Daily Telegraph, December 2, 1996
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THOUSANDS of soldiers of Jewish parentage served in Hitler's army during the Second World War and fought for the Nazi leaders who ordered the extermination of the Jews.
Discoveries by a 25-year-old American student, published for the first time by The Telegraph, show that Hitler knew of the Jewish origins of dozens of his senior officers and signed documents declaring them to be "of German blood".
German law under the Nazis from 1935 forbade anyone with a Jewish grandparent from becoming an officer. But the German army personnel office in January 1944 knew of 77 "high-ranking officers of mixed Jewish race or married to a Jew" serving in the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces. All 77 had received a declaration from Hitler that they were "of German blood".
The list has been discovered by Bryan Rigg, a history student now working at Cambridge University, who has traced former members of the Wehrmacht who were Jews or had Jewish parentage. He has interviewed hundreds of former soldiers and their families and has examined the individual army personnel files, in the German federal government archives, which reveal how much the Nazi leadership knew of their ancestry. Mr Rigg has found evidence that Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe and Hitler's chosen successor, falsified the fatherhood of Field Marshal Erhard Milch, his deputy, who was, by the Nazis' own definitions, a half-Jew.
He has found that the Nazi leadership awarded the Knight's Cross, Germany's highest military honour, to soldiers who had previously been discharged because of their Jewish ancestry, then reinstated. He spoke to one German officer who visited his father in a concentration camp while wearing campaign medals. The widow of one Knight's Cross winner told him that her husband, a half-Jew, was deeply upset by a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto, on his way home from fighting in Russia.
Mr Rigg has identified a half-Jewish veteran of World War I who led a team from German military intelligence to Warsaw in September 1939 to help the leader of the Lubavitcher Jews, the Rebbe Joseph Schneersohn, escape to America.
Brought up in the Bible belt of Texas, Mr Rigg found that his own ancestors were German Jews. Some died in Auschwitz, others fought in the Wehrmacht.
Secret of Hitler's Jewish soldiers is uncovered
THE German army personnel office prepared a list in January 1944 of 77 "high ranking officers of mixed Jewish race or married to a Jew" serving in the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces.
All 77 had received a declaration from Hitler that they were "of German blood". Among the 77 were two generals, eight lieutenant generals, five major generals, and 23 colonels. The list was drawn up, on Hitler's instructions, so that, late in the war, the officers could be discharged.
The officer drawing up the list admitted in January 1944 that it was incomplete. Bryan Rigg's research has uncovered not just the list but many more such high-ranking officers in the army, the navy and the Luftwaffe. "I could add 60 names to that list," he said.
Mr Rigg has found documentation to show that in the case of one field marshal whose father was Jewish, Goering and Hitler ruled that his "true father" was his mother's uncle and that the field marshal was therefore of true German blood. His research has so far uncovered 17 instances where the Nazi hierarchy awarded the Ritterkreuz, or Knight's Cross, Germany's highest military honour, to someone known to be of Jewish parentage.
Many of the subjects of Mr Rigg's research were not religious Jews. But the law of Reich citizenship and the law for the protection of German blood, promulgated at Nuremberg in 1935, defined as a Jew anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents. They also created two categories of Mischlinge - those of mixed race - with either one or two Jewish grandparents. Both Mischlinge 1 (half-Jews) and Mischlinge 2 (quarter-Jews) were denied full citizenship of the Reich.
In 1940, those Mischlinge with two Jewish grandparents were expelled from the military. The expulsion order was repeated in 1942, 1943 and 1944. Those Mischlinge with only one Jewish grandparent were allowed to continue in the military, although not to be officers. It appears the Mischlinge have been neglected by historians, perhaps because they were neither Jewish victims nor Nazi executioners. Mr Rigg, who began his research into Jews in the military when he was at Yale University, said that, at first, his professors had tried to dissuade him, expecting him to find nothing. One of his interviewees was Helmut Schmidt, the former West German Chancellor, who had been an officer in the Luftwaffe though his grandfather was a Jew. Herr Schmidt, Mr Rigg recalled, had estimated that there were only "15 to 20" like him.
Mr Rigg said thousands of Mischlinge and Jews served in the military under the Nazis. He had documented 1,200 cases and interviewed more than 300 soldiers or their relatives. He had collected 30,000 documents and detailed the Jewish ancestry of two field marshals, 10 generals, 14 colonels and 30 majors. He said: "While these soldiers served, many of their Jewish relatives were murdered in concentration camps. Close to 2,300 Jewish relatives of a group of nearly 1,000 soldiers I have documented were Holocaust victims - cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, mothers, fathers." One of his interviewees was a Wehrmacht veteran who visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1942 wearing the Iron Cross he had earned in battle.
