Paris-born actor and singer Robert Clary, who survived 31 months in Nazi concentration camps but later co-starred in “Hogan’s Heroes,” the American sitcom set in a World War II German POW camp, has died aged 96 .
Clary, who played strudel-baking French corporal Louis Lebeau on “Hogan’s Heroes” during its six seasons from 1965 to 1971, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, his granddaughter told the Hollywood Reporter.
“Robert was a wonderful gentleman and incredibly talented, not only as an actor, but also as a performer and a gifted painter,” said David Martin, his former manager.
Clary was 16 in September 1942 when he was deported from Paris to Nazi concentration camps along with 12 other members of his Jewish family. He was the only one who survived. Clary spent 2.5 years in the Ottmuth, Blachhammer, Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald concentration camps, suffering from starvation, disease and forced labour.
He was released when American troops liberated Buchenwald in April 1945, only to learn that his relatives, including his parents, had been killed in the Holocaust.
It was with some irony that Clary achieved his greatest fame playing pranks on a TV show set in a German POW camp. He said he was not worried about taking part in a show mocking the Nazis.
His character was one of the POWs who outsmarted their stupid German prison guards and carried out espionage and sabotage to aid the Allied cause.
“The show was a satire set in a prisoner of war stableag, where the conditions were not pleasant but in no way comparable to a concentration camp, and it had nothing to do with Jews,” Clary told the US in 2002. Jerusalem Post.
“Showbiz is like a roller coaster and you take on the roles that are offered to you,” added Clary.
“Hogan’s Heroes” starred Bob Crane as American Colonel Robert Hogan, while Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis and Ivan Dixon played other POWs. The main German characters were the clumsy camp commander Colonel Klink, played by Werner Klemperer, and the smooth guard Sergeant Schultz, played by John Banner. Both actors were Jewish and had fled Europe because of the Nazis.
Clary’s character was known for his burgundy beret and his cooking skills, which were used to distract German officers with delicious dishes while his fellow POWs got into mischief.
“Hogan’s Heroes” was popular with TV viewers during its broadcast on the CBS network and in syndication for decades afterward, even though some critics considered it in bad taste.
Clary was born 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 exterminate Europe’s Jews, he was tattooed with the number A-5714 and forced to dig trenches, work in a shoe factory and sing to his captors. The singing got him a few extra nibbles, Clary said.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” he told the Asbury Park Press in 2002. “First, because I survived. Second, because I was in camps that weren’t as horrific as others. I didn’t suffer. I didn’t work as hard as people in salt mines worked in quarries. I was never tortured. I was never really beaten. I was never hanged. But I’ve seen 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 brought him national TV attention. Clary later married Natalie, Cantor’s daughter.
Clary performed on stage, in small film roles and in guest appearances on TV before being cast in ‘Hogan’s Heroes’. His biggest movie role was in director Robert Wise’s “The Hindenburg” in 1975, starring George C. Scott.
In 1980, alarm about people trying to deny the Holocaust led Clary to end his self-imposed silence about his experiences. For years he traveled to schools in the United States and Canada to speak about the Holocaust. He also wrote an autobiography, “From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes.”
“We have to learn from history,” Clary told the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2002, “which we don’t.”