LOS ANGELES (Dec. 26)
Thousands of soldiers and officers of Jewish descent fought in Hitler’s armies, with his full approval, while their relatives were transported to extermination camps.
In one instance, Hitler personally suspended his Nuremberg racial laws to designate a list of 77 high-ranking Wehrmacht officers of "mixed Jewish race or married to a Jew" as pure, German-blooded Aryans. The list included 15 generals.
These incredible tales were unearthed by Bryan Rigg, a 25-year-old Yale University graduate. Rigg has spent four years scouring German army records and interviewing more than 300 Jewish or partly Jewish people who fought under the swastika in World War II.
The Texas-born Rigg is now a graduate history student at Cambridge University in England, where he was interviewed by the London correspondent of the Los Angeles Times.
His research has impressed historians.
Jonathan Steinberg, a professor at Cambridge, said, "When I saw Bryan’s archive, I couldn’t believe it. He’s like the sorcerer’s apprentice, calling these sources up from the depths."
Rigg said he had documented the Jewish ancestry of 1,200 of Hitler’s soldiers, among them two field marshals. Twenty of these men were awarded the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest military decoration.
One of the field marshals was Erhard Milch, deputy to Luftwaffe Chief and Gestapo founder Hermann Goering. Rumors of Milch’s Jewishness — his father was Jewish — circulated widely in Germany in the 1930s.
In one of the famous anecdotes of the time, Goering falsified Milch’s birth record and then said, "I decide who is a Jew and who is an Aryan."
From his interviews, Rigg culled stories that defy belief. One was about a German officer, in full uniform, who visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1942 to see his Jewish father, one of the inmates.
Another story was about a Knight’s Cross holder who, as a prisoner of war in England, was reunited with his Jewish father, who had earlier fled Germany.
Many of the veterans Rigg met indicated that they had hoped through their military service to save the lives of relatives classified as Jews.
But in analyzing one group of 1,000 such soldiers, Rigg found that nearly 2,300 of their relatives were killed in the Holocaust.
Rigg’s research also shed light on stories surrounding the rescue by German soldiers of the Lubavitcher rebbe of that time, who was trapped in Warsaw when war broke out in 1939.
Joseph Isaac Schneerson was spirited to safety after an appeal to Germany from the then-neutral United States. Tradition has it that Schneerson was rescued by a German Jew. Rigg has identified the man as a highly decorated professional soldier, Maj. Ernst Bloch, whose father was a Jew.
Rigg started his quest at Yale while digging into his own family’s German roots. His first discovery was that his great- grandparents, who arrived in the United States as Protestants, had been born in Germany as Jews.
Next, he happened to see the film "Europa, Europa," the true story of a Jewish teenager who saved his life by posing as an ethnic German and serving in the Nazi army. Afterward, Rigg struck up a chance conversation with an elderly German Jew, who spoke about his own service in the Wehrmacht, and Rigg was hooked.
With hardly any financial resources, Rigg conducted his interviews by crisscrossing Germany, often by bicycle, carrying his clothes, computer and documents in a bulging knapsack.
He has 400 more interviews to go on his current check list. "The thing is, I don’t give up," Rigg told the Los Angeles Times. "If I have to carry 60 pounds on my back, I do it. If I have to sleep in train stations, I do it. I do it to get to these people."
The initial reports on Rigg’s findings in the British media have provoked debates among historians.
Most agree that while the fact that Jews served in the Wehrmacht has been known for some time, the story has never before been documented in such intimate detail.
There has also been criticism.
David Cesarani, a professor of modern European Jewish history at Southampton University, said it is fundamentally incorrect to describe the soldiers studied by Rigg as Jews.
These soldiers "didn’t think they were Jewish and wanted to prove they weren’t Jewish by fighting for the Fuhrer," he said.
"Posthumously declaring them Jews is denying the way in which they defined themselves and conceding the way the Nazis defined them," he said. "It was their tragedy, but not the tragedy of the Jews."