In the Wolf's Mouth

SMU's Bryan Mark Rigg uncovers the story of Hitler's Jewish soldiers

"Bryan was a scrawny, pitiful little thing," says Stewart, who now lives in Kansas. "When he came to me, he couldn't read. He couldn't write. He had given up. I had to make sure he saw a light at the end of the tunnel. In the classroom, everything I did with him was about being successful."

Rigg thrived in Starpoint's highly structured environment, where there were no report cards and thus no failure. "I learned that morale and attitude played a huge role," Rigg says. "You learned for learning's sake, because it's a wonderful adventure. I learned at Starpoint I was a contrarian. Tell me I can't do something, and I immediately have to do it."

By the end of the year, Bryan was reading at the third- or fourth-grade level. Mainstreamed into a private Christian school, his grades slowly improved. Though ill-coordinated as a child, by high school he'd morphed into an athlete. Rigg was all-state in basketball, football and drama at Fort Worth Christian, graduating in 1990 with honors.

Clockwise, from top left: At 32, Bryan Mark Rigg has already earned his doctorate from Cambridge and conducted groundbreaking research into the lives of the Jewish soldiers who served in Hitler's armed forces; blond-haired, blue-eyed Werner Goldberg, who kept his Jewish heritage a secret, was presented in Nazi propaganda as "The Ideal German Soldier"; Luftwaffe General Helmut Wilberg, declared Aryan by Hitler in 1935 even though he was partly Jewish; General Gotthard Heinrici, far left, meeting Hitler, who awarded Heinrici's children and wife, who had Jewish ancestors, the "German blood certificate"; soldiers taking an oath instituted in 1934 swearing allegiance to Hitler. Mischlinge who refused to repeat the oath because they had Jewish relatives ended up in jail.
Top left: Mark Graham
Clockwise, from top left: At 32, Bryan Mark Rigg has already earned his doctorate from Cambridge and conducted groundbreaking research into the lives of the Jewish soldiers who served in Hitler's armed forces; blond-haired, blue-eyed Werner Goldberg, who kept his Jewish heritage a secret, was presented in Nazi propaganda as "The Ideal German Soldier"; Luftwaffe General Helmut Wilberg, declared Aryan by Hitler in 1935 even though he was partly Jewish; General Gotthard Heinrici, far left, meeting Hitler, who awarded Heinrici's children and wife, who had Jewish ancestors, the "German blood certificate"; soldiers taking an oath instituted in 1934 swearing allegiance to Hitler. Mischlinge who refused to repeat the oath because they had Jewish relatives ended up in jail.
Rigg, left, bicycled all over Germany, surviving on peanut butter and searching for surviving Mischlinge. He ultimately interviewed 430 men of Jewish descent who'd served in the Wehrmacht. Right, Rigg in a German military cemetery with a "full Jew," Paul-Ludwig Hirschfeld, who falsified his papers and severed all contact with his family, except his Jewish fiancee, in order to survive the Nazi era. Hirschfeld claims he secretly used his position to help fellow Jews. But his brother, sister and the rest of his family died in the Holocaust.
Rigg, left, bicycled all over Germany, surviving on peanut butter and searching for surviving Mischlinge. He ultimately interviewed 430 men of Jewish descent who'd served in the Wehrmacht. Right, Rigg in a German military cemetery with a "full Jew," Paul-Ludwig Hirschfeld, who falsified his papers and severed all contact with his family, except his Jewish fiancee, in order to survive the Nazi era. Hirschfeld claims he secretly used his position to help fellow Jews. But his brother, sister and the rest of his family died in the Holocaust.

His football credentials--and not his mediocre SAT scores--attracted the attention of colleges. But Rigg was determined to attend an Ivy League school like his father, who he saw only every two weeks; his parents had divorced when he was 12. He ended up getting rejected by Yale, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. Instead of giving up his dream, Rigg took the advice of a coach to do a postgraduate year at a prep school and reapply.

At Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Rigg became captain of the football team. Asked by his coach to say a prayer, Rigg ended with an emphatic "in Jesus' name we pray."

Later, several teammates pulled him aside. Explaining they were Jewish, one boy asked, "Would you mind ending your prayer in a different way?"

For the first time in his life, Rigg had encountered what Hitler would have called a "full Jew."

As a deeply religious teenager, Rigg had spent his summers doing Christian mission trips all over the world. In 1986, at age 15, Rigg entered the Teen Missions International program, where the students learned skills like bricklaying and roofing, as well as some of the customs and language of the country they'd be serving. Rigg did 10-week missions in France, the Bahamas, England, South Africa, Bulgaria and Romania, building houses, teaching Bible classes, even performing as a mime with a street drama group. "We had such good intentions," Rigg says, "but on the mission trips I started realizing our arrogance in telling people, 'What you believe is wrong, and we're here to tell you the truth.'"

His Jewish teammates' simple request prompted him to re-examine his Christianity. "I got a lot of good from my church teaching," Rigg says, "but also stamped into my mind's eye was this intolerance for people who believed otherwise. I started learning more about the Bible. I realized how little most Christians knew about the Bible and the time period in which Jesus lived. And that really shook my faith."

After Exeter, Rigg got into Yale. From the first time he stepped on the New Haven campus, Rigg would confound professors and students alike. And he began looking at the world through new eyes.


The Berlin theater was dark and empty when Rigg stepped inside. As the film began, he saw an old man enter and linger at the back while his eyes adjusted. Rigg introduced himself and helped the man find a seat; his name was Peter Millies. As they watched, Millies translated the German dialogue for the young American. Like Rigg's year at Starpoint, this chance encounter would change his life.

It was the summer of 1992, between his freshman and sophomore years at Yale. The first year had been rocky. Though Rigg made the Yale football team, an injury ended his sports career before it began. Majoring in pre-med, Rigg wasn't prepared for the academic rigors of the Ivy League.

He spent his first college summer studying language at the Goethe Institute in Berlin and researching his mother's family background. He knew little more than that his great-great-grandparents had emigrated from Germany in 1864. One weekend, Rigg made a side trip to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where 200,000 Jews, Gypsies and Soviet POWs had been imprisoned and 30,000 died. Overwhelmed, Rigg wanted to know: "How could this happen? Why did this happen? Could it happen again?"

When Rigg asked his German teacher for a movie to hone his language skills, the instructor, knowing his pupil's interest in the Holocaust, recommended Europa Europa. It's the true story of Solomon Perel, a German teenager who survives the Nazi regime by posing as an orphan. He ends up in a Russian youth home. When the home is bombed, he becomes a translator for the Wehrmacht, is adopted by a tank commander and later joins the Hitler Youth. By turns sad, ironic, funny and tragic, the movie shows the confusion and fear of "hiding in the mouth of the wolf."

After the movie, Millies confided that the story bore some similarities to his own life. The two men sat in a pub until 4 a.m. as Millies talked about his experiences as a quarter-Jew in Hitler's military, stories he'd never told his own family.

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