LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robert Clary, the French-born survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II who played a feisty prisoner of war in the unlikely 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, has died. He was 96 years old.
Clary died Wednesday night of natural causes at his Beverly Hills home, his niece Brenda Hancock said Thursday.
“He never let that atrocity defeat him,” Hancock said of Clary’s wartime experience as a young man. “He never allowed them to take the joy out of his life. He tried to spread that joy to others through his singing, dancing, and waving.”
When recounting his life to the students, Hancock said to them, “Never hate.” He never let hate overcome beauty in this world.
“Hogan’s Heroes,” in which Allied soldiers in a prisoner-of-war camp beat their buffoon captors from the German Army with spy schemes, played war strictly for laughs during its run between 1965 and 1971. The 5-foot-1 Clary wore a beret and smiled wryly. Like cpl. Louis LeBeau.
Clary was the last surviving original star of the sitcom that featured Bob Crane, Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis, and Evan Dixon as prisoners. Werner Klemperer and John Banner, who played their captors, were European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution before the war.
Clary began his career as a nightclub singer and appeared on stage in musicals including “Irma La Douce” and “Cabaret”. After ‘Hogan’s Heroes’, Clary’s television work includes the TV series ‘The Young and the Restless’, ‘Days of Our Lives’ and ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’.
He considered musical theater the highlight of his career. “I loved going to the theater at quarter past eight, putting on stage makeup and having fun,” he said in a 2014 interview.
He remained publicly silent about his wartime experience until 1980, Clary said, when he was provoked into speaking out by those who denied or minimized organized efforts by Nazi Germany to exterminate Jews.
A documentary about Clary’s childhood and years of terror at the hands of the Nazis, “Robert Clary, A5714: A Memoir of Liberation”, was released in 1985. Concentration camp prisoners were tattooed with identification numbers, with A5714 to be Clary’s lifelong mark.
“They write books and magazine articles that deny the Holocaust, making fun of the 6 million Jews – including a million and a half children – who died in gas chambers and ovens,” he told the Associated Press in a 1985 interview.
Clary wrote in a biography posted on his website that 12 of his immediate family members, his parents and 10 of his siblings, were killed under the Nazis.
In 1997, he was among dozens of Holocaust survivors whose photographs and stories were included in Spirit Triumphant, a book by photographer Nick Del Calzo.
“I beg the next generation not to do what people have done for centuries – hate others because of their skin or the shape of their eyes or their religious preference,” Clary said in an interview at the time.
After retiring from acting, Clary has kept busy with his family, friends, and paintings. His memoirs, From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes: The Autobiography of Robert Clary, was published in 2001.
One of the Lucky Ones, a biography of one of Clary’s older sisters, Nicole Holland, written by Hancock, her daughter. The Netherlands, which worked with the French Resistance against Germany, survived the war and another sister. Hancock’s second book, “The Courage of a Luck of Talent,” chronicles the lives and influence of Clary and Holland.
Clary Robert Wiederman was born in Paris in March 1926, the youngest of 14 children in a Jewish family. He was 16 years old when he and most of his family were taken by the Nazis.
In the documentary, Clary recalls a happy childhood until he and his family were forced out of their apartment in Paris and put into a crowded cattle car that took them to the concentration camps.
“Nobody knows where we’re going,” Clary said. “We are not human anymore.”
After 31 months in captivity in several concentration camps, he was liberated from the Buchenwald death camp by American forces. Clary said his youth and ability to work kept him alive.
After returning to Paris and meeting his sister, Clary worked as a singer and recorded songs that became popular in America.
After coming to the United States in 1949, he moved from club and recording dates to Broadway musicals, including 1952’s New Faces, and then to movies. He appeared in films including “The Thief of Damascus” in 1952, “A New Kind of Love” in 1963, and “Hindenburg” in 1975.
In recent years, Clary has recorded jazz versions of songs by Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, and other greats, said his nephew Brian Gary, a songwriter who worked on CDs with Clary.
Clary was proud of the results, Gary said, and was pleased with the complementary letter he received from Sondheim. “He hung that on the kitchen wall,” said Gary.
Clary felt uncomfortable with the comedy in “Hogan Heroes” despite the tragedy of his family’s devastating war experience.
“It was completely different. I know they (the prisoners of war) lived a terrible life, but compared to concentration camps and gas chambers it was like a holiday.”
Clary married Natalie Kantor, daughter of singer and actor Eddie Kantor, in 1965. She passed away in 1997.
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