Skip to comments.Hiding in plain sight: An unusual and controversial chapter in Holocaust history
Posted on 06/09/2002 4:43:18 PM PDT by Non-Sequitur
Most people know about the Holocaust and the millions sent to their deaths in Adolph Hitlers Final Solution. But what you may not know about is the thousands perhaps hundreds of thousands of German men with Jewish backgrounds who were able to escape extermination and how they did it by hiding from the Nazi killing machine but incredibly, hiding in plain sight. Correspondent Josh Mankiewicz reports.
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I WAS AFRAID for every minute from them, says Nachemia Wurman. I was suspicious for every move from them. I thought that behind me somebodys going to kill me.
Hes Jewish. But during World War II, Nachemia Wurman not only wore a German army uniform, he helped feed and supply German soldiers not because he sympathized with them, but simply to survive.
Does he have any sense of guilt about that?
That he sort of was working with the same army that wanted to exterminate him?
The best hiding place was in the mouth of the wolf, says Wurman.
And Wurman wasnt alone.
While Adolf Hitler was working toward the domination of Europe and the extermination of the Jews, thousands of young men of Jewish descent were serving in the Fuhrers armed forces.
How many of the other German boys in the army knew that your mother was a Jew?
In the army? Nobody knew it, says Hans-Geert Falkenberg.
Falkenberg didnt tell anyone. Even as millions of Jews were falling in concentration camps, some soldiers who were Jewish by Nazi standards became decorated and distinguished German heroes. And incredibly, thousands of partial Jews served with Adolf Hitlers personal blessing.
The irony is stunning. Even as millions of Jews were falling in concentration camps, some soldiers who were Jewish by Nazi standards became decorated and distinguished German heroes. And incredibly, thousands of partial Jews served with Adolf Hitlers personal blessing.
Its totally shocking, says author Bryan Marc Rigg. In fact, when I began this research, I didnt even believe that this was possible.
Its an unusual chapter in Holocaust history that might not have been publicized without the fervent, if not obsessive, work of a rather unusual historian.
Bryan Mark Rigg isnt a grandchild of survivors or an established Holocaust scholar. In fact, hes an earnest 31-year-old former Marine who had no real interest in the Holocaust before visiting Germany the summer after his freshman year at Yale.
Dateline spoke with Rigg at the place where the details of Hitlers final solution were agreed on by the Fuhrers senior counselors the infamous Wannsee villa, in Berlin, a city thats also the birthplace of Bryan Riggs search for the truth about the overlap between German Jews and the German army.
Such a beautiful place, and it was an event of unimaginable evil that took place here, says Rigg.
I was here in Berlin in 1992, learning German, and I asked one of my instructors if he could recommend a film I could watch to improve my German. And he told me that I should go see the film Europa, Europa.
The film is based on the true story of a German Jew who survived the war by working for the German army and hiding his real identity. In the theater, Rigg met an older man who told him he had lived a similar life and Rigg wondered if there were more like him.
But back at Yale, where Rigg returned to start researching the Jews in Hitlers army, his professors were underwhelmed.
They said, basically, Hey, we studied this for 20 or 30 years, and weve never heard about this, says Rigg. You should study some serious German history and not chase after some curious anomalies who will not add anything to our understanding of the Third Reich.
So basically, theres probably nothing there, and if there is something there, its not significant anyway? Absolutely, says Rigg. In four years of criss-crossing Germany by bicycle and train, Rigg says he interviewed 430 former soldiers and documented thousands more who were both German and of Jewish descent.
But Rigg began the research anyway. It quickly became a sort of personal quest, and in four years of criss-crossing Germany by bicycle and train, Rigg says he interviewed 430 former soldiers and documented thousands more who were both German and of Jewish descent.
Its an enormous piece of work that has to be respected, says Michael Berenbaum, a distinguished Holocaust scholar, the author of 12 books on the subject and one of the professors who warned Bryan Rigg not to waste his time trying to find these soldiers. He says he was happy to be proven wrong.
Its the triumph of perseverance, says Berenbaum. Without perseverance, this could not have been done.
