LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robert Clary, a French-born survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II who played a feisty prisoner of war on the unlikely 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, has died. He was 96.
Clary died Wednesday of natural causes at his Los Angeles-area home, niece Brenda Hancock said Thursday.
“He never let those horrors get the better of him,” Hancock said of Clary’s wartime experiences as a youth. “He never let the joy out of his life. He tried to pass that joy on to others through his singing, dancing and painting.”
As he shared his life with the students, he told them, “Never hate,” Hancock said. “He didn’t let hatred overwhelm the beauty of this world.”
“Hogan’s Heroes,” in which Allied soldiers in a POW camp defeated their clownish German Army captors with spy schemes, played out the 1965-1971 war solely for laughs. The 5-foot-1 Clary wore a beret and a smug smile as Cpl. Louis LeBeau.A
Clary was the last surviving original star of the sitcom, which included Bob Crane, Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis, and Ivan Dixon as prisoners. Werner Klemperer and John Banner, who played her captors, were both European Jews who had fled Nazi persecution before the war.
Clary began his career as a nightclub singer, appearing in musicals such as Irma La Douce and Cabaret. After Hogan’s Heroes, Clary’s television work has included the soap operas The Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives, and The Bold and the Beautiful.
He considered musical theater the pinnacle of his career. “I loved going to the theater at a quarter to eight, putting on the stage makeup and entertaining,” he said in a 2014 interview.
He remained publicly silent about his wartime experiences until the 1980s, when, Clary said, he was provoked to speak out by those who denied or downplayed Nazi Germany’s orchestrated efforts to exterminate Jews.
In 1985, a documentary about Clary’s childhood and Nazi terror years, Robert Clary, A5714: A Memoir of Liberation, was released. The forearms of concentration camp prisoners were tattooed with identification numbers, with A5714 being Clary’s mark for life.
“They write books and articles in magazines that deny the Holocaust and make fun of the 6 million Jews – including a million and a half children – who died in the gas chambers and ovens,” he said in a 1985 interview with The Associated Press.
Twelve of his immediate family members, his parents and ten siblings, were killed under the Nazis, Clary wrote in a biography published on his website.
In 1997, he was among dozens of Holocaust survivors whose portraits and stories were included in photographer Nick Del Calzo’s book, The Triumphant Spirit.
“I’m asking the next generation not to do what people have been doing for centuries — hating others because of their skin, the shape of their eyes, or religious beliefs,” Clary said in an interview at the time.
After retiring from acting, Clary stayed busy with his family, friends, and painting. His memoir From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes: The Autobiography of Robert Clary was published in 2001.
“One of the Lucky Ones,” a biography about one of Clary’s older sisters, Nicole Holland, was written by her daughter Hancock. Holland, who worked with the French resistance against Germany, survived the war, as did another sister. Hancock’s second book, Talent Luck Courage, chronicles the lives of Clary and Holland and their influence.
Clary was born Robert Widerman in Paris in March 1926, the youngest of 14 children in a Jewish family. He was 16 when he and most of his family were kidnapped by the Nazis.
In the documentary, Clary reminisces about a happy childhood until he and his family were evicted from their Paris apartment and put into an overcrowded cattle car that took them to concentration camps.
“No one knew where we were going,” Clary said. “We weren’t human anymore.”
After 31 months imprisonment in several concentration camps, he was freed by American troops from the Buchenwald extermination camp. His youth and ability to work kept him alive, Clary said.
Returning to Paris and reunited with his two sisters, Clary worked as a singer and recorded songs that became popular in America.
After arriving in the United States in 1949, he transitioned from club dates and recording to Broadway musicals, including New Faces of 1952, and then to films. He has appeared in films including 1952’s The Thief of Damascus, 1963’s A New Love and 1975’s The Hindenburg.
In recent years, Clary has recorded jazz versions of songs by Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim and other greats, said his nephew Brian Gari, a songwriter who worked with Clary on the CDs.
Clary is proud of the results, Gari said, and delighted with a courteous letter he received from Sondheim. “He hung that on the kitchen wall,” Gari said.
Clary was not uncomfortable with the comedy in Hogan’s Heroes, despite the tragedy of his family’s devastating wartime experiences.
“It was very different. I know they (prisoners of war) had a horrible life, but compared to concentration camps and gas chambers it was like a vacation.”
Clary married Natalie Cantor, daughter of singer and actor Eddie Cantor, in 1965. She died in 1997.