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Peter and his younger brother Walter had been drafted in 1940 and 1941. Peter had been sent to Russia as a radio operator. Rigg listened as the old soldier described the filthy conditions and how the bitter cold froze their urine before it hit the ground. But Millies' biggest fear was that nearby Waffen-SS troops would discover his heritage and shoot him. In the 1930s, as Hitler rose to power, his mother had falsified their identity papers to hide that his grandfather was a Jew.
"At the end, he broke down and cried, especially when he talked about his brother dying," Rigg says. In 1943, Walter had been decapitated in an artillery barrage.
As they left the pub, Rigg hugged the old man and promised, "I'm not going to forget you." Rigg went to his rented room and wrote five pages of notes about the meeting. He wanted to know more.
That summer, while searching courthouses in small towns around Leipzig for information about his family, Rigg made a startling discovery: According to their birth certificates, his great-great-grandparents who immigrated to America in the mid-1800s were Mosaich. The town historian translated: "This means Jewish."
"Here I am in the middle of Germany," Rigg says, "the heartland of Nazism. Why didn't I know about this? Why did my family reject Judaism? It hit me really hard."
Back at Yale for the fall semester, Rigg met an Orthodox rabbi who used the documents to map out Rigg's family tree. "You're Jewish," the rabbi told him. The rabbi explained that according to Halakah, rabbinical law developed over the millennia, Judaism was passed through the maternal line.
"If my father was a rabbi and my mother was Gentile, would I be a Jew?" Rigg asked. The rabbi's answer: "No."
His mother and grandmother were shocked to hear of Rigg's discovery, which meant that they, too, were Jews. "They didn't believe it," Rigg says. "They were somewhat concerned and upset. Not because they are anti-Semitic but because Jews have so many problems in the world." One relative, a rancher, told Rigg if his grandfather knew what he'd discovered, "he'd be turning in his grave."
Rigg began forming plans to return to Germany the next summer to learn more about Millies and his own heritage. On winter break in 1993-'94, Rigg spent six weeks on scholarship at an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem. "I learned more about the Bible studying with the two rabbis there than I had in my entire life," Rigg says. That spring, Rigg switched from pre-med to English and history. "I started asking professors if they knew anything about Jews in the Wehrmacht," Rigg says. "They said, 'We've never heard of this before. It didn't happen.'"
Rigg approached Professor Turner, author of German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler."Bryan said he wanted to do a senior essay on Jewish descendants who served in the German army," Turner says. "I hadn't read anything about this before. I thought he wouldn't find very much and be frustrated." Turner told Rigg he needed to study serious German history instead of "chasing after curious anomalies which will not add anything to our understanding of the Third Reich."
But Rigg wouldn't be dissuaded. That impressed Turner. "Bryan's not the sort of student I'm used to seeing," Turner says. "Most of the students are very cautious and feeling their way. They need a lot of help. He was so definite that he knew exactly what he wanted to do and confident that he could do it."
Rigg decided to take a year away from Yale to pursue his research. He could be seen between classes wearing headphones, listening to German Berlitz tapes.
Men like Millies were already in their 80s. Rigg was in a race against time.
"If I had not killed myself, your worries would've only increased," his grandfather wrote, "and you would've faced unimaginable tortures. Believe me, this is best for all of us. I'm old and this way I can die in my own bed. That's much better than to be driven to some horrible death by inhumane persons. This way, maybe a rabbi (if there is still a rabbi alive in Berlin) will say Kaddish at my grave. I've tried all my life to be an honorable person...Although it sounds very strange, I was more Prussian than Jew...However I did do my best to live by God's laws...The Nazis have almost taken everything I have...Think of your grandfather occasionally, who loved you dearly. God protect you!"
The Nazi pincers were closing around Mischlinge like Czempin. After the conquest of Poland, thousands of soldiers learned that their Jewish family members were being persecuted back home in Germany. Their complaints reached Hitler, who resolved the dilemma by ordering the discharge of all half-Jews. One such man, Werner Eisner, was deported to Auschwitz; his crime was sleeping with an Aryan. Eisner survived when an SS man saw his picture in uniform and pulled him out of a line for the gas chamber.
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