Rigg surprised Berenbaum? Shocked me, he says.
Rigg went on to get a doctorate from Cambridge University and to write a book called Hitlers Jewish Soldiers.
Thats where the research ends and the controversy begins. In a way, thats a little bit of a misnomer. Some of them didnt consider themselves Hitlers soldiers, and a lot of them didnt consider themselves Jewish.
Yes, says Rigg. The reason why I named my book Hitlers Jewish Soldiers was Hitler thought of these people as Jewish and they were only his Jewish soldiers.
The provocative title has provoked a response even from his friends.
To call these people Hitlers Jewish soldiers is to presume the Nazi definition of who is Jewish, says Michael Berenbaum.
Namely, to do it not by the religion we live, by the identity we affirm, but the accident of the blood we contain that we have within. Thats a Nazi definition.
The Nazis referred to children of mixed marriages as half-Jews or quarter-Jews or used the collective term, Mischlinge.
Mischlinge were its a horrible term, says Rigg. It means bastard, mutt, hybrid. And the Nazis nowadays, its used for dogs of mixed breed, mutts. It just shows you what the connotation was behind the word that the Nazis used for these people.
And by using that Nazi definition, Rigg has come up with a jaw-dropping estimate that has caught the attention of historians worldwide: Some served as a way of hiding themselves, some as a way of protecting their families. And for some, it was simply an extension of the life they had led before the war.
I estimate that 150,000 Mischling soldiers served during the Third Reich, says Rigg.
If true, that would represent less than one percent of the German armed forces, and several Holocaust scholars say even that estimate of 150,000 Mischling soldiers is way too high. Rigg says he bases his estimate on birth and mixed-marriage records. But his larger point is that their existence in the German military no matter what the number is in itself significant.
How could it have been that the Nazi party, so committed to eliminating Jews, not just from in Germany but elsewhere in Europe as well, would allow half-Jews or people with one Jewish grandparent to serve in the German army?
Well, I think on the one hand, Hitler allowed these men to serve because he did not want to deny the Wehrmacht so many potential soldiers, says Rigg.
So the Fuhrers desire to field an army was stronger than his hatred for Jews?
Well, that might have been one reason, says Rigg. But its very difficult to find rational explanations for Hitlers behavior.
Just as hard to explain is why anyone of Jewish descent would have wanted to serve. In fact, at the outset of the war, men the Nazis called half-Jews were drafted. They had to serve not in the Gestapo or the SS, both filled with true-believer Nazis charged with enforcing Hitlers racial policies, but in the regular armed forces.
Some served as a way of hiding themselves, some as a way of protecting their families. And for some, it was simply an extension of the life they had led before the war.
Dachau was the first concentration camp the Germans built. It was built in 1933 outside of Munich. Today, large portions of the camp stand relatively undisturbed, both as a memorial and as a lesson. And to understand the lesson of what happened here, you also have to understand that long before it was fatal to be a Jew in Germany, it was an inconvenience an obstacle to a successful life. And thats why many Jews and partial Jews did everything they could to keep their religious background a secret.
Today Friedemann Lichtwitz is 83. His father was a Jew who went to synagogue on Friday nights. Friedemann never went with him. Like his mother, he was raised as a Christian.
He didnt like being called Jewish. In 1935, life in Germany changed not just for Jews, but for people of partial Jewish descent as well. Thats when Hitler passed the Nuremberg laws, which not only redefined what a Jew was, but also severely restricted the ability of Jews to work and function in society.
Yes, you were persecuted and you couldnt say anything, says Friedemann Lichtwitz. You had to keep it hidden that you were a half-Jew, as they called it, and that was not pleasant. Hans-Geert Falkenberg, also raised Protestant, remembers having a chip on his shoulder about being called a half-Jew.
If a 10-year-old boy or 11-year-old boy is told in biology by a teacher that the Aryan race is the most wonderful race and the Jewish race is minor, and the most terrible things are mixed-up people, says Falkenberg. So from that moment on, I tried to behave differently to prove that I was not minor.
Falkenberg wasnt raised Jewish or didnt feel Jewish, but he knew that teacher was talking about him.
