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Mischlinge, Hitler proclaimed, were the products of "unholy unions," with "the vices of the parents revealed in the sickness of the children," Rigg says. They were "monstrosities halfway between man and ape," subject to punishment for sleeping with Aryans, a crime the Nazis called "race defilement."
"Full Jews" were prevented from joining the Wehrmacht even if they considered themselves Christian, though some served with false papers. But at the beginning of World War II, half-Jews and quarter-Jews were subject to the draft, though they could not serve as officers or NCOs. As the war dragged on and Hitler needed a scapegoat, even half-Jews who'd performed bravely in battle were dismissed from the service. Quarter-Jews were forced to provide documents going back generations--for those in the SS, to 1750--in order to be "Aryanized" and thus protected from being sent to forced labor and concentration camps.
In German archives Rigg found evidence that Hitler would scrutinize these documents, perusing photos for stereotypical features such as large noses and ears before approving or denying the Aryanization requests. Rigg unearthed one document listing 77 high-ranking officers with Jewish ancestors who had been declared "of German blood." There were undoubtedly many more.
The Nazi racial laws compelled some Germans to take extreme measures. In a famous case, Field Marshal Milch's mother, a Gentile woman married to a full Jew, went to the authorities and swore that an Aryan uncle, not her husband, was the father of their six children. Thus Milch was an Aryan. "So they said OK," Rigg says. "Marrying a Jew wasn't OK, but incest was."
In his quest to find and record the stories of the Mischlinge, Rigg had stumbled onto something of genuine historical importance. But his research--and his book--have not been received with unanimous praise. Hitler's Jewish Soldiers elicited protests from scholars who argued that the veterans were not Jewish at all and that Rigg's numbers were overblown. (Rigg points out that even according to rabbinic law, which traces Judaism through the maternal line, there were thousands of Jews in the Wehrmacht.) Some claimed that his book could fuel anti-Semitism. "They believe that people will say, 'See, Jews were killing themselves,'" Rigg says. "That's absurd."
Though the book points up troubling questions about religion, race and identity that plague the Jewish community even today, Rigg has proved a popular speaker at Jewish book fairs and community centers all over the country. Like a big puppy always falling over its own feet, Rigg disarms, then charms. "Bryan has one enormous gift," says Dr. Jonathon Steinberg, a professor at Cambridge University, where Rigg earned his doctorate. "He radiates a kind of natural goodness."
As Rigg bicycled across Germany to interview Mischlinge, that trait prompted old soldiers not only to invite the young American into their homes, but to give him their military documents, Iron Crosses, papers signed by Hitler, photos, diaries and even a ceremonial sword. The papers, documenting the service of about 1,700 men, now form the Bryan Mark Rigg collection at the Federal Military Archives of Germany in Freiburg. The story of Rigg's work has been made into a docudrama, starring Rigg as himself, called Soldiers With a Half Star, which has been screened in a few cities in Germany to positive reviews. Based on a screenplay by journalist Heike Mundzeck, the film will be shown on German TV and in U.S. theaters later this year.
Even one of the scholars who'd initially doubted Rigg's quest, Dr. Henry Turner, a renowned professor of modern German history at Yale, acknowledges the significance of Hitler's Jewish Soldiers. "His is now the basic book on the subject," Turner says. "People will use it with reservations, but they'll have to use it."
All of this is remarkable stuff for a young man once labeled learning-disabled, a "potential eighth-grade dropout" whose Yale adviser still doesn't think he's cut out for academia. But Rigg's journey to find the Mischlinge ultimately became a search for his own significance, his own identity--one that would bring to light a secret of his own.
It was the first of many childhood problems. A speech impediment made it difficult for other kids to understand him, which in turn made Bryan frustrated and aggressive. Bryan was an "obstinate, negative child who has been difficult to discipline or reason with," according to an evaluation done at the Child Study Center in Fort Worth when he was 3. "They said he was a mild case of hyperactivity," Marilee says. "It didn't seem mild to me."
At Pantego Christian Academy in Arlington, Bryan failed first grade--twice. "They can't control me in Sunday school," Rigg says. "My parents are getting all this negative feedback. Their kid's a freak, a failure. He's not going to amount to anything."
Starpoint, a lab school for the learning-disabled at Texas Christian University, would be his salvation. The director was Laura Lee Crane, and one of his teachers was Mary Stewart--women Rigg calls his "saving angels." (Tragically, Crane was kidnapped and murdered several weeks ago. A couple allegedly robbed her for drug money.)