Yale Bulletin and Calendar

May 3, 2002Volume 30, Number 28















Alumnus Bryan Rigg reveals untold
story of 'Hitler's Jewish Soldiers'

Between his freshman and sophomore years at Yale, Bryan Mark Rigg '96 spent a summer in Germany that was to lead to his senior essay, his doctoral dissertation and ultimately his first book, "Hitler's Jewish Soldiers," he told an audience at a Silliman College master's tea on April 24.

The book, an account of the surprisingly large number of Jews who served in the Nazi army, had its roots in Rigg's visit to a Berlin movie theater, said the alumnus. While in Berlin where he was studying German, Rigg went to a showing of the film "Europa, Europa," which is based on the true story of Schlomo Perel, a Jewish man who served in the Nazi army and attended a Hitler Youth school.

At the theater, Rigg made the acquaintance of an elderly man named Peter Millies, who offered to help the Yale student translate the dialogue. After the film, Millies told Rigg that he himself was a "Mischling" (a person of mixed, partially Jewish ancestry) who had served in the Wehrmacht, the German army. Intrigued by this story, Rigg decided to try to find other Jews who, like Millies and Perel, had fought on the side of the Nazis.

Returning to Yale for his sophomore year, he suggested the idea to his professors, who discouraged him from pursuing what they considered dead-end research. "That only propelled me to pursue it," Rigg said.

By his junior year, Rigg had identified only seven living Jewish veterans of the Nazi army. Convinced that there were more, he took a leave between his junior and senior years and, with funding from Yale, returned to Germany. He hoped during his one year in Germany to find 30 of Hitler's Jewish soldiers. Instead, he told his audience, he found 30 in his first month. By the end of the year, which he largely spent biking around Germany with a laptop and video camera in his backpack, he had interviewed hundreds of Jewish veterans of the Third Reich army, many of them of high rank.

To understand how so many Jews became part of the machinery of German conquest, Rigg said, one has first to understand the racial classification system established by the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. A person with two Jewish grandparents was considered a Mischling (or mixed race) individual of the first degree. A person with only one Jewish grandparent was a second-degree Mischling. Anyone who practiced Judaism was Jewish even if they were of "racially pure" stock -- so religion, not just race, was a crucial criterion, notes Rigg.

Falsifying documentation and "passing" as Aryan was one of the more common ways Jews were able to remain in the army, explained Rigg, noting that he found very few men with two Jewish parents who managed to do so. It was easier for Mischling to falsify their Jewish heritage, he said.

Jews could also serve in the Third Reich army if they were indispensable to the war effort or simply in favor with the right people, noted Rigg, citing the case of Oskar Milch, a high ranking officer in the Luftwaffe (airforce) whose mother named her deceased Christian uncle rather than her Jewish husband as the father of her six children. Hitler accepted the ruse and allowed Milch to remain, said the author, pointing out that in some cases, Hitler granted "Aryanization" to a Mischling.

Later, particularly after an attempt on his life, Hitler's "leniency" abated, said Rigg, who speculates that the Nazi leader's obsession with keeping the ranks free of Jews might ultimately have cost him the war. Rigg estimates that there were 60,000 half-Jews in the Nazi army and 90,000 quarter-Jews.

After graduating from Yale, Rigg went to ,Cambridge on a Henry Fellowship and continued his research. The thousands of documents and testimonies he amassed in the course of his study have been collected as the Bryan Mark Rigg Collection in archives housed in Freiburg, Germany.

Almost as remarkable as his historical findings, said Rigg, was a personal discovery he made while going through old town archives: His own ancestors were Jewish.

He returned to his family in Texas, where he had grown up as a devout Baptist, with the startling revelation. He now identifies himself as Jewish and has served as a volunteer in the Israeli army. He is currently working on a book about his "Jewish adventure."

-- By Dorie Baker


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