But in 1935, life in Germany changed not just for Jews, but for people of partial Jewish descent as well. Thats when Hitler passed the Nuremberg laws, which not only redefined what a Jew was, but also severely restricted the ability of Jews to work and function in society.
Though many saw Hitler and the Nazi party as a political fad that wouldnt last, Jews who could afford to began fleeing Germany in large numbers. For those who couldnt get out, life was turning bleak. By 1939, Jews were being corralled in ghettoes, deported to concentration camps. Because theyd been drafted, many young men could only watch as their Jewish relatives left Germany. They had no choice but to stay and fight.
I went into the army at the first day of the war, says Falkenberg. Yes, on the 26th of August, 1939.
What would have happened if he hadnt gone into the army? What would have happened if hed left? I would have been a deserter, says Falkenberg.
So that was an easy choice? There was no other choice at that moment, he says.
Then there were young men like Helmut Kopp who used the army as a place to hide in plain sight. Although Kopp was Jewish, he was drafted and saw, in danger, an opportunity.
At the inspection, you got a piece of paper with a sworn declaration, and you had to swear, I hereby declare that my grandparents are... Kopp says. And you could underline Jew, quarter-Jew, half-Jew. And I underlined full Aryan, and I gave it to them, and that was it.
He had no problem lying? No, Kopp says. Everybody signed these forms. The majority signed full Aryan. Jewish grandparents? Nobody did that. I told myself, well, now well wait and see what happens.
As they started joining the German army in the late 1930s, the soldiers the Nazis called Mischlinge were filled with dread, terrified both of the men they were fighting against and the ones they were fighting next to. Would life in the army protect these men from the terror that was about to roll across Europe?
When it came time for a routine army physical, Kopp panicked. He was circumcised a dead giveaway that he was Jewish.
We all had to stand naked before the commission, says Kopp. And they stared and stared, and one of them said, What do you have there?
But Kopp was lucky, as it turned out. Hed had his circumcision late at age 12 and because of that, he still had scars. Thinking on his feet, Kopp told the doctor hed had surgery for an infection. He passed the physical and got a new nickname in the process.
Whenever I had an army physical, they always shouted, Here comes Private Kopp with the Jewish penis! he says. They just never thought that this was a circumcision.
But according to historian Bryan Rigg, even the soldiers whose Jewish descent was known soon discovered that life in the army wasnt half bad.
Being a transport driver was a very brilliant job. No question, says Falkenberg.
Geert Falkenberg was part of the German forces that invaded France in 1940. His family, including his Jewish father, had fled to England.
Did he ever think of deserting and trying to join them? Probably I had the idea, but I couldnt do it, he says. How? You know, Europe was Fascistic.
So it was safer to just stay in the army? Yes, certainly, says Falkenberg. The safest thing was to stay in the army, no question.
Friedemann Lichtwitz says, In the German army I was in a pretty good situation. People were not persecuted. It was a good bunch of guys. I felt comfortable there.
But if these soldiers felt safe, their Jewish family members did not. As Bryan Rigg found out, there were many complaints from soldiers about how their Jewish relatives were being treated at home.
Many of these men were coming home from the battlefronts, and they were finding that their families were being severely persecuted, says Rigg. You know, Dad lost his job, Mom was being spit on in the street and many of these men went to their commanders and said, Hey look, I served this country honorably. I have the Iron Cross, and look how theyre treating my family.
It may have been due to those complaints, or it may be that Adolf Hitler simply decided he no longer wanted half-Jews in his army, whatever the reason, in April 1940, Hitler ordered all of them expelled from the armed forces. And with his words, the idea that military service could protect the Mischling soldiers or their families instantly vanished. Now, the only lawful way to remain in the military was through a loophole offered by the Fuhrer himself.
In the Third Reich, it was actually possible to apply for a legal exemption from being Jewish. Partially Jewish soldiers flooded the Fuhrers office with applications. And remarkably, Hitler reviewed thousands of them personally. While the issue of exemptions has been known by historians for a long time, it was Bryan Rigg who brought to light the extent of Adolf Hitlers involvement.
