LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robert Clary, a French-born survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II who played the hot-headed POW on the unlikely 1960s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” has died. He was 96.
Clary died of natural causes Wednesday at her home in the Los Angeles area, her niece Brenda Hancock said Thursday.
“He never let those horrors get the better of him,” Hancock said of Clary’s experiences during the war as a young man. “He never let it take the joy out of their lives. He tried to spread that joy to others by singing, dancing and drawing.”
As he recounted his life to the students, he told them, “Never hate,” Hancock told them. “He did not allow the beauty of this world to be overcome by hatred.”
Hogan’s Heroes played the war for laughs during its 1965-71 run, with Allied soldiers in a POW camp defeating their clownish German army captors with espionage schemes. The 5-foot-1 Clary sported a beret and a sardonic smile as Cpl. Louis Lebo.
Clary was the last surviving star of a sitcom that featured Bob Crane, Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis and Ivan Dixon as a prisoner. Their captors, Werner Klemperer and John Banner, were European Jews who fled Nazi persecution before the war.
Clary began her career as a nightclub singer and appeared on stage in musicals such as Irma La Douce and Cabaret. After Hogan’s Heroes, Clary’s TV work included The Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives, and The Bold and the Beautiful.
He considered musical theater to be the highest stage in his career. “I used to go to the theater in the 8th quarter and do stage makeup and have fun,” she said in a 2014 interview.
He remained silent publicly about his wartime experiences until 1980, which Clary says was provoked by those who denied or minimized Nazi Germany’s organized efforts to exterminate the Jews.
A documentary film about Clary’s childhood and horrific years at the hands of the Nazis, Robert Clary, A5714: A Memoir of Freedom, was released in 1985. Concentration camp inmates had identification numbers tattooed on their wrists, and A5714 was Clary’s vital sign.
“They write books and magazine articles denying the Holocaust, mocking the 6 million Jews who died in gas chambers and ovens, including one and a half million children,” he told The Associated Press in 1985.
According to Clary’s biography published on his website, twelve members of his immediate family, including his parents and 10 siblings, were killed by the Nazis.
In 1997, he was among dozens of Holocaust survivors whose portraits and stories were included in the book The Triumphant Spirit by photographer Nick Del Calzo.
“I am asking the next generation not to do what people have done for centuries – not to hate others because of their skin, the shape of their eyes or their religious preference,” Clary said in an interview at the time.
After retiring from acting, Clary spent time with family, friends and painting. His memoir, From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes: A Biography of Robert Clary, was published in 2001.
A biography of Nicole Holland, one of Clary’s older sisters, One of the Lucky Ones, was written by her daughter Hancock. Working with the French resistance against Germany, Holland survived the war like another sister. Hancock’s second book, Talent Success Courage, chronicles the lives of Clary and Holland and their influence.
Clary was born in Paris in March 1926 to Robert Wiederman, the youngest of 14 children in a Jewish family. He was 16 when most of his family was captured by the Nazis.
In the documentary, Clary recalls her happy childhood before she and her family were kicked out of their apartment in Paris and put on a large cattle truck that took them to a concentration camp.
“No one knew where we were going,” Clary said. “We are not human anymore.”
After 31 months of captivity in several concentration camps, he was freed from the Buchenwald death camp by American troops. His youth and ability to work kept him alive, Clary said.
Returning to Paris and reunited with her two sisters, Clary worked as a singer and wrote songs that became popular in America.
After arriving in the United States in 1949, he moved from club dates and records to Broadway musicals, including The New Faces of 1952, and then films. He appeared in films such as 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 with Clary on CDs.
Clary was proud of the results, Gary said, and thrilled by the letter of praise she received from Sondheim. “He hung it on the kitchen wall,” Gary said.
Despite the tragedy of her family’s devastating wartime experience, Clary was unfazed by the comedy of Hogan’s Heroes.
“It was completely different. I know they (POWs) had a terrible life, but compared to the concentration camps and gas chambers, it was like a holiday.”
Clary married Natalie Cantor, daughter of singer-actor Eddie Cantor, in 1965. He died in 1997.