Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
The Schmooze

Funny Nazis? The Return (In Bulk) of Hogan’s Heroes

The CBS Home Entertainment/Paramount Release of a 28 DVD-set, “Hogan’s Heroes: The Komplete Series, Kommandant’s Kollection” reminds us of this early effort to find belated humor in Hitler’s war machine. Writer/director Billy Wilder’s much-admired 1953 film “Stalag 17,” was adapted from a play of the same name by two former POWs, and subtitled: “a comedy melodrama in three acts.” Deleting the melodrama, TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes,” which ran on CBS for 168 episodes from 1965 to 1971, went for outright laughs, successfully or not.

Ambiguously, “Hogan’s Heroes” cast all the principal roles of Nazi soldiers with Jewish actors, notably two Austrian Jews who were refugees from Hitler, Leon Askin (General Burkhalter) and John Banner (Sergeant Schultz). Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink), son of the eminent German-Jewish symphony conductor Otto Klemperer, had also fled the Nazis, arriving in Los Angeles in 1935. Was it somehow better to have buffoonish Nazis played by Jewish actors?

For refugee actors with accents, jobs in Hollywood were scarce, and Werner Klemperer, although he claimed to be “very proud” of the TV show, in later life strained for acceptance in the higher echelons of the arts, recording for Philips Classics the narration for Schoenberg’s oratorio “Gurre-Lieder,” and taking speaking roles onstage in Mozart operas.

Actor Robert Clary (prisoner Louis Lebeau) was born Robert Max Widerman to a family of Polish Jews who were deported from France to Buchenwald during the German Occupation. Clary is still thriving at age 83, although his career peaked with “Hogan’s Heroes.”

Of all these actors, the most distinguished theatrical career doubtless belongs to Leon Askin, born Leo Aschkenasy in 1907 to an Orthodox family in Vienna. Working with theatrical legends like Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, Askin experienced Austrian antisemitism in the 1920s, survived an SS beating in 1933, and fled to America. In 1994, after long Broadway and Hollywood careers, Askin moved back to Vienna, where he continued to appear onstage into his mid-90s reciting Goethe, among others.

Askin and Clary’s indomitable survival instinct expresses something elemental about actors, especially Jewish actors, whether or not we find “Hogan’s Heroes” amusing.

Watch a 1984 PBS documentary, ‘Robert Clary A5714: A Memoir of Liberation,’ about one of the stars of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’:

Engage

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.