In the Wolf's Mouth

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

As the war continued and Hitler's Final Solution cranked its murderous mission into high gear, quarter-Jews also came under intense scrutiny. But it was proving more difficult to rid the Third Reich of Jews than Hitler had anticipated; German Jews had assimilated into society more than Jews in most other European countries and had a high rate of intermarriage. Many such families had strong traditions of military service.

During his year in Germany, Rigg often took night trains to arrive on time for morning interviews. He'd sleep in the train station, locking his bike and rucksack to his body. In the morning, he'd find a hotel with a public restroom, wash and put on a clean shirt. His record was seven interviews in one day. Over the course of his research, Rigg would interview 430 Mischlinge. He documented the military service of a total of 1,700, many of whom were now dead. Of those, 967 were half-Jews, 607 quarter-Jews and 97 full Jews in either the Wehrmacht or the Waffen-SS.

A friend had helped Rigg translate some of his early interviews, but soon, with only a slippery grasp of the language, Rigg was on his own. He asked a series of pre-written questions in German, unable to follow up. But at least it was on tape.

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.

By the spring of 1995, based now in Freiburg, Rigg's German had improved dramatically. "A lot of people opened up to me because I had no agenda and I was curious about my own Jewish German background," Rigg says. "These people opened their hearts about being outcasts." For many, it was the first time they'd ever talked about their war experiences.

Some stories were heartbreaking. One veteran, who refused to let Rigg use his name, told of arriving home on leave to visit his Jewish grandmother. She didn't respond when he called. He noticed a funny smell. Entering the kitchen, he saw her corpse dangling from a rope. "No, no, no," he sobbed as he pulled her down and held her body in his arms. In a note, she apologized for causing him problems and for taking her own life.

Others were almost humorous. One subject, a half-Jew named Heinrich Hamberger, invited Rigg to a pub where members of his former unit met once a month. He told Rigg to say he was studying the military history of World War II but not to explain why he was interested in Hamberger's story; he'd never revealed his Jewish heritage to anyone.

That evening, as the old friends drank and shared stories, Rigg told Hamberger's commander that he'd heard of Mischlinge in the Wehrmacht. The commander nodded and took Rigg aside. "Don't tell Hamberger, but we know he's a Jew," the commander said. It hadn't mattered to his comrades-in-arms during the war, and it didn't today.

As Rigg heard such stories, he tried to put himself in the men's shoes. "People like to condemn these people from the get-go, that they're traitors," Rigg says. "But I tried to really understand it." What if his family had stayed in Germany and he had been forced to serve in the Wehrmacht?

Most Mischlinge told him they didn't feel guilty about their military service. "Many were conscripted. Most were between 18 and 25, and for some it was a survival technique." They told him they had no idea Jewish relatives were being systematically murdered. Late in the war, in fact, many Mischlinge were discharged and sent to forced labor camps. If they had suspected they were being sent to their deaths, Rigg says, they would have tried to escape.

The Mischlinge felt greater anguish about what they didn'tdo. "Many lost seven or eight relatives in the Holocaust," Rigg says. "They say, 'I should have known what was going on. I should have done this for my mother.'"

Just before Christmas 1995, Rigg appeared at the door of Professor Turner's office, 20 pounds lighter than he was when Turner had last seen him. Rigg dumped his rucksack on Turner's floor and began pulling out documents, some signed by Hitler.

"Now will you be my senior adviser?" Rigg asked.


By the time Stephanie Stelzer agreed to go on a date with Bryan Rigg, his campus legend at Yale was in full flower.

Everything about Rigg was larger than life--his muscles, his martial arts, his biking trips across Germany with a video camera. Still, though everyone on campus knew who he was, Rigg seemed mysterious. "He never slept," Stephanie says. "He had two jobs. He took twice as many courses as I did. Forty percent of them were independent study. He was determined to get his money's worth out of Yale."

Stephanie, the daughter of a Manhattan heart surgeon, remembers her initial impression of Rigg in an introductory German class in 1993. "It was a small room, and he was loud," she says. "He was a jock, all muscle. He was always raising his hand, and he never knew the right answer."

Rigg recalls his impression of Stephanie: a tall, beautiful blonde who constantly cracked her knuckles and corrected the teacher. But Rigg would later notice that Stephanie was one of the few Yalies who didn't snub him when he was doing his campus job. Rigg worked at Silliman College as a "recycling coordinator." In other words, he took out the trash.

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