Jewish doctor talks about his German life
One day a few years ago, Bernd Wollschlaeger got a call from his son’s Hebrew school in South Florida. Could he explain, he was asked, what his son meant when he wrote a story about his grandfather, “the famous Nazi.”
Actually, Wollschlaeger said, his son, Tal, was 100 per cent correct. His grandfather was a dedicated Nazi and a German tank commander in World War II. He’d won the prestigious Knight’s Cross and was decorated by Adolf Hitler himself.
Unlike Tal’s grandfather, however, Wollschlaeger rejected Nazism and found spiritual fulfilment and inner peace by converting to Judaism.
When the school rabbi heard the story, he suggested Wollschlaeger tell it more widely. Wollschlaeger agreed and began by addressing students in his son’s school. From there, he went on to speak to Jewish groups and temple congregations. And then, “it steamrolled.”
It all culminated in a book, A German Life, in which Wollschlaeger described the journey that took him from a Catholic upbringing in Bavaria to conversion, a move to Israel and then to Miami. People can change against all odds, Wollschlaeger believes, and last week, he was in Toronto to tell his story to supporters of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He’s also spoken about his experiences at the organization’s Los Angeles headquarters.
In his early years, Wollschlaeger got along well with his father, who taught him to hunt and fish. During those outings, his father described his wartime service in the Wehrmacht (German army) and how he was personally decorated by Hitler, “whom he still admired.”
“He saw himself as a knight in shining armour.”
But as a youth, there were things that bothered him about his home life, among them his father’s strange attitude to the elderly woman who lived above them, and whom he knew only as “the countess.”
It was taboo to talk to her, and his father, Arthur, was disgusted by a framed picture on her wall of a soldier he described as a traitor.
Things really began to change for Wollschlaeger when he was 14. It was 1972 and Munich was hosting the Olympic Games. His parents “froze in front the of the television screen” when Israeli athletes paraded in to the opening ceremonies carrying the Star of David flag.
Then, a few days later, German newspapers screamed the headline, “Jews killed in Germany again.” It was a reference to the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists and of the botched rescue attempt by German police.
When he asked his father what the headline meant, he was told, “It means nothing. In this house, we don’t talk about them. It’s over with them. We dealt with them.”
Unsatisfied with that response, the young Bernd wanted to know what his father really did in the war, why he felt the way he did about Jews and why he said the Holocaust never happened.
Now 54, Wollschlaeger recalls arguing with his father about the Holocaust. After initially denying the Wehrmacht had anything to do with it, his father eventually said, “It had to happen. We had to clean up the riffraff left behind by others.”
Wollschlaerger researched his father’s tank unit and learned it had participated in at least one atrocity: it had used 200 human shields in an operation early in the war in which all the civilians were killed. What’s more, his father commanded the unit involved.
“I was shocked that my father would adhere to a cold-blooded, life-denying ideology,” Wollschlaeger said.
His curiosity about his father’s attitude to Jews led him “to embark on a spiritual journey.”
He sought out the tiny Jewish community in Bamberg, his hometown. “Through their eyes I wanted to experience Israel, experience the Jewish People and what the Holocaust meant for them,” he said.
He was surprised that the Bamberg Jews “related to me in a normal way, even a friendly way… They accepted me as the Shabbes goy” – the gentile who performs certain tasks for them on the Sabbath.
His time with the Jews of Bamberg served as a sort of “spiritual retreat” from the conflict in his own home. They became his “family of choice.”
He began accumulating Jewish paraphernalia such as kippot and books. His parents thought he had joined a cult. When his father took “a very aggressive stand, I told him I needed to find out why [he] hated them so much that [he was] willing to kill them.”
His father’s answer: “It was either them or us.”
But Wollschlaeger could find nothing among the Jews that made him hate them. On the contrary, he found “the Jewish culture fascinating, [particularly] their adherence to their own culture and history, despite what had happened to them.”
He contrasted his father’s bitterness with the Jews’ continued “hope and overcoming terrible obstacles in their history.”
He came to prefer the Jewish religion to the Catholic faith he was raised in. He approached a rabbi in Frankfurt for assistance in converting. After first attempting to discourage him, the rabbi “took me under his wing, reluctantly.”
Wollschlaeger studied with him for two years, and in October 1986, he was converted by a rabbinical court.
The conversion marked a total and final break from his father, who felt betrayed. “I never saw him again. He died six months later,” Wollschlaerger said. His mother, however, visited him in Israel.
One of his sisters blamed their father’s death on him. Wollschlaeger said he would like to believe his father died of natural causes, but he thinks he died of a broken heart.
One of his sisters, however, remained close to him, and “I had the privilege to accompany her on her final hours before her death,” Wollschlaeger said.
As he moved further from his parents’ values, he learned the identity of the mysterious countess upstairs. It turned out she was Nina von Stauffenberg, widow of Claus von Stauffenberg, whose portrait hung on the wall and whom his father called a traitor. Von Stauffenberg had placed a bomb in Hitler’s east Prussian headquarters on July 20, 1944, wounding though not killing him.
A few months after converting, Wollschlaeger obtained an Israeli visa and left for the Jewish state, without much advanced preparation.
“I did goornicht (nothing),” he joked.
He spent six months in kibbutz Ma’agaan Michael, near Hadera and took part in an absorption program. He worked in the banana orchards and studied Hebrew.
A physician in Germany, he later went through a one-year internship program to obtain his Israeli licence. He practised medicine at the Ichilov hospital and married an American Jewish woman. He served in the Israeli Defence Forces as a doctor for two years, raised his children as Jews and found inner peace and contentment in the Jewish faith.
In Israel, he felt accepted: “Once you join the tribe and are willing to defend the tribe in the army, you’re one of them,” he said.
They lived a normal Israeli life until the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq fired missiles into Israel. It so unnerved his wife that she moved the family back to her native United States.
“I went, it was the only family I had, the only normal life I had,” Wollschlaeger said.
They moved to South Florida where Wollschlaeger still works as a physician.
A few years after moving to the United States, his family life fell apart and his wife, who only then learned of his real past, felt “betrayed,” he said.
He remarried and had another child. His new wife and child accompanied him to Germany where Wollschlaeger sought closure with his deceased parents. He visited their graves, and in a remarkable chapter that closes his book, he notes that his mother, who had visited him in Israel, hinted that the family had hidden secrets. Could this be what his late sister had once suggested – that they had Jewish ancestors on their mother’s side?
“Would that have explained my unstoppable quest for answers? Might that explain why I was attracted to the Jewish faith? Why I felt the spirit of the Jewish prayers in my heart and soul?” he asks.
At his mother’s grave, he placed on her headstone a stone he had carried from Jerusalem, and he recited the Kaddish.
As he leaves, he tells his mother, “You can be proud of me. I made it against all odds.”