Robert Clary, 89, can discuss the Holocaust without exposing obvious emotion, but that serenity dissolves as he recounts his 1942 arrival at Auschwitz.

He was 16. The cattle ­car doors swung open, and SS guards were screaming at inmates to get out and sit on the ground. “My mother said the most remarkable thing,” recalls Clary. “She said, ‘Behave.’ She probably knew me as a brat. She said, ‘Behave. Do what they tell you to do.’ ” Clary needs a moment to regain his composure after recounting this final conversation with his mother, who was killed that day with his father in the gas chamber. Of 14 family members who were deported to the camp, he was the only one who survived to see liberation.

In His Own Words
“I stopped having nightmares the moment I opened my mouth.”

Clary was born into a strict Orthodox family in Paris, but the childhood he recalls was full of joy. From a young age, he was a determined entertainer. He’d go on to find success after the war — as a singer and an actor on Broadway, TV and film (he’s best known for his role as the French patriot Cpl. LeBeau on Hogan’s Heroes, which is set in a German POW camp).

Clary’s passion to entertain helped sustain him during his darkest moments. At Buchenwald, he sang with an accordionist every other Sunday to an audience of SS soldiers. Clary feels certain that his singing gave him a purpose and an escape and thus helped save his life: “Singing, entertaining and being in kind of good health at my age, that’s why I survived,” he says. “I was very immature and young and not really fully realizing what situation I was involved with. … I don’t know if I would have survived if I really knew that.”

Robert Clary as a child.

Survival wasn’t easy. He was forced into labor at a prison shoe factory in Germany that the Allies bombed regularly. And with the war’s end looming, the Nazis ordered Clary and other prisoners on an arduous death march from Poland to Germany. Clary says that only 1,500 of the 4,000 prisoners who started were alive at its completion. “All the others died on the road.”

For decades, as he settled into a new life in America and his career took off, Clary chose not to discuss what he had been through. But in the 1980s, after he saw a documentary about a woman who had survived Auschwitz, he signed on with the Wiesenthal Center and began sharing his story. Says Clary, “I stopped hav­ing nightmares the moment I opened my mouth.” — P.F.

Clary (center) clowned around on the set of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ in 1969.

SEE PHOTOS  of Robert Clary by Wesley Mann