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.