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As part of its programming for Holocaust Remembrance Day, Channel 1 will air Hitler's Jewish Soldiers, directed by Larry Price and based on Bryan Mark Rigg's book with the same title, published in 2002 by University Press and released a few months ago in Hebrew by Matar Press.
Rigg's book is based on a wealth of oral history and personal and official documents relating to those German soldiers of partial Jewish ancestry who served in Hitler's Wehrmacht. The movie presents rare interviews and some never-before seen archival footage.
In 1935, the Nuremberg racial laws declared Jews to be second-class citizens, defining a Jew as anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents. But Jews were so integrated and assimilated into German society, that the Nazi regime could not make due with such clear-cut definitions. Thus, the Nuremberg laws also listed additional categories of people, among them the "Mischlinge," a pejorative term (loosely translated as "mongrel") that was used to create a legal fiction - Jews by race, but not by social function.
Mischlinge of the first degree (half-Jews) were individuals with two Jewish grandparents. Mischlinge of the second degree (quarter-Jews) had one.
Thus, while they attempted to create legal realities, the Nuremberg laws also created legal loopholes and provided Hitler with vested powers to free individuals from the legal restrictions.
Hitler used this power in hundreds of cases. He even placed some Mischlinge, such as Field Marshall and war criminal Erhad Milch, in high positions in the armed forces.
As both Rigg and Price show, the policy towards Mischlinge remained ambivalent and contradictory throughout the war. While initially they were dismissed from the military, they were subsequently reinstated, then, as the war progressed, dismissed again and sent to forced labor camps. But testimonies show that some commanders resisted Hitler's decrees and tried to protect their soldiers and officers, valuing their soldiering ability more than they devalued their Jewish blood.
The existence of Mischlinge, and the fact that Jews served even within the highest ranks of Nazism itself, provide further proof that for the Nazis, as for many of their victims, the term Jew was merely a social construction. But it was a construction that created untenable legal, moral, social and existential dilemmas for the Mischlinge.
For many of the Mischlinge, serving in the Wehrmacht was a matter of survival, a means to fit into the Nazi regime and a potential defense against extermination. For others, it was an expression of genuine nationalism. And for some, as one man, decorated by Hitler's army for bravery, says clearly to Price's camera, serving as a soldier provided him with the opportunity to prove that Hitler was wrong, and that Jews could be both loyal and courageous.
The interviewees give their testimony in surprisingly dry terms, even when describing the absurdities created by their uniforms. One former soldier talks about visiting his beloved grandmother who was in a nursing home in the same town in which he had been posted. "Obviously," he notes, he could not be seen with her, and so he, in uniform, and she, with the yellow star attached to her clothing, walked together through the forests, hand in hand.
Rigg himself tells the story of Maj, Ernst Bloch, whose father was a Jew, who reportedly saved the Lubavitche rebbe.
And another young man, later dismissed from the military because he was a Mischlinge, was surprised to find his face on the posters encouraging Germans to enlist, presented as the "ideal face" of the Aryan race.
According to Rigg and Price, who uses his data, there were as many as 150,000 Mischlinge in the German armed forces. But the title of the movie asks more questions than it answers.
In what way were these men Jewish? Most were not Jewish according to Jewish law and even the Nazi machine defined their identity ambivalently. Most of them strongly identified with Germany, and some even identified with Nazi Germany.
Perhaps most significantly, these men themselves tell the camera that they had themselves had not constructed a Jewish identity for themselves.
The Nazis created a legal group category for these partial Jews. But did this ascribed status create a group identity among them? What did being a Mischlinge mean to these men? Did it bind them together in any concrete, virtual or psychological way?
And, of course, above all: what did these men know of the systematic genocide? Like Rigg, Price accepts that by and large, they did not, and could not have known, although some admit to witnessing acts of deportation, torture, and murder.
Assuming they were in the dark, what did they feel once they became aware of the enormity of what occurred?
Price pastes pictures of the interviewees as young men, many of them in uniform, standing next to their obviously Jewish relatives. The juxtaposition is intriguing.
One wonders why these elderly men agreed to provide Rigg with so much information and to speak so directly to Price's camera. For Israelis and Jews, it is tempting to suppose that they did so to relieve themselves of the burden of guilt, secrecy and collusion that they have carried all these years. But Price does not provide any support for this.
Rigg estimates that there were as many as 150,000 Mischlinge, although others dispute these figures. But even if these numbers are correct, their historical, political and moral significance is unclear. In various media interviews, Rigg is quoted as saying that, among other reasons, he wrote this book to show that "not every German soldier was a Nazi and not everybody of Jewish descent was a victim of the death camps." The viewer might recall that Eli Wiesel has stated that while, "not every victim was a Jew, but every Jew was a victim." So were the Mischlinge victims? This question, too, remains unanswered.
Hitler's Jewish Soldiers, directed by Larry Price will appear on Channel 1, Monday, April 24, at 21:45.