Jews in the Nazi Military
Hitler's Jewish Soldiers
Nothing seems more unlikely and surprising than this headline. Yet, it is a matter of fact that Jews served in the Nazi army in World War II. Bryan Mark Rigg, Ph.D. has written a book called Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, which deals with the 1,200 German officers of “Jewish descent” who commanded German armies during that war. Included were two Field Marshals, the highest rank available at that time, fifteen generals, and the officers commanding 150,000 German soldiers.
The most prominent of these officers was General Erhard Milch. An aviator during peacetime, he was given a commission in the German air force and made deputy to Herman Gőring, the chief of the Luftwaffe (air force). Although Milch had one Jewish parent and would not be viewed as Jewish by us, the Nazi laws persecuted so-called half Jews, murdering many of them. Yet, Milch was so important to the Nazi bosses that Hitler decreed that Milch was not a Jew and told his cohorts that “I decide who is a Jew.”
At least 20 Jewish soldiers in the Nazi army were awarded the Knight's Cross, Germany’s highest decoration.
Rigg even found an observant Jew who served as a captain and practiced his religion throughout the war.
My cousin was one of those Jewish soldiers. Here is his story. When he was eighteen years old, in 1938, he was suddenly called by a Christian friend who told him the Secret Police, the Gestapo, were then and there coming to arrest him at home and send him to a death camp. Desperate for help, my cousin asked his friend what he might do, since running into the street was certain death as well. The friend told him to come along and join his company, as he was then on leave from the army.
My cousin could hardly accept that suggestion, as the army demanded that each recruit prove his pure “aryan” blood by showing papers certified by a “race researcher” who had looked through all of the recruit’s ancestral certificates to insure that he had no “non-aryan” ancestry. My cousin was, of course, Jewish on both sides of his family and had no such papers. However, his friend assured him that his company commander didn’t “give a damn” about the race laws then in effect.
And so it was. The German captain enrolled my cousin and said nothing at all about any evidence of “racial purity”. So, my cousin participated in the invasion of Poland in September of 1939. Then, one day, an officer confronted him and said that he knew that my cousin was a Jew. Hearing this, his captain discharged him from the army lest someone kill him.
It was required at that time that all discharged German soldiers had to work in the German defense industry. Therefore, my cousin was assigned a job in a factory in the Ruhr area where most of Germany’s steel production takes place. There he was again confronted by a boss who told him he knew that my cousin was a Jew but would say nothing. So it was. My cousin survived the war, married an Israeli woman and came to this country, where he died a natural death ten years ago.
Rigg tells the story of how a Jewish soldier in the Nazi army saved the life of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Joseph Schneersohn. The Jewish soldier was Ernst Bloch. Bloch had a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. A decorated World War One hero, Bloch barely escaped detection in rescuing the Rebbe. It is a fascinating story involving also American senators, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and a host of bureaucrats who made the rescue as difficult as possible.
Bryan Mark Rigg is professor of history at Southern Methodist University. He is not Jewish but served as a volunteer in the Israeli army. He is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.