Challenged by an SS officer, he said he had come to visit his father, a Jew. The SS officer said: "If you did not have that medal, I would send you straight where your father is." But another man he interviewed, now aged 76 and living in Germany, was a full Jew who escaped to German-occupied France in 1940 and then enrolled in the Waffen SS under a new name.
Mr Rigg said the people he interviewed were at a loss to know their place in history. "They don't know where they stand," he said. "If I was in the German military and I lost my mother in Auschwitz, am I a victim or a perpetrator? Because these people have not been written about there is no place for them to tell their story. No one thought it was an issue." He said the Mischlinge had been ignored because "neither side wants to claim them". "The Germans who feel guilty don't want to talk about them. The Jewish community doesn't want to claim them because it goes against everything they have been taught about the Holocaust," he said.
Dr Jonathan Steinberg, Reader in Modern European History at Cambridge and Mr Rigg's supervisor, said the discoveries had not been made before "because the documents did not appear in the sorts of places that the ordinary researchers would look". Historians had had no reason to look at the hundreds of thousands of "perfectly ordinary personnel files".
"Bryan Rigg would not have looked, but he found the people themselves and they put him on to the files," he said. Dr Steinberg, the author of a study which contrasted treatment of the Jews by the German and Italian armies, said Mr Rigg's findings exposed "an incredibly human chapter" involving the highest-ranking officers. "It makes the reality of the Nazi state more complicated," he said. Mr Rigg's research will inform both the argument about Hitler's role in shaping the Holocaust and the debate about anti-Semitism among ordinary Germans.
The cases Mr Rigg has documented reveal varying experiences. Some were practising Jews; others did not consider themselves Jewish, whatever the laws said. Some kept their Jewish parentage secret, others could not hide it.
The research details how Nazi intolerance for those of mixed race hardened during the war. By 1944 even the high-ranking officers whose presence had been tolerated were being discharged: the Nazi leadership revoked the declarations of German blood signed by Hitler. By that time, many of the half-Jews who had started the war serving in the Wehrmacht, were working for the Organization Todt, the Nazi construction programme, in forced labour camps.
THE Nazi leadership awarded its highest military decoration, the Ritterkreuz or Knight's Cross, to soldiers it knew to be of Jewish parentage.
Major Robert Borchardt won the Knight's Cross while fighting in Russia but, once he had been captured by the Allies, was reunited with his Jewish father in England. Borchardt was discharged from the military in 1934 for being half-Jewish but was reinstated the same year after receiving Hitler's German blood declaration and sent to China to help Chiang Kai-shek's army.
By 1941 he was commanding a tank company and, in August 1941, he was awarded the Knight's Cross for his fighting in Russia. He was transferred to Rommel's Afrika Korps and captured at El Alamein. In late 1944 as a prisoner of war he was reunited with his Jewish father who had escaped from Germany before the war. In 1946 he returned to Germany because, as his wife explained, "somebody had to come back to rebuild the country".
In 1983, shortly before he died, he told high school pupils in his home town: "Many German Jews and half-Jews who fought in the First World War and even in the Second World War believed that they should honour their fatherland by serving in the military."
Col Walter Hollaender was awarded the Knight's Cross, equivalent to the British Victoria Cross, but was denied promotion because he was a half-Jew. He was deeply disturbed by a visit to the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 when he saw evidence of German persecution of the Jews.
Hollaender joined the Reichswehr, the army of the Weimar Republic, in 1922. His mother was Jewish and his army personnel file shows that in April 1934 the officer headquarters in Berlin wrote that he was "non-Aryan" but, in his favour, he had fought against the Communists in 1923-24.
The personnel office argued that he should remain in the army but Hollaender's Jewish ancestry caused problems with his colleagues at the military school where he was posted and he was transferred to work in China. Hitler awarded him the honourable service medal in 1936 and then in 1939, after reviewing photographs of him, his files and evaluations, gave him the German blood declaration, the Genehmigung.
Hollaender had a distinguished war service and was awarded the Iron Cross after commanding a grenade-thrower company in Poland. He was awarded the Knight's Cross in July 1943 for destroying 21 Russian tanks at the Battle of Kursk.
But later in 1943, Hollaender's Jewish background prevented his promotion to general. According to his wife, whom Mr Rigg has interviewed, later that year Hollaender went on leave from the Russian front and on his way home travelled through the Warsaw ghetto.
According to his wife, the ghetto visit "destroyed him mentally". He returned to his regiment deeply disturbed and his personnel file records in March 1944 that he was "too independent and not easily handled". He was taken prisoner by the Russians in October 1944 and spent 12 years in a Russian prison.
BRYAN Rigg's research sheds light on one of the strangest episodes of 1939: how German soldiers rescued Rebbe Joseph Schneersohn, the leader of the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher Jews, from Warsaw.
