By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
When the train pulled into the station, Bryan Mark Rigg wrestled his bicycle onto the platform, balanced a rucksack stuffed with a video camera, laptop and tripod on his back and started pedaling through the German countryside. He had 70 miles to cover before dark. The Yale student had learned that Alexander Stahlberg, a former German soldier who lived on the grounds of a castle near Gartow, was willing to talk to him. "But you better hurry," the elderly Stahlberg said. "I've got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel."
Rigg had moved to Germany in 1994 to learn the language and research his senior essay. But the Arlington student's journey meant much more than a grade: He'd become obsessed with tracking down veterans of the Wehrmacht, Hitler's armed forces. And the 23-year-old student wasn't looking for just any old veterans. He was searching for the Mischlinge, men who'd survived "in the mouth of the wolf," as one soldier put it. The word, meaning half-breeds or mongrels and first applied to the offspring of white Germans and black Africans in the colonies, referred to a group of soldiers who'd straddled a chasm of contradiction: They were deemed part-Jewish by Nazi racial laws but had fought on the Führer's side.
Historians knew such men had served in Hitler's forces. But Rigg's professors at Yale told him he was wasting his time, that there were so few they were of little historical significance.
Rigg believed these eminent scholars were wrong.
Werner Goldberg, a blond-haired, blue-eyed half-Jew once held up by the Nazis as "the ideal German soldier," had told him about Stahlberg, who'd served as adjutant to Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. Some suspected Manstein was a Mischlinghimself, even though he'd given a notorious order calling for "the destruction of the Jewish-Bolshevik system." Rigg knew he had to act immediately. The veterans of World War II were dying off; he couldn't let anything get in the way of his quest to capture the stories of the remaining Mischlinge.
Certainly not money. Rigg had been living in Germany on peanut butter and cheap food he bought in Turkish markets. And not the setting sun on this December day.
As he pedaled furiously toward Stahlberg's home, even three layers of clothes couldn't protect against the cold. The bicycle's headlamp was broken, and he still had miles to go when the pavement turned into a dirt road. In the dark, his bike slammed into a pothole, flipping the 6-foot-2 Rigg and his pack over the handlebars.
An hour later, he arrived at Stahlberg's door bruised and covered with dirt. A tall, polished man in a nice suit, white hair slicked back, answered his knock. "What happened to you?" he asked. After Rigg explained, Stahlberg said, "You probably want to take a shower."
That night, video camera rolling, Rigg would record Stahlberg's recollections of a conversation he'd had with Manstein early in the war while the two played chess.
Stahlberg told his superior he'd heard that 100,000 Jews had been murdered by killing squads in Manstein's area of responsibility as the German front advanced. Manstein didn't respond.
"Dear Field Marshal, I feel the need to tell you this because I'm of Jewish descent myself," Stahlberg said. His great-grandfather had been a Jew, a fact Stahlberg had kept secret.
Manstein paused. "That's very interesting," he said. He mentioned that his family tree included a rabbi. Then he turned his attention back to the chess board.
When Stahlberg pressed Manstein about the huge numbers of Jews being slaughtered, Manstein fixed him with a stare.
"Do you really believe that?" the field marshal said.
Stahlberg said he did.
"Well, if this really happened," Manstein said, "they're only Jews."
Manstein's son later told Rigg he'd found no evidence of a Jew in the family tree; he figured that the field marshal was simply making a macabre joke. Stahlberg, however, believed Manstein meant what he said. During interviews spread over several days, Stahlberg would describe for Rigg his life as a Mischling, explaining to him the inner workings of the Wehrmacht.
Three weeks later the old soldier died.
"I had documented hundreds of people," Rigg says, "and I knew that there were thousands. Some were very high-ranking officers--colonels, generals, people who had a significant impact on the outcome of the war." One was Field Marshal Erhard Milch, the equivalent of a five-star general, who ran the Luftwaffe. Another was half-Jew Luftwaffe General Helmut Wilberg, who developed the operational tactics of blitzkrieg.
Their often-tragic stories illustrated the effects of the Nuremburg law passed in 1935 for the "protection of German blood." It defined full Jews--at least three Jewish grandparents--and created two new "racial" castes: half-Jews (two Jewish grandparents) and quarter-Jews (one Jewish grandparent). Though a quarter-Jew might have been raised as a Lutheran, by Nazi standards he was Jewish. The pseudo-racial designations were all part of Hitler's frenzied hunt for "hidden Jews."