Author Bryan Mark Rigg captivated his audience of 40 at the Boulder JCC for two hours Tuesday night, explaining his own journey of discovery and telling stories of a few of the thousands of men of Jewish descent who fought for the Third Reich in World War II. Dr. Rigg characterized much of his work, as well as much of his life, as an exploration of identity, his premise being that who we are is as much a product of who we think we are as a product of external descriptors. This is nowhere more true than examining the complex identity issues faced by Jews and part-Jews in Hitler’s Germany.
Dr. Rigg was brought up as a Baptist in a family that was very proud of its German ancestry. His own upbringing was complicated by serious learning disabilities, which led to him being identified as “challenged”, other kids calling him stupid and much worse names. Thanks to a teacher that took the time to work with him over the course of a year or more, he went to Yale University where he began his studies of German history that eventually led to a Ph.D from Cambridge. He now teaches history at the American Military University and Southern Methodist University.
He discovered while researching his family tree that he had German-Jewish ancestors. While studying at Cambridge University and doing research in Germany, he asked his German professor to recommend a movie he could see that would help him improve his German. His professor suggested he see “Europa, Europa“, a film about Shlomo Pearl, a Jew that served in the Nazi army. At the movie, he met Peter Millies, an elderly German who helped him translate the movie. It turned out that Millies himself was part Jewish and had also served in the Wehrmacht in World War II. This interesting coincidence sparked Dr. Rigg’s interest.
Back at Cambridge, Dr. Rigg offered the subject as his thesis, but was rejected on the grounds that it was “dead end science”. Upon insisting, he finally received a year off, and small funding from Cambridge for a research trip back to Germany, under Professor Jonathan Steinberg. During this year, traveling under harsh conditions on bicycle throughout Germany, he gathered over four hundred recorded interviews with “Mischlings”, German for mongrel and the word used by the Nazis to describe men of partial Jewish ancestry.
As a result of his research and working with statisticians, Dr. Rigg estimated that up to 150,000 German Mischlings served in the Nazi military. He was able to document over 2,000 stories during his field research phases, and he has written three books: “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military”; “ Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe” and his latest book that delves deeply into 21 of these stories: “Lives of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: Untold Tales of Men of Jewish Descent Who Fought for the Third Reich.” The last of the three (and most recent) is available at the BJCC Book Festival.
Thus Dr. Rigg started a dual path — exploring his own identity along with studying these soldiers of the Third Reich who, according to the Nuremburg race laws of 1935, were declared half-Jews or quarter-Jews, depending on the number of Jewish grandparents they had. In studying Judaism — Dr. Rigg converted to Judaism and eventually studied at the Ohr Sameach Yeshiva in Jerusalem — he was struck by this collision of laws: according to halacha, most of these men were not Jewish — their mothers’ lines were pure Aryan. But the state declared that they were at least part Jewish based on a different set of rules.
In a similar way, Dr. Rigg, who went to Israel, studied there, volunteered and served in the IDF and identified himself as Jewish, was considered a non-Jew because his mother wasn’t Jewish, nor had he completed an Orthodox conversion. Dr. Rigg even interviewed a Mischling who served in the Nazi army, was discharged in 1942 when Hitler ordered the discharge of all half-Jews, worked in a forced labor camp from 1944-1945 (the fate of most of these half-Jewish soldiers), migrated to Palestine after the war, fought in the Israeli War of Independence, and in 1953, was denied Israeli citizenship because he did not fit the parameters of the Law of Return. Disgusted with the whole process, the man returned to Germany.
The audience wanted to know, “Didn’t these men know what was going on in the camps?” Dr. Rigg replied that except for some of the highest ranking soldiers, they didn’t know any more about it than the average German. In fact, the men lost, on average, eight family members in the Holocaust. They had no idea where their relatives were being deported. There were two recorded cases of German officers showing up in uniform at the gates of a camp to try to retrieve a parent; one was successful, the other was not.
“Why didn’t these men flee instead of serving?” Dr. Rigg explained that, again, it was a matter of identity: they all considered themselves loyal Germans first — as did many assimilated and reform Jews in Germany before the war. In fact, many of these Jews assumed that the racial laws were really aimed at the “Ost juden”, the poorer, orthodox and hassidic eastern Jews that they themselves were embarrassed about. It is this attitude toward the orthodox that caused many of the orthodox, including the Lubivitcher Rebbe, to put some of the blame for the Holocaust onto the secular and reform Jews of Germany and the world.