The tradition of the Lubavitcher Jews, now a highly influential political group in Israel and New York, relates that the Rebbe, their dynastic leader, was rescued by a German Jewish soldier. But the story seemed too fantastic to be true. Bryan Rigg has identified the soldier and established his Jewish background.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Rebbe Joseph Schneersohn, one of the world's most eminent Jewish scholars, was trapped in Warsaw. The fate of the Rebbe was of special significance to thousands of Jews throughout the world. Hasidic Judaism regards the Rebbe as a human being endowed with superior spiritual powers that enable him to serve as an intermediary between God and man.
Some Lubavitcher Jews hold that the seventh Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who died in 1994, is the Messiah and will make a second coming. His grave in New York is now a place of pilgrimage. The sixth Rebbe, Joseph Schneersohn, was father-in-law of Mendel, and had succeeded to the title of Rebbe after the death of his father in 1920. In September 1939, when Lubavitcher Jews in America heard that their revered leader was trapped in Warsaw, they petitioned help from the US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull.
Hull relayed the appeal to the US consul-general in Berlin, who, in turn, sought help from Helmut Wohlthat, the chief administrator of Goering's Four Year Plan. Wohlthat contacted Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence.
Canaris sent a group of his men to Warsaw. They somehow found the Rebbe and his followers, who were unlikely to make themselves known to a group of German soldiers brought them through Germany and helped them to escape via Latvia to safety in America. Rabbi Schneersohn's secretary described the perilous journey from Warsaw: "German soldiers were bloodthirsty like wild animals to hurt our group of Jewish men with beards and side-locks as soon as they saw us.
"A German Jew, who had served in the First World War and wore a uniform covered with medals, helped the Rebbe and his family escape this danger. Several times during the journey, Nazi soldiers threatened us, but this Jew would yell at these people and tell them that he had special orders to take these Jews to Berlin."
Until recently, the involvement of a Jewish army officer in the Rebbe's escape and the preservation of the Lubavitcher dynasty seemed unbelievable. But Mr Rigg's researches identify the man as Lt Col Dr Ernst Bloch, one of the 77 high-ranking officers named in the list of January 1944. His father, Dr Oscar Bloch, was a Jew. A First World War veteran, Bloch had joined the infantry at the age of 16. He fought at Verdun, the Somme, Champagne and Flanders. His face had been disfigured by a bayonet wound in the trenches.
Canaris recruited Bloch to the Abwehr in 1935 and gave him the task of gathering data on the industrial capacity of other countries. Canaris brought the case of Bloch's Jewish parentage to Hitler late in 1939. After looking at photographs of Bloch and at his military file, Hitler signed the official document reading: "I, Adolf Hitler, leader of the German Nation, approve Major Ernst Bloch to be of German blood. However, after the war, Ernst Bloch will be re-evaluated to see if he is still worthy to have such a title."
On July 1, 1940, Hitler promoted Bloch to lieutenant colonel. He was awarded the Iron Cross and several service decorations. But, in September 1944, Heinrich Himmler discovered his Jewish parentage and requested that the officer, by now promoted to colonel, be discharged. He was removed from the army in October 1944 and discharged officially by Hitler the following February.
A CHANCE encounter in a cinema in Germany awakened Bryan Rigg to the extraordinary history he is now uncovering. He was in Berlin in the summer of 1992 when he went to see Europa Europa, the film of Solomon Perel's story about a Jew who hid his identity and fought in the German army.
Mr Rigg had helped an elderly gentleman to find a seat in the crowded cinema. Afterwards, he asked the man what he thought of the film. The German, prompted by what he had just seen, disclosed his life history: they talked until dawn. He was a Jew who, in 1938, obtained false papers and enlisted in the German army. He fought with the Wehrmacht in Poland, France and Russia. When the war ended, he was taken prisoner by the Russians and spent the next five years in a concentration camp in Siberia, returning to Germany only in 1950.
That chance meeting was given further significance later that summer when Mr Rigg was researching his family tree. "In America, it's something you are always asked: where do you come from?" he said. He knew that his mother's family was from Germany but his relatives had refused to answer his questions. "My imagination ran wildly through the uncomfortable possibilities. I had to know the truth, whatever it might be," he said.
The truth, when it came, was unexpected. In the records at Leipzig was his great-grandmother's name. Next to it: "Mosaische Religion". The student brought up in a Protestant family in the Bible belt of Texas learnt that his German ancestors were Jewish.
His great-grandparents who left Germany for America had established themselves as Christians, concealing their Jewish roots. But, as Mr Rigg discovered, other family members who remained in Germany had stayed Jewish. His great-grandmother's sister died in Auschwitz with her whole family. Other distant cousins, also German Jews, fought and died while serving in the Wehrmacht.
