Robert Clary, an actor best known for playing Cpl. Louis LeBeau in the popular 1960s TV series Hogan’s Heroes, died Tuesday at the age of 96. But Clary was not just a talented performer and the last surviving member of the show’s original principal cast — he was also a Holocaust survivor.
The New York Post described his remarkable life. Clary was born Robert Max Widerman to an Orthodox Jewish family in Paris, France, on March 1, 1926, the youngest of 14 children. When Clary was 16 years old, the Nazis sent him and his family to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, and there his parents were murdered in the gas chambers.
“‘My mother said the most remarkable thing,’ Clary told the Reporter in 2015 about that day. ‘She said, ‘Behave.’ She probably knew me as a brat. She said, ‘Behave. Do what they tell you to do.’”
And Clary survived — in fact, he was the only member of his family to survive. He was later imprisoned for 31 months at the Nazis’ Buchenwald concentration camp, where the identification number A-5714 was tattooed on his left forearm and he worked in a factory making wooden shoe heels. Clary recalled that his performing abilities helped him survive. He said he used to sing with an accordionist every other Sunday at Buchenwald for Schutzstaffel (SS) soldiers. “Singing, entertaining, and being in kind of good health at my age, that’s why I survived,” Clary said.
Clary was able to return to his native France in May 1945 after World War II ended, and he sang there in dance halls. After four years, he moved to Los Angeles to record for Capitol Records. He launched his TV career in 1950 with an appearance in “a French comedy skit on a CBS variety show hosted by comedian Ed Wynn.” Clary’s career includes TV and movie credits, but he is most famous, of course, for his co-starring role in the popular Hogan’s Heroes CBS series, which ran from September 1965 to April 1971.
The TV show followed the exploits of U.S. Col. Robert Hogan and his crew of French, American, and British WWII POWs, constantly carrying out important missions for the war effort under the noses of the bumbling Nazis running their prisoner-of-war camp. Clary and fellow cast member John Banner (who, ironically, played Nazi Sgt. Schultz in the show) were both Jewish refugees who lost family in the Holocaust.
The New York Post notes that Clary did not discuss his experiences in the Holocaust publicly for 36 years. “I had to explain that [Hogan’s Heroes] was about prisoners of war in a stalag, not a concentration camp, and although I did not want to diminish what soldiers went through during their internments, it was like night and day from what people endured in concentration camps,'” Clary noted in his 2001 memoir From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes: The Autobiography of Robert Clary.
Hogan’s Heroes continues to be a funny and charming, (if occasionally cheesy) show even today, and Clary was a key part of that hilarity and charm. I have many good memories of watching the show during childhood with family members who, like Clary, have now passed away. Today might be a good day to rediscover Hogan’s Heroes — keeping in mind the whole time that “Cpl. LeBeau” was not just a talented actor and singer but also a Holocaust survivor and hero.