The Hollywood Reporter has published an important feature on Hollywood’s last Holocaust Survivors. The subjects are Bill Harvey, Ruth Posner, Dario Gabbai, Celina Biniaz, Leon Prochnik, Meyer Gottlieb, Branko Lustig, Curt Lowens, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Robert Clary.
The 89 year old Clary rose to fame on the CBS sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes, a long-running show starring Bob Crane, that featured life in a WWII P.O.W. camp. Born in France to an Orthodox Jewish family, in real life, Clary was the only one of 14 family members to survive until the liberation.
From The Hollywood Reporter:
Clary, 89, can discuss the Holocaust without exposing obvious emotion, but that serenity dissolves as he recounts his 1942 arrival at Auschwitz. He was 16. The cattle car doors swung open, and SS guards were screaming at inmates to get out and sit on the ground. “My mother said the most remarkable thing,” recalls Clary. “She said, ‘Behave.’ She probably knew me as a brat. She said, ‘Behave. Do what they tell you to do.’ ” Clary needs a moment to regain his composure after recounting this final conversation with his mother, who was killed that day with his father in the gas chamber. Of 14 family members who were deported to the camp, he was the only one who survived to see liberation.
Clary was born into a strict Orthodox family in Paris, but the childhood he recalls was full of joy. From a young age, he was a determined entertainer. He’d go on to find success after the war — as a singer and an actor on Broadway, TV and film (he’s best known for his role as the French patriot Cpl. LeBeau on Hogan’s Heroes, which is set in a German POW camp).
Clary’s passion to entertain helped sustain him during his darkest moments. At Buchenwald, he sang with an accordionist every other Sunday to an audience of SS soldiers. Clary feels certain that his singing gave him a purpose and an escape and thus helped save his life: “Singing, entertaining and being in kind of good health at my age, that’s why I survived,” he says. “I was very immature and young and not really fully realizing what situation I was involved with. … I don’t know if I would have survived if I really knew that.”
Survival wasn’t easy. He was forced into labor at a prison shoe factory in Germany that the Allies bombed regularly. And with the war’s end looming, the Nazis ordered Clary and other prisoners on an arduous death march from Poland to Germany. Clary says that only 1,500 of the 4,000 prisoners who started were alive at its completion. “All the others died on the road.”
For decades, as he settled into a new life in America and his career took off, Clary chose not to discuss what he had been through. But in the 1980s, after he saw a documentary about a woman who had survived Auschwitz, he signed on with the Wiesenthal Center and began sharing his story. Says Clary, “I stopped having nightmares the moment I opened my mouth.” — P.F.
Clary, who played Corporal Louis LeBeau and Kenneth Washington (Sergeant Richard Baker) are the last surviving members of the Hogan’s Heroes‘ main cast. The broad sitcom featured WWII allies held prisoner at Stalag 13 P.O.W. camp, from which they ran secret special operations, to sabotage the Nazis.
Clary was not the only Jewish actor in the cast of Hogan’s Heroes. Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink), John Banner (Sergeant Schultz), Leon Askin (General Burkhalter), and Howard Caine (SS Major Hochstetter) were also Jewish. In latter years, the sitcom has been criticized for trivializing the plight of those imprisoned by the Nazis.
What do you think? Did you know about Clary’s personal history? Do you think P.O.W. treatment was too light, or do you view it as sort of a wish-fulfillment story?