies in
all wars, and this one was not worth tracking down," said Yale historian
Henry Ashby Turner. "But he went on with incredible perseverance, drawn
by the people and the poignancy of their stories. I never imagined there
were that many people, particularly that many officers."

   In interviews and research in Germany this month, Rigg found still
more Wehrmacht officers of Jewish descent and more than 1,500 pages of
documents, both from veterans and their families and from the wartime
German archives that Rigg explores with these people's consent.

   "A lot of times, a man starts telling me about relatives being sent
off to Auschwitz and having to eat human flesh to survive on the Russian
front, and him being beaten up by military officials because he was a
half-Jew. And sitting next to him, his wife of 50 years is getting angry,
because her husband has never talked about this," said Rigg, who has not
yet published his findings.

   One veteran interviewed by Rigg was a religious Jew, now 82 and living
in northern Germany, who assumed a non-Jewish identity, became an army
captain, married a Jewish girl from his hometown and successfully
remained a practicing Jew within the German army for the entire war.

   One Knight's Cross winner was reunited as a prisoner of war in England
with his Jewish father, who fled Germany before the fighting began.

   Helmut Schmidt, West Germany's chancellor from 1974 to 1982, told Rigg
he successfully hid the fact that he had a Jewish grandfather from fellow
officers in the wartime Luftwaffe, the air force. Schmidt thought his
case was rare. It wasn't, says Rigg.

   *

   With the innocence of youth, many of the soldiers Rigg meets believed
at the time that their military service, often on the Russian front, was
helping to save the lives of Jewish-classified relatives in Germany.

   "But I haven't found any documents to support that," he said. "Many
guys, while they were fighting, their parents were being deported
anyway." The Nazis killed nearly 2,300 relatives of one group of 1,000
soldiers that he has analyzed.

   "Thousands of men of Jewish ancestry fought in the Nazi military
because they were drafted. But many were career soldiers, and that forced
them to apply for the German blood declaration," Rigg said. "What's sick
here is that, even though Hitler gave the approvals, the officers'
relatives were being exterminated behind their backs. . . . Were most of
these people so egotistical they didn't care who died just so they could
live?"

   Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in
Los Angeles, says that the soldiers' individual stories are well known
but that there does not seem to have been a serious scholarly attempt to
piece them together into a larger picture. The new research also poses
vexing questions.

   "If there were Jews who served in the armed forces to save their own
lives, that is one thing. If there were others who served knowing what
was going on and made no attempt to save [lives], well then that is
unacceptable and dishonorable," Hier said.

   Rigg said he believes the old soldiers must be judged by the standards
of their time. "They were very young, and it's foolish to expect them to
have known everything then that we know today. They didn't," he said.

   In the homes he visits, Rigg often sees menorahs and books about
Judaism. Many of the veterans "have learned Hebrew," he said, "and a few
have converted to Judaism and gotten circumcised in their 40s and 50s."
He said a professor once told him that "a Jew is a person who continually
struggles with the question, 'Who is a Jew?' Many of these people, they
struggle with that."

   The Nazi regime reeked of hypocrisy, Rigg's new research makes plain.
He documents the case of Field Marshal Erhard Milch, deputy to Luftwaffe
chief Hermann Goering. Long rumored to have been Jewish, Milch in fact
had a Jewish father, which, according to Nazi code, made him unacceptable
to serve in the armed forces. But in 1935, Rigg's research shows,
Goering, Hitler's chosen successor, falsified documents to declare Milch
of Aryan descent by asserting that his mother's brother was really his
father.

   Rigg has also brought light to folklore surrounding the derring-do
rescue by German soldiers of Rebbe Joseph Schneersohn, the leader of
ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher Jews, who was trapped in Warsaw when the war
began in 1939.

   Schneersohn was spirited to safety after an appeal to Germany by the
then-neutral United States. Lubavitcher tradition says the rebbe was
saved by a German Jew. Rigg has identified him as bayonet-scarred,
bemedaled Maj. Ernest Bloch, a professional soldier whose father was a
Jew.

   Bloch was one of the officers who won a coveted declaration: "I, Adolf
Hitler, leader of the German nation, approve Maj. Ernest Bloch to be of
German blood. However, after the war, Ernest Bloch will be reevaluated to
see if he is still worthy to have such a title."