Every application that came in, he wanted photographs, front and side shots of these men, because he wanted to see how they looked physically, says Rigg. Did they have a big nose, big ears, or did they have blond hair, blue eyes?
Hitler actually wrote special permissions for individual soldiers? He had his Secretary of State, you know, formulate the legal language, says Rigg. But then he would sign off on them. And these certificates basically said, you know, I, Adolf Hitler, declare you of German blood according to the racial laws, and sign it.
And thats how a handful of men of Jewish descent were allowed to stay in uniform and even rise through the ranks. One even became a field marshal, the equivalent of a U.S. five-star general.
Without an exemption, most of the so-called Mischlinge were kicked out of the armed services by the end of 1940. With the stroke of a pen, battlefield heroes had been marked for their eventual extermination.
Geert Falkenberg never had a chance to apply for an exemption before it was too late. He was put up for promotion, but the paperwork that promotion triggered meant his secret that his father was Jewish would be discovered.
And I said, Captain so and so, please stop it, says Falkenberg. Its impossible. I am half-Jewish, so I cannot become an officer. And it was too late already, he had done this.
How long after he put in your papers was he dismissed? That went quick, he says.
Those who couldnt get an exemption had to figure out how to beat the system or just hope they wouldnt be found out. Arno Spitz managed to get promoted perhaps because he was such an accomplished soldier. Spitz, a paratrooper, won three medals for bravery and close combat unusual for a man who, because of his Jewish father, could easily have been in a concentration camp instead of in the army.
Spitz was, by almost any standard, a first-rate soldier.
In my heart, I was not a soldier, says Spitz.
In his heart he may not have been a soldier, but on the battlefield he was a soldier. Yes, says Spitz.
Would Hitler and those around him have described Spitz as a hard-working, dedicated, accomplished soldier, somebody theyd be proud of? No. There is a great latitude between admiration for Hitler and serving in the German army, he says.
So he was fighting not for the Nazis, but for Germany? Sure, says Spitz.
Even though Germany was controlled by the Nazis? Yes, says Spitz.
Theres a difference? There is a difference, he says.
Its a thin distinction, but not an uncommon one. In numerous cases Bryan Rigg documented, German officers knew full well that their men were Jewish or partially Jewish and did nothing about it.
There are many men that have said to me, you know, I went to my commander, I told him I was half-Jewish, and the commander said, Hey, dont do too much, dont do too little, and youre safe by me, youre protected, says Rigg. I could care less about your ancestry. For me, youre a German soldier, youre a loyal comrade, and thats all I care about.
So the U.S. military wasnt the first place to come up with a dont ask, dont tell policy? Thats correct, yes, says Rigg.
Consider the extraordinary story of Nachemia Wurman. A Polish Jew, he was sent to a labor camp in 1944. His father was executed there. Wurman managed to escape once from the labor camp and again from the German military police that arrested him days later. He ran east, hoping to find the Russian army on the other side of the front.
So finally, I came to a place, a burned-down village, says Wurman. I saw Germans German soldiers. If I will escape, they will see somebody running away, they could kill me.
Instead, he walked straight into the camp. And by the end of the day, Wurman had become Marion Schmidt, assistant chef for the German 72nd Infantry Battalion.
At night, he bunked with a supply officer, who gave him better food than the soldiers were eating. By day, Wurman worked the food line, and soon decided his new chef should look the part.
He took me in and gave me a German uniform, says Wurman. Completely with the swastika, with the belt, like a German soldier, with the hat, with boots. I looked in the mirror, I said, how could a Jewish boy be wearing the uniform from the beast?
He was wearing the uniform of the army that had killed his father? Yes, thats correct, he says.
Wurmans mother? Yes, he says.
And he was thinking, Im lucky to have it?
Not I was lucky to have the uniform, he says. But I was lucky that Im alive.
One night, the supply officer called Wurman over.
He said to me, Marion. Youre a Jew? says Wurman. I didnt answer. He said, I know exactly that you are Jewish. But dont be afraid. So long as I live, youll live. I didnt open my mouth to say yes or no, nothing.
