The Real-Life Heroes in "HOGAN'S HEROES"
pp 32-33, 82
by Dora Albert
In every man's life there comes a time when his courage is tested by some crisis.
The man may emerge as a hero or a coward; few of us know how we will react until
the moment comes when we are put to the test.
For "Hogan's Heroes," the real life tests of heroism came dramatically. One hero actually had to survive the horrors of concentration camps; another saw his wife, the mother of his children, so sick that he feared she might die; a third risked his life to help others escape from Hitler's Nazis after they invaded Austria, his native country.
These men don't like to be called heroes. "We just did what had to be done," they say. But each of them proved his courage under circumstances that would test anyone's mettle.
Take John Banner, for instance, who plays Schultzy, a German guard in a German prisoner of war camp. According to the scripts Schultzy is not really a hero. He is a man who might go with either side in a crisis; his greatest desire is to stay alive and not get into trouble with anyone. His greatest fear is of being sent to the Russian front.
The real John Banner is completely different. He was acting with a theatrical company in Zurich, Switzerland, when Hitler's armies marched into Austria. He had been traveling on an Austrian passport.
As a Jew, he knew that if he went back to Austria, he would be in grave danger. Hitler was bent on eliminating the Jews in every country he conquered.
For an Austrian Jew to be in Zurich at the time was also dangerous. John knew
that the Germans might demand the return of all
Austrian Jews, so it was important for him to flee Switzerland as soon as possible and try to get to America.
In the meantime, there was a group of Swiss citizens who had decided to help as many Jews as possible escape from Austria. "They were fantastically brave," John told me. "To save the Jews, these non Jews had to cross the border into Austria. They knew that if the Nazis caught them, they would be shot. Because l was Jewish, they wouldn't let me take the risk of crossing the border, so I got as close to it as possible.
John Banner was on the borderline in a car waiting to help refugees to escape. For two weeks, it was possible for the heroic Swiss to rescue Jewish refugees. Then the"' border was completely closed no one could get through. But during those two weeks, John Banner had risked his liberty and his life, so that others might be saved.
Later John went to Amsterdam to board a ship for the U.S. Can you imagine his emotions when he saw the Nazi flag flying over the ship - which was owned by a German company - and learned that the captain was a German? Once again he put his life on the line.
He couldn't breathe easily until the ship was on its way. Of course that was before America was involved in World War II.
"I was very lucky to escape from Hitler's armies," he said. "I am lucky to be alive. I came to the United States, knowing not a word of English not dreaming I could become an actor in America grateful to be breathing free air. Happy that I had escaped from Hitler I didn't mind working as a bus boy or in a laundry. It was only by the greatest good fortune that I came in contact with a touring theatrical troupe, which permitted me to act with them. I learned English phonetically, and spoke my lines for months, without any knowledge of what the words I was saying really meant."
Robert Clary, who plays the French prisoner of war in "Hogan's Heroes," is a French Jew. Once he knew the horrors of something far worse than any prisoner-of-war camp. He was a prisoner in several German concentration camps and he laughs bitterly at the naïveté of those who confuse the prisoner-of-war camps with concentration camps that didn't happen in the prisoner-of-war spots. Robert, like his fellow prisoners, wore the star of David on his back and on his pants. His prison number was tattooed on his left arm. To be a prisoner in a concentration camp meant that sooner or later you were marked for death. Because he was young and strong and could put in a hard day's labor, day after day after day, the Nazis didn't rush him to the gas chambers.
He knew that certain death would face him the day he lost the strength to work for his captors. Fed on weak soup that was Iike dishwater and one piece of bread a day, he used to sneak out to the garbage cans to scrounge for pieces of food. He knew that if he were caught stealing that wretched garbage, he might be hung, as other poor wretches had been for similar offenses.
For three years he was moved from concentration camp to concentration camp.
He managed to survive them all: even Buchenwald.
He remembers the day he was among 4,000 prisoners who were forced to evacuate a camp because the Russian armies were getting closer. The prisoners trudged through mud and rain and freezing temperatures, knowing that if they showed weakening, they would be beaten to death.
"The great terror of the road," he says today, "was the fear
you might not be able to stay on your feet. If you were too weak to go on, your
skull was bashed in or half your head shot away by German guards. After 15 days,
only 1,200 of us were still alive."
It took courage to live from .day to day, and not to give in to the sadistic Nazis. Sometimes it must have been a temptation to falter, to drop with exhaustion, but that way lay certain death.
There's little doubt that Robert was destined for death by the Nazis. Young guys were given a little lease on life while their strength held out. When they weakened, they were slaughtered and replaced by fresh contingents of young prisoners. At Buchenwald the Germans gave Robert and the other prisoners no food-at all the first week. The ones who survived were hanging on to life by sheer will power and courage. Sometimes they had to sleep on top of each other in the crowded prison, waking each morning to find new corpses among them.
Finally, all the Jews in Buchenwald were to be sent to Dachau for extermination. A Czech saved Robert by hiding
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him. The SS gave orders to kill everybody left in the camp.
"Suddenly it was very quiet," Robert tells the story. "No guards, no SS, no Germans, no more shepherd dogs to tear apart prisoners who l11ight try to escape."
On April 11,1945, the GIs of the Third Army arrived at Buchenwald. By the time they arrived, there were only a few prisoners left. Robert Clary among them. The handful of prisoners celebrated their liberation by giving a jazz concert, at which Robert sang. Then he went home to: Paris to find his family gone. Twelve of them had been sent to concentration camps; he was the only one left alive.
"Sometimes I have nightmares about those days in concel1tration camps," he says, shuddering. "I wake up in a cold sweat. But I don't live in the past."
In comparison with men like Robert Clary and John Banner, Bob Crane has never faced the kind of experience that might endanger his life. But his courage was tested in a different way. Bob and his wife Anne are deeply in love with each other. When Anne fell ill with hepatitis, he was disturbed to see her suffering. But after six months, the doctor said she had recovered. It was a strange recovery. She suffered from back pains and pressure on her chest. When she complained about these things, the doctor said her suffering was probably psychosomatic, that she might be going through a period of depression that would cause her to imagine pains that had no physical cause.
Early one morning Anne awakened gasping for breath and in such pain she said, "Something is terribly wrong. I feel as if I may be dying."
Alarmed, Bob Crane called a different doctor from the one who had been taking care of Anne. The new physician examined her, and found she was suffering from an Internal tumor. She would have to submit to surgery.
The tumor might be benign or it might not be; there was no way of being absolutely positive until after the surgery. Bob thought how terrible it would be if anything happened to Anne: There is always a risk with surgery. He thought of how utterly lost he and their three children would be without her. Terrified, he was determined not to allow Anne know how he felt. He forced himself to look cheerful; he kept telling Anne that the doctor was sure the tumor was benign.
Bob went to the hospital with Anne, pretending a cheerfulness it was difficult to feel. That day he gave a real Oscar performance in hiding his fears from Anne. While he waited in the hospital during the surgery he prayed, "Please, dear God, don't Jet Anne's illness be fatal. You know how much the children and I need her." After three hours, the doctor came out of the surgery room with a happy smile. "Your wife will be fine. We haven't got the results of the test yet, but I am positive the tumor will turn out to be benign."
He was right. It was. But Bob Crane will never forget the months that tested
his courage and Anne's.
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