   Bloch was eventually promoted to colonel. But he was dismissed in
1944, along with other high-ranking officers of Jewish heritage.

   About 100,000 Jews served in the German army in World War I, and about
12,000 of them were killed. Veterans thought their service would protect
them against the Nazi crackdown early in World War II, Rigg said.

   "When the transports came to pick them up for deportation, they came
out in uniforms with their medals. Some of them even went to the gas
chamber with their medals," he said.

   In 1940, Jews and those of mixed ancestry with two Jewish grandparents
were expelled from the armed forces. Those from the latter group lived as
civilians for four years, impotent witnesses as Jewish
families--sometimes their families--were wiped out by deportations.

   "Many of them lost relatives in the Holocaust and knew they had been
sent to Auschwitz or other camps. Yet in 1944, when these men themselves
got postcards ordering them to report to a certain train station for
deportation, most of them went," Rigg said. "If they really knew what
happened to their parents and grandparents, why did they go?"

   Initial reports of Rigg's findings, published in London, have
triggered spirited debate among historians. There has been applause for
the young American's dogged quest but also sharp criticism.

   David Cesarani, professor of Modern European Jewish history at
Southampton University, said that, beyond the volume of the research and
the intimate details of particular cases, there is little new in Rigg's
work. And it is fundamentally incorrect, he maintained, to approach the
soldiers as Jews.

   They "didn't think they were Jewish and wanted to prove they weren't
Jewish by fighting for the Fuehrer. They wanted to be regarded as
Germans," Cesarani said. "Posthumously declaring them Jews is denying the
way in which they defined themselves and conceding the way the Nazis
defined them. It was their tragedy, but not the tragedy of the Jews."

   But Yale's Turner said: "It is no less a tragedy if a family was
destroyed because it was defined as Jewish by the Nazis than if it was a
family of practicing Jews."

   At Cambridge, Steinberg--a New Yorker who has taught in England for
three decades--said Rigg's findings will deepen history's view of the
Holocaust.

   "It only reinforces what we have thought. Hitler didn't like making
exceptions for soldiers of Jewish descent. He thought they were
fundamentally tainted and did all he could to keep them out of the armed
forces," Steinberg said.

   Rigg's quest began at Yale, when he started researching his family
history in Germany. First he learned that his great-grandparents, who
arrived in the United States as Protestants, had been born in Germany as
Jews.

   Then, one night in 1992, he went to see "Europa, Europa," a film about
a Jewish adolescent who hid in the German army during World War II. After
the movie, Rigg struck up a conversation with an elderly German Jew who
told him his own story as a soldier in the Wehrmacht. Rigg listened until
dawn. Since then, such stories have multiplied.

   *

   Time is not on Rigg's side. Once, he bicycled 100 miles to interview
an 83-year-old man who had been the adjutant to a field marshal. A few
weeks later, he got a letter from the man's wife telling him her husband
had died. About 30 of the old soldiers he has interviewed over four
years, or roughly 10%, have died, he said.

   Still, the rookie historian hopes to do 400 more interviews.

   "The thing is, I don't give up," Rigg said. "I have a list of people,
and I go there. If I have to carry 60 pounds on my back, I do it. If I
have to sleep in a train station, I do it--to get to those people."

   Mining the past on a few dollars a day has had its disconcerting
moments. A landlady in Berlin evicted Rigg from a rented room when she
learned what he was studying. Arabs in Berlin with whom he had been
practicing martial arts rejected him when he announced that he had Jewish
ancestors. Back home in Texas, on learning he was of Jewish heritage, an
old friend teased, "No wonder you're so good with money."

   While Rigg's quest has at times proved unsettling for him, for many of
the old soldiers that he interviews, a visit from the young, earnest
American scholar is cathartic--even liberating.

   "I've gotten letters and phone calls from kids and grandkids of these
people, saying: 'Thank God you've come. Now our daddy or grandfather will
talk to us about all of this,' " he said.

Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times, 1996.

WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO, COLUMN ONE; The Jews in Hitler's Military; A young
American is documenting the stories of hundreds of German veterans of Jewish
descent. Many lost family to the Holocaust while serving the Nazi regime., Los
Angeles Times, 12-24-1996, pp A-1.



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