Robert Clary, last of the protagonists of ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ dies at 96

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robert Clary, a French survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II who played a prisoner-of-war fighter on the unlikely 1960s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” has died. He was 96.

Clary died overnight Wednesday of natural causes at her home in Beverly Hills, her niece Brenda Hancock said Thursday.

“He never allowed those horrors to defeat him,” Hancock said of Clary’s war experience as a young woman. “He never let them take the joy out of his life. He tried to spread that joy to others through his singing, his dancing and his painting.

When she told the students about her life, she told them, “Never hate,” Hancock said. “He did not allow hate to overcome beauty in this world.”

“Hogan’s Heroes,” in which Allied soldiers in a prisoner-of-war camp bested their German army captor clowns with espionage schemes, depicted war strictly for laughs during its 1965-71 run. The 5-foot-1 Clary sported a beret and a wry smile as Cpl. Louis LeBeau.

Clary was the last surviving original star of the sitcom that included Bob Crane, Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis, and Ivan Dixon as prisoners. Werner Klemperer and John Banner, who played their captors, 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.” Following “Hogan’s Heroes,” Clary’s television work included the soap operas “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 a quarter to 8, putting on makeup and entertaining,” she said in a 2014 interview.

He remained publicly silent about his wartime experience until 1980 when, Clary said, he was provoked by those who denied or diminished the Nazi German-orchestrated effort to exterminate the Jews.

A documentary about Clary’s childhood and the years of horror at the hands of the Nazis, “Robert Clary, A5714: A Memoir of Liberation”, was released in 1985. The forearms of concentration camp prisoners were tattooed with identification numbers, A5714 being Clary’s lifetime mark.

“They write books and magazine articles that deny the Holocaust, mocking the 6 million Jews, including 1.5 million children, who died in the gas chambers and ovens,” he told The Associated Press in a 1985 interview. .

Twelve of her immediate family members, her parents and 10 siblings, were killed under the Nazis, Clary wrote in a biography posted on her website.

In 1997, he was among dozens of Holocaust survivors whose portraits and stories were included in “The Triumphant Spirit,” a book by photographer Nick Del Calzo.

“I pray to 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.

Retired from acting, Clary kept busy with her family, friends, and her 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 of 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 of hers. Hancock’s second book, “Talent Luck Courage,” chronicles the lives of Clary and Holland and their impact.

Clary was born Robert Widerman in Paris in March 1926, the youngest of 14 children in a Jewish family. She was 16 years old when he and most of his family were captured by the Nazis.

In the documentary, Clary recalls a happy childhood until he and his family were kicked out of their Paris apartment and put on a cattle wagon that took them to concentration camps.

“No one knew where we were going,” Clary said. “We were no longer human beings.”

After 31 months of captivity in various concentration camps, US troops liberated him from the Buchenwald death camp. His youth and ability to work kept him alive, Clary said.

Returning to Paris and reuniting with her two sisters, Clary worked as a singer and recorded songs that became popular in the United States.

After arriving in the United States in 1949, he moved from club dates and recording to Broadway musicals, including “New Faces of 1952,” and then to movies. She appeared in movies like 1952’s “Thief of Damascus,” 1963’s “A New Kind of 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 her nephew Brian Gari, a composer who worked on the CDs with Clary.

Clary was proud of the results, Gari said, and excited by a courtesy letter she received from Sondheim. “He hung that on the kitchen wall,” Gari said.

Clary wasn’t uncomfortable with the comedy of “Hogan’s Heroes” despite the tragedy of her family’s devastating war experience.

“It was completely different. I know they (the prisoners of war) had a terrible life, but compared to concentration camps and gas chambers, it was like a vacation.”

Clary married Natalie Cantor, the daughter of singer and actor Eddie Cantor, in 1965. She died in 1997.

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