Los Angeles (AP) — Robert Clary, a French-born survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II who played an inspiring prisoner of war on the iconic 1960s sitcom “Cast Of Hogan’s Heroes,” has passed away at 96 years old. He portrayed a determined prisoner of war in that iconic role.
Wednesday evening, Clary passed away peacefully at his home in Beverly Hills from natural causes, his niece Brenda Hancock reported on Thursday morning.
“Clary never let those horrors define him,” Hancock remarked of Clary’s wartime experiences as a youth. “He never let them steal away his joy. He tried to spread that happiness to others through his singing, dancing, and painting.”
As Hancock recounted his life to students, he exhorted them not to hate. “His example has never allowed hatred to conquer the beauty in this world,” Hancock said.
“Hogan’s Heroes,” in which Allied soldiers in a POW camp overcome their German captors through clever espionage tactics, played the war for laughs during its 1965-71 run. 5-foot-1 Clary donned a beret and gave Cpl. Louis LeBeau an arrogant smile as the comical Cpl. Louis LeBeau.
Clary was the last remaining original star of the sitcom that featured Bob Crane, Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis, and Ivan Dixon as prisoners. Werner Klemperer and John Banner – who played their captors – both survived Nazi persecution before World War II.
Clary began his career as a nightclub singer and appeared on stage in musicals such as “Irma La Douce” and “Cabaret.” Following “Hogan’s Heroes,” his TV work included soap operas “The Young and the Restless,” “Days of Our Lives” and “The Bold and Beautiful”.
He considered musical theater the pinnacle of his career, stating in 2014, “I loved to go to the theater at quarter of 8 and put on stage makeup and entertain.”
John Clary kept his wartime experience private until 1980 when those who denied or diminished Nazi Germany’s efforts to exterminate Jews spurred him on to speak out.
In 1985, Robert Clary’s life story and years of Nazi horror were documented in “Robert Clary, A5714: A Memoir of Liberation.” As part of that documentary, prison inmates at Concentration Camp #1 had their forearms tattooed with identification numbers; A5714 would remain as Clary’s lifelong mark.
“People write books and articles in magazines dialyzing the Holocaust, making a mockery of the 6 million Jews — including one million and a half children — who perished in gas chambers and ovens,” he told The Associated Press during an interview in 1985.
According to Clary’s biography posted online, twelve of his immediate family members – his parents and 10 siblings – were murdered by the Nazis.
In 1997, Cast Of Hogan’s Heroes was one of the dozens of Holocaust survivors featured in “The Triumphant Spirit,” a book by photographer Nick Del Calzo that documented their portraits and stories.
“I humbly ask the next generation not to follow in the footsteps of centuries past – hatred of others based on their skin color, eye shape or religious preference,” Clary declared in an interview at that time.
Once retired from acting, Clary kept himself busy with family, friends, and painting. In 2001 his memoir, “From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes: An Autobiography of Robert Clary,” was published.
“One Of The Lucky Ones,” a biography of one of Clary’s older sisters, Nicole Holland, was written by Hancock, her daughter. Holland served with France’s Resistance against Germany and survived World War II as did another sister; Hancock’s second book “Talent Luck Courage,” recounts Clary and Holland’s lives and how they made an impact on those around them.
Robert Widerman was born in Paris on March 1926 as the youngest of 14 children to a Jewish family. At 16 years old, he and most of his siblings were taken by Nazi forces.
In the documentary, Clary remembered a happy childhood until his family was taken from their Paris apartment and placed into a crowded cattle car to be sent off to concentration camps.
“Nobody knew where we were going,” Clary lamented. “We weren’t human beings anymore.”
Cast Of Hogan’s Heroes After spending 31 months in captivity at various concentration camps, Clary was liberated from Buchenwald death camp by American troops. His youth and capacity for work kept him alive, according to Clary.
Returning to Paris and reconnecting with his two sisters, Clary pursued a career in singing and recording songs that became hit hits across America.
After arriving in the United States in 1949, he quickly progressed from club dates and recording to Broadway musicals such as “New Faces of 1952,” followed by movies. His roles included 1952’s “Thief of Damascus,” 1963’s “A New Kind of Love” and 1975’s “The Hindenburg”.
According to his nephew Brian Gari, who produced the CDs with Clary in recent years, they recorded jazz versions of songs by Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, and other iconic authors.
Gari reported that Clary was pleased with the outcome and delighted by a letter of praise he received from Sondheim. “He proudly displayed it on his kitchen wall,” Gari remarked.
Clary didn’t hesitate to enjoy the comedic nature of “Hogan’s Heroes,” even with his family’s horrific military service experience.
“The experience was completely different. To me, it felt like they (POWs) had had a wonderful life compared to concentration camps and gas chambers.”
Clary wed Natalie Cantor, daughter of singer-actor Eddie Cantor, in 1965 and she passed away in 1997.
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