The following summer he went back to Germany to interview the man from the cinema. And in the winter he went to Jerusalem to study Judaism and the Holocaust.
Mr Rigg does not hide his personal involvement in the history he is uncovering. He spells it out in the letters that he sends out asking for interviews. The Holocaust survivors who are now telling him their stories probably open up to him because they sense his own obsession with their history.
The obsession seems to have taken over his life. What Mr Rigg used to be is still apparent: he is 6ft 2in tall, weighs more than 15 stone, has wide shoulders and huge hands. At high school in Texas, he was a star American football player and went on to be a running back for Yale University. But it was before he reached Yale, while on a crammer year, that he began his transformation from football star to research student. At Yale he won a scholarship for postgraduate research at Cambridge, which he began in October at Darwin College. But his research is carried out almost without regard for previous historical scholarship, because the phenomenon he is documenting has largely been ignored by the scholars.
Mr Rigg's student flat in Cambridge is almost bereft of books. Instead, its centrepiece was, until last week, an upturned bed-frame in which he had neatly stacked his files on his interview subjects. Last week, the documents were moved to a secure archive. He points out the tools of his research: the rucksack, a video-camera and its tripod, a lap-top computer, a fax machine, and a CD-Rom containing a complete telephone directory for Germany. The CD-Rom helps him to track down people whose names he has either found in the German archives or been given by those he has interviewed, who he believes were Jewish and served in the military.
He sends out letters trying to check identities and requesting interviews. He has travelled to Istanbul, Vancouver, Stockholm and Rome, but most of his subjects are in Germany. He always makes a point of sitting next to elderly people on trains so that he can tell them about his project. On more than a dozen occasions, it has been the means to finding yet more people who were Jewish and in the military.
Joseph Hammburger, who has asked for his real name to be kept secret, is a religious Jew who hid his Judaism and served in the Wehrmacht. Now aged 82 and living in north Germany, his family died in the Holocaust. He was born a full Jew but, before the war, moved from north to south Germany where he assumed a new non-Jewish identity and entered officer training school. He became an officer and married a Jewish girl whom he brought from his home town to join him. He served 6.5 years in the military and reached the rank of captain. He said he remained a religious Jew throughout his military service but nobody knew about his Jewishness.
Field Marshal Erhard Milch was a personal friend of Hermann Goering and the highest ranking officer found to be of Jewish parentage. Born in 1892, he became the chairman of Lufthansa in 1926 and head of the air ministry in 1935. He masterminded German aircraft production and transformed the Luftwaffe. His father, Anton Milch, was Jewish. The response of the Nazi hierarchy was to change Milch's parentage.
Bryan Rigg has found a document, dated Aug 7, 1935, when Milch was a lieutenant general, in which Goering writes: "Hitler has declared Erhard Milch is of Aryan descent. . . we have seen that his real father is Karl Brauer. His siblings are also of Aryan descent." Brauer was Erhard's maternal uncle. The Nazis preferred incest to Jewishness. Milch was convicted at the Nuremberg war crimes trial and was imprisoned from 1945-55. He died in 1972.
Helmut Schmidt, the Chancellor of West Germany from 1974-82, had a Jewish grandfather but only learned of this from his mother when he was in his late teens and about to enter a higher rank of the Hitler Youth. The secret of his Jewish grandfather had been suppressed because his father was the son of an illegitimate relationship. Helmut Schmidt, who was born in December 1918, kept his Jewish ancestry secret and went on to become a lieutenant in the Luftwaffe.
Helmut Wilberg was an architect of the concept of Blitzkrieg who in the First World War used planes to support the German infantry. He was in charge of a squadron of German aircraft that went to Spain in 1936 to support Franco. He was awarded the Knight's Cross. He was in charge of a flight school and rose to the rank of General der Flieger. His mother was Jewish but a document in his file dated April 30, 1940, reads: "After a lot of testing about my ancestry, I have found out I am not a Jew and I know what this means. If I do not answer these questions I will be immediately discharged." He died in 1941 when his plane crashed.
Edgar Jacobson, another pseudonym, who has asked for his real name to be kept secret, was, by the Nazi definition, a full Jew, though not practising. He married a non-Jew and his wife is still alive. He was a film-maker who worked in the propaganda office in Paris in 1941 and was awarded the Iron Cross First Class.
In 1941 his sister, who was wearing a Jewish star, tried to attend a Nazi meeting but was refused admittance. She remonstrated with those who barred her way that her brother was a major in the army. The case was investigated. Jacobson was court-martialled, put in prison for having given a false statement about his ancestry and discharged from the military as "Jude".
Later he was sent to a labour camp, where he was made to work for an officer who was of lesser rank than he had been. The officer complained at this injustice. Jacobson was given compensation by the German authorities after the war. His sister, who was sent to Theresienstadt, survived the war.
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