In the Wolf's Mouth

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

During Christmas 1998, Bryan received a disturbing e-mail from Steinberg saying Rigg must immediately stop working on his dissertation. A German scholar had obtained a copy of Rigg's master's thesis and was accusing him of plagiarizing from his book about the rescue of Jews by a member of the Abwehr.

The Board of Graduate Studies at Cambridge took the charge seriously. Its investigation dragged out through 1999, sending Rigg into the deepest funk of his life. Feeling he'd failed the 430 men who entrusted him with their stories, Rigg spent a week at a friend's house on Antigua to think about his future and then called his wife to announce he wanted to get on with his life and join the Marines. It was slightly less far-fetched than it seems; Rigg's brother was a Marine pilot who'd served during the first Gulf War, and Bryan had participated in a 10-week program with the Israeli armed forces, believing it would make him a better military historian.

Even when he'd been exonerated of plagiarism--an independent expert said the dispute boiled down to sloppy footnoting, not deliberate theft of someone else's work-- Rigg opted to report for Marine Officer Candidate School at Quantico. But his hope of becoming a Marine pilot would end shortly after OCS when he injured his back falling on ice. After two surgeries, and to his disappointment, Rigg received a medical discharge from the Marines.

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.

Rigg used the recovery time to finish his dissertation. His primary research wowed Steinberg and the other graders, but they sent back his first draft and asked him to include more secondary sources.

In January 2002, Rigg learned that his doctorate had been approved.

"Victory!" Rigg shouted, emerging from his study with arms raised.

"Victory!" mimicked Sophia, his daughter born in October 2000, pudgy arms held high.


"In my estimation, they were all guilty," says a man in Rigg's audience at the Dallas Jewish Community Center. After all, how could members of the Wehrmacht not have known about the death camps?

Gray heads nod around the room. Most of the 30 or so people in attendance at the JCC earlier this month are elderly; some survived the Holocaust. But another woman raises her hand to say she had two cousins who served in the Wehrmacht. She promises to bring Rigg information about them when she returns from a visit to Germany.

Hitler's Jewish Soldiers was published in 2002 with the help of Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust historian and the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Berenbaum had been impressed with Rigg's senior essay at Yale but strongly advised Rigg not to pursue the subject further. "I read in this area virtually everything written," Berenbaum says. "I thought he'd find a dozen, two dozen or three dozen, and that's all. That doesn't tell you an awful lot."

When Berenbaum read Rigg's doctoral dissertation, he was bowled over.

Rigg had labored over the book, sending chapters to experts for critique and painstakingly recrafting. The book was released to acclaim--and criticism, especially for the title. The publisher first had the word Jewish in quotation marks, Rigg says, but removed them on the advice of a historian who read the manuscript.

"The only thing I would fault him on was the numbers," Berenbaum says, referring to Rigg's assertion that up to 150,000 Mischlinge served in Hitler's military. "He'd written a serious and important work with important implications for our understanding of the Holocaust. It in essence tells us there were a whole range of other issues in carrying out the racial policy other than Nazi racial ideology. It enlivens our understanding even of Hitler's own understanding of racial purity. He's sitting in his office even at the end of the war to decide who is a Jew and who isn't."

Jewish identity today is still an explosive issue in Israel, Rigg says. It affects everything from marriages to burials to Israel's Law of Return. "If they didn't have the Palestinians to divert them," Rigg says, "then they would tear each other apart over this question."

Today, Rigg's life still involves research on the Mischlinge. His second book, The Rescue of Rebbe Schneersohn From Hitler's Europe 1939-1940, is scheduled to be published this fall by the Yale University Press. A third book will detail the lives of 25 Mischlinge veterans.

Last year, the Riggs moved to Dallas to be near their extended families. He toyed with switching careers, maybe to investment banking. They'd just bought a house and had a new baby boy. Then last fall, SMU invited Rigg to teach a course on the Holocaust. This semester he's teaching "The History of Modern Warfare" and "The History of God." One SMU student describes Rigg as intense and demanding but more accessible to students who want help than most lecturers.

Professor Turner describes Rigg as "endearing," but he also worries about Rigg's future as an academic. "I'm concerned that he's headed down a blind alley," Turner says. "All this is going to be exhausted at some point. Then what will he do?"

Despite his fascination with his Jewish background, Rigg says he never considered converting to Judaism. But he no longer identifies himself as a Christian. He's still searching.

"I don't know who I am," Rigg says. "I take comfort in that."

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