Because he still was not sure that if he says yes Maybe hes going to shoot me, says Wurman. But nothing happened. And I went back to sleep.
Nachemia Wurman, a Jew, had survived discovery. He was actually a lot better off than many of the so-called Mischlinge back in Germany, because the war had begun to turn on Adolf Hitler and hed already begun turning on them.
By 1944, the war was going badly for Germany. Its armed forces had been driven back on the eastern front. Italys dictator Mussolini had capitulated, and the allies were landing on the French coast.
Hitler needed lots of men any men. Suddenly, the men the Nazis called Mischlinge found themselves wanted again. Only this time, it wasnt for military service. It was for a network of forced labor camps. Geert Falkenberg was called up. Hed been told he was joining a special army-like unit. But when he arrived, he looked around and saw not other soldiers, but something else.
Criminals, with some people who were not, could not do any military service anymore, says Falkenberg, with some half-Jewish people, with some gypsies and with some homosexuals.
Falkenberg is describing a group of people, all of whom were being persecuted in different ways by the Nazis, and all of whom were unacceptable to serve in the army.
Yes, he says.
Friedemann Lichtwitz says, We went to this forced labor camp and did our job. But after a few weeks, we started to realize that something is not right here. They were treating us more harshly. Eventually, it got so bad, I knew I needed to escape.
Lichtwitz did escape. But soon, he was caught. And then he was brought to Dachau. This former hard-working radio artillery man was now a prisoner at Dachau, a concentration camp where, by the end of the war, an estimated 32,000 people had been killed.
What was it like for him to start the war serving in the army and end it at Dachau?
I cant say, says Lichtwitz. I dont know how to answer that.
From this camp, there would be no escape, and its debatable whether the living were better off than the dead.
Basically, he just had to plan with his comrades, says Bryan Rigg, how they were going to sleep, because they had six people up here, and they said, OK, I lean on my left side, and you lean on your left side. And you had to stay that way the entire night.
Six per bed? Six per bed, says Rigg. What they would do is when somebody would die, so they would be able to take the food of that person that day, they would just say hes sick and leave him in bed as long as they could.
In the end, soldiers like Friedemann Lichtwitz, no matter how loyally theyd served Germany, were, in the eyes of the Nazis, just Jews to be exterminated. Lichtwitz began the war as a soldier; he ended it as a holocaust survivor and other survivors will easily identify with his experience.
But how will the other Mischling soldiers be viewed as victims or villains? Bryan Rigg, who in the course of his research discovered Jewish ancestry of his own, says he knows this will be a difficult story for some people to hear, because the story of Hitlers Jewish soldiers blurs what was, to some, a clear image of the past.
The Third Reich and Hitler and so on, its not all black and white, says Rigg. Not everybody of Jewish descent was exterminated in the death camps. And not every German soldier serving in the army of the Third Reich was a Nazi, as we use that term today.
There are going to be people who, when they hear Rigg say things like the Third Reich is not black and white, what they hear is, which means, they werent all bad and the Holocaust didnt happen.
No, absolutely not. The Holocaust did happen, says Rigg. My research, I think sheds new light on the Holocaust, of just how crazy, how corrupt, how bankrupt these Nazi laws were, but how deadly they also were, and how they affected hundreds of thousands of people who the Nazis called Jews, but they themselves would not have called themselves Jewish or Jews. And thats also quite tragic.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights agency.
The question is, will the book serve a noble purpose or will it be misused by haters who will now claim, You see? The Jews were part of the Nazi equation, says Rabbi Hier.
Thats the great fear.
Should this research or could it lead people to sort of reevaluate their conclusions about the Holocaust?
I think that this resistance look the book could be used by revisionists, says Rabbi Hier. So revisionists will turn around and say you see? There are 150,000 Jews that served the Nazis. That would be preposterous.
The potentially explosive issue is whether Riggs research encourages people to think that Jewish soldiers killed other Jews. Bryan Rigg didnt document any examples of that. But Helmut Kopp certainly received a hostile reaction right after the war at the emigration office, when he was trying to leave Germany.
