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 comedy set in a German Second World War prisoner of war (POW) camp, has died at the age of 96.
Clary, who played strudel-cooking French corporal Louis Lebeau on “Hogan’s Heroes” during its six seasons from 1965 to 1971, died Wednesday at her home in Los Angeles, her granddaughter told the Hollywood Reporter.
“Robert was an incredible gentleman and incredibly talented not only as an actor, but also as a performer and as a painter,” said David Martin, his former manager.
Clary was 16 years old in September 1942 when she was deported from Paris to Nazi concentration camps with 12 other members of her Jewish family. He was the only one who survived. Clary spent two and a half years in the Ottmuth, Blachhammer, Gross-Rosen, and Buchenwald concentration camps, enduring starvation, disease, and forced labor.
He was released when American troops liberated Buchenwald in April 1945, but later learned that his family members, including his parents, had been killed in the Holocaust.
It was with some irony that Clary achieved her greatest fame by playing pranks on a television show set in a German POW camp. He said he wasn’t worried about being on a show that made fun of the Nazis.
His character was one of the POWs who outsmarted their foolish German jailers and carried out espionage and sabotage to help the Allied cause.
“The show was a satire set in a prisoner of war stalag, where the conditions were not pleasant but in no way comparable to a concentration camp, and had nothing to do with Jews,” Clary told the Jerusalem Post. in 2002.
“Show business is like a roller coaster and you take the roles that are offered to you,” Clary added.
“Hogan’s Heroes” starred Bob Crane as US Colonel Robert Hogan, with Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis and Ivan Dixon playing other prisoners of war. The main German characters were the bumbling camp commander Colonel Klink, played by Werner Klemperer, and the docile 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 her burgundy beret and her culinary skills, which were used to distract German officers with delicious food while her fellow POWs got into mischief.
“Hogan’s Heroes” was popular with viewers during its run on CBS and for decades after in syndication, though some critics found it tasteless.
Clary was born Robert Max Widerman on March 1, 1926, the youngest of her Polish tailor father’s 14 children from two marriages. He became a professional singer as a teenager.
In camps set up by the Nazis to eradicate Europe’s Jews, he was tattooed with the number A-5714 and forced to dig trenches, work in a shoe factory and sing for his captors. His singing earned her a few extra bites of food, Clary said.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” he told the Asbury Park Press in 2002. “First of all, because I survived. Secondly, because I was in camps that were not as atrocious as others. I did not suffer. I did not work as hard as people worked in the salt mines in the quarries. I was never tortured. I was never really hit. They never hanged me. But I saw all these things.”
After the war, Clary’s singing career took off in France. She moved to the United States in 1949 and was given national television exposure by comedian Eddie Cantor. Clary later married Cantor’s daughter, Natalie.
Clary acted on stage, in small roles in movies and as a guest on television before being cast in “Hogan’s Heroes.” Her biggest movie role was in director Robert Wise’s “The Hindenburg” in 1975, starring George C. Scott.
In 1980, alarm over people trying to deny the Holocaust led Clary to end her self-imposed silence about her experiences. She spent years traveling to schools in the United States and Canada speaking about the Holocaust. She also wrote an autobiography, “From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes.”
“We must learn from history,” Clary told the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2002, “which we don’t.”