Robert Clary, the diminutive Paris-born actor and singer who survived 31 months in Nazi concentration camps but later had no qualms about co-starring in “Hogan‘s Heroes,” the American situation comedy set in a German World War II prisoner of war camp, has died at the age of 96.
Clary, who played strudel-baking French Corporal Louis LeBeau on “Hogan‘s Heroes” during its six seasons from 1965 to 1971, died on Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, his granddaughter told The Hollywood Reporter.
Clary was16 in September 1942 when he was deported from Paris to Nazi concentration camps with 12 other members of his Jewish family. He was the only one who survived. Clary spent two and a half years in the Ottmuth, Blachhammer, Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald concentration camps, enduring hunger, disease and forced labour.
He was freed when US troops liberated Buchenwald in April 1945, but then learned that his family members, including his parents, had died in the Holocaust.
Clary would later say he had no issue later appearing in a show that mocked the Nazis.
“The show was a satire set in a stalag for prisoners of war, where conditions were not pleasant but in no way comparable to a concentration camp, and it had nothing to do with Jews,” Clary told the Jerusalem Post in 2002.
Clary’s character was best known for his burgundy beret and his cooking skills, which were used to distract German officers with delicious cuisine while his fellow POWs were up to mischief.
Clary was born as Robert Max Widerman on March 1, 1926, the youngest of his Polish tailor father’s 14 children from two marriages. He became a professional singer as a teenager.
In the camps set up by the Nazis to eradicate Europe’s Jews, he was tattooed with the number A-5714 and forced to dig trenches, work in a shoe factory and sing for his captors. The singing earned him a few extra morsels of food, Clary said.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” he told the Asbury Park, New Jersey, Press in 2002. “First of all, because I survived. Secondly, because I was in camps that were not as atrocious as others. I did not suffer. I did not work as hard as people were working in salt mines on quarries. I was never tortured. I was never really beaten. I was never hanged. But I saw all these things.”
After the war, Clary’s singing career took off in France. He moved to the United States in 1949 and comedian Eddie Cantor gave him national TV exposure. Clary later married Cantor’s daughter Natalie.
Alarm over people trying to deny the Holocaust prompted Clary in 1980 to end his self-imposed silence about his experiences. He spent years traveling to schools in the United States and Canada speaking about the Holocaust. He also wrote an autobiography, “From the Holocaust to Hogan‘s Heroes.”
“We must learn from history,” Clary told the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2002, “which we don’t.”