A man about 10 or 15 years older than me came in and said, I heard you were in the German army, says Kopp. I said yes, what was I supposed to do, either go to the camps or falsify documents and go along? I never killed a Jew with a weapon in my hand. And he said, From the looks of you, you would kill the first Jew who comes through that door. He called me an anti-Semite.
Spitz says, I was very much hurt when my daughter thought that by belonging to the German Wehrmacht, I had somehow participated in the crimes against Jewish people. And this is definitely not so.
A lot of Jews will tell you that the Nazis could never have achieved the power they had, or held the power they had, or done the things they did without the cooperation of the military.
Thats right, says Spitz. Thats right. Still, that does not mean that the military and Nazism were identical, no.
Spitz, like many of the Mischling soldiers Bryan Rigg interviewed, insisted he didnt know what was really happening to the Jews until after the war. Helmut Kopp says he did know, but couldnt say anything.
I couldnt, says Kopp. If I would have been open with my comrades, if they would know I was a half-Jew, they would have turned on me. They wouldnt have said I was a friend anymore.
Does he think the former soldiers who say they had no idea what was going on with the Jews, were telling the truth? No, says Kopp.
They knew? If theyre saying that now, its just to protect themselves, says Kopp.
Rabbi Hier says, Im prepared to say that their criminal culpability is not the same as being a member of the SS, the SD, or the Gestapo. But Im not prepared to say weve got to give them the blanket amnesty because these fellows did not know what they were doing. Thats a lot of nonsense. Theyre claiming an amnesty that they do not deserve.
Geert Falkenberg, fighting in France, actually got letters from his Jewish grandmother telling him what was happening.
In those letters she wrote what she expected, says Falkenberg. And that was so terrible, that I didnt believe it. I couldnt believe it.
His grandmother died in a concentration camp.
Does Falkenberg feel guilty about what he did? I feel guilty about what I didnt do, he says. I didnt try to save my grandmother. I didnt have the idea. I can tell you that I had no money, no connections, all that thats not what I mean. I mean to go there and try to get her, and to push her about the Swiss border or so. That is what I should have done.
But Falkenberg is a rare example. Few of these old soldiers have any regrets about the war or their role in it in part, because of that famous German sense of duty; in part, because many feel they dont need to apologize for donning the uniform of evil in order to survive.
When Arno Spitz talks to people today, and they ask him what he did during World War II, what does he tell them?
Well, sure. I dont have to, says Spitz. I didnt do anything that is a crime.
Kopp lost members of his own family to the Nazis. Yes, Says Kopp. My aunt, my cousins, were sent off to Riga in 1941 and they were all murdered.
And during that time Kopp was still fighting for the same army that was supporting the man who was killing them.
From todays point of view, you cant understand that then, you didnt think about the Fuhrer, or the nation, says Kopp. I thought only about myself that either my tank or something will be hit and then Ill be gone anyway, or Ill make it through.
Kopp is now 80 years old. When he looks back, is he ashamed of what he did? No, I never was ideologically on the side of the Nazis, he says. As we say today, I only did my job. If I had been sent to the concentration camp, I dont really know if Id be alive today.
Despite what happened to their families at the hands of the Nazis, Helmut Kopp, Gert Falkenberg and a number of these former soldiers stayed on in Germany. When asked why, Falkenberg said he felt in some way he owed his survival to a handful of Germans and wanted to be with them to help them rebuild.
So what? Some neo-nazi's take the bible the wrong way as well.
Well hey there, look on your shelf right next to the book about the "Black Confederates." These people were Jews in the same way that the FMOC's of 1/8 or 1/16 "colored" ancestry were Black.
The veterans, on the other hand, displayed a great deal dignity in discussing what had to be a difficult thing to discuss. The book by Bryan Rigg sounds fascinating.
Eighth or quarter, and had no affiliation with the Jewish community or religion or a Jewish spouse.
A Catholic who was found to be 3/8 Jewish went to the camps as a Jew. 1/4 Jews (who didn't acknowledger their religion, of course) were to be sterilized, though I don't think that was ever implemented.
Here's the biggest shocker.A history professor admitting he was wrong.
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