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.
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.
(according to different sources 150 thousands – add. Zk)
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.
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 stillstruggle 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? 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. 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!" 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. 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.
"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. 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."
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.
"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?"
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. 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--
"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.
December 24, 1996 | WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER
The Jews in Hitler's Military - 2015 Los Angeles Times – article collections
synopsis by Zbyszek Koralewski