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The hidden joke behind “Hogan’s Heroes”

Was "Hogan's Heroes" funny? Yes -- and dead serious, as well.

Schultz, Hogan, and Klink in

If you are my age, then you will probably agree that our childhood coincided with the golden age of television situation comedies — “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “My Favorite Martian,” “Gomer Pyle,” and the under-appreciated masterpiece, “My Mother The Car,” in which Jerry Van Dyke discovers that his beloved mother has been reincarnated as a 1928 Porter.

I always found the premise of that particular show to be highly improbable.

My late parents enjoyed watching those shows with us. (There was no choice. We only had one television, and there were only three stations to watch, anyway).

There was another show that we loved, and that we laughed at — though I remember that when my mother laughed, there was a trace of a wince.

That was “Hogan’s Heroes,” a comedy about prisoners of war in a German prisoner of war camp during World War Two. That international group of Allied prisoners was constantly putting one over on their befuddled, though lovable, German captors.

“Hogan’s Heroes” ran from 1965-1971, which was a pretty good run.

I mention that show, because its last surviving cast member, Robert Clary, who played the French prisoner Corporal Louis LeBeau, has died at the age of 96.

Robert Clary as LeBeau in "Hogan's Heroes."

Robert Clary as LeBeau in “Hogan’s Heroes.”

Which brings me back to my childhood television viewing experience.

Why did my mother wince?

Because the story was about Nazis and their prisoners. For that generation, a sit-com about wacky Nazis was, as we say, “too soon.” The show debuted only twenty years after the liberation of Auschwitz, and the Holocaust was barely part of the American Jewish conversation — much less in popular culture.

The Stalag 13 of “Hogan’s Heroes” was a prisoner of war camp. My favorite movie at the time was “The Great Escape,” which was also about a band of prisoners who escape from a German POW camp. The American public could handle stories about POW camps. There were no gas chambers.

But, no — for many, “Hogan’s Heroes” was barely amusing. There was no humor in incompetent Nazis. We had not yet even begun to adequately mourn the victims of all-too-competent Nazis and their collaborators.

But, all along — and long after the series had gone into syndication, and years of reruns — there was a hidden joke in “Hogan’s Heroes.”

It was simply this. Many of its characters were played by Jewish refugees from the Nazis.

Consider:

  • Colonel Wilhelm Klink, the commandant of the stalag. His chief characteristics: vanity, insecurity, paranoia, and basically inept, in constant fear of being sent to the Russian front. He was played by Werner Klemperer, a veteran German entertainer. He was born into a family that was part of German-Jewish cultural aristocracy. His father was the renowned conductor Otto Klemperer, who had converted to Catholicism, but later returned to Judaism. Werner’s first cousin was the famous diarist, Victor Klemperer, who chronicled the final, tragic days of Germany Jewry.
  • Sergeant Hanz Schultz, the camp’s first sergeant. He was clumsy, cowardly, and easily bribed. His catchphrase: “I know notting.” He was played by John Banner, a Jewish refugee from Austro-Hungary. He lost many family members in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, he was often type cast as a Nazi. He played Nazi official Rudolph Hoss in the 1961 film “Operation Eichmann,” in which Werner Klemperer played Eichmann.
  • General Albert Hans Burkhalter, Klink’s superior officer. He was played by Leon Askin, nee Aschkenazy — a Viennese Jew whose parents perished in Treblinka.
  • Finally, Corporal LeBeau, played by Robert Clary. Clary was born in France, the youngest of fourteen children — ten of whom perished in the Holocaust. At the age of sixteen, he was deported to the concentration camp at Ottmuth, and then to Buchenwald, from where he was liberated in 1945. His other family members died in Auschwitz. He told his life story in his autobiography, “From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes: The Autobiography of Robert Clary.”

As a child, I did not know the background of the actors who played these beloved characters — though LeBeau was always my favorite.

Even as an adult, when I learned more about them, I did not think about it very much. Nor did I wonder to myself what it must have been like for Klemperer and Banner to have played as many Nazi soldiers as they had in their career. Neither did I think much about what it must have been like for Askin to play someone who in real life would have killed his parents, or for Clary to have played a prisoner of the Nazis, knowing how many of his relatives had died at the hands of real Nazis.

Moreover, there was one more Jew in the cast. Major Wolfgang Hochstetter of the Gestapo was played by Howard Caine, nee Cohen.

I now realize that something else was going on.

Like many of you, I am still stuck on Dave Chappelle’s monologue on last week’s “Saturday Night Live,” on his time-weary observation about the Jewish influence on the entertainment business.  I am still trying to figure out what it is that is particularly “Jewish” about the entertainment business.

Or, for that matter, the comedy business.

I have a short, tentative answer.

Right about now, we are gearing up for Hanukkah. Hanukkah greets winter; Purim says farewell to winter. I am already there, in a Purim mood, thinking about how Jews fought back against our enemies in ancient Persia.

How did Jews usually fight back against their enemies, especially when they were powerless?

They ridiculed them. That is what we do on Purim. We ridicule the hapless King Ahasuerus, who was an ancient version of Klink, and we lampoon the evil, genocidal Haman.

Now I know why Klemperer, Banner, Askin, Clary, and Cohen were so eager to appear in “Hogan’s Heroes.”

They were fighting back in a traditional Jewish style — making Nazis absurd.

It was to have been their dead relatives’ only partial victory — a raised middle finger, from the grave, to the Nazis.

May Robert Clary now join Klemperer, Banner, Askin, and Cohen in the World to Come.

May they be laughing, into eternity, at the ones whose names and memories should be blotted out.

 

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