Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger knows that his life story is “really quite unbelievable,” and he has written a memoir and speaks to community and school groups to offer direct testimony of his incredible tale. Wollschlaeger is a Jew; his father was a Nazi and a Wehrmacht tank commander who was decorated for heroism by Adolf Hitler.
It’s a story he will tell on Tisha B’Av, Sunday, July 29, at a program sponsored by the Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan.
Born in 1958, Wollschlaeger grew up in Bamberg, Germany. As a boy, the Florida physician told NJJN in a phone conversation, he heard conflicting versions of his parents’ past. His mother, a refugee from the Sudeten region, came from a family that lost everything in the war, which she said was “a terrible catastrophe for the country.”
The boy heard a distinctly different assessment from his father, who, Wollschlaeger said, described the war as “the best time of his life. He was awarded the Iron Cross, which is like a Purple Heart, by a man he very much adored at the time, Adolf Hitler. Of course I was very proud of my father. He was a hero.”
Wollschlaeger said he remembers hearing his father and his veteran army friends singing “Die Fahne Hoch,” “The Flag on High,” a Nazi Party anthem, during gatherings at their home.
In 1972 something happened that changed Wollschlaeger’s life — the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Then 14, Wollschlaeger had never met a Jew and knew nothing about the Holocaust, so the headlines in the German papers proclaiming “Jews killed again in Germany” aroused his curiosity.
When he sought information from his parents, he hit a dead end. So he began researching his country’s past and was horrified by what he learned. After several years of increasing conflict between father and son, his father made a shocking declaration: “Somebody had to deal with the Jews.”
For Wollschlaeger, his father “went from the level for me of hero to common criminal. I lost all respect for him. How could people like my father be so callous, inhuman, and unethical?”
When he was 19, Wollschlaeger went to Israel to find out all he could about Jewish culture and teachings and a society living in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Soon after returning to Germany, he set out on a path to convert to Judaism and began to attend Shabbat services at a nearby synagogue.
When he finally revealed his intentions to his parents, he said, his father told him, “Stay here, or join your Jews.”
After his conversion in 1986 and graduation from medical school, Wollschlaeger made aliya and enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces.
He never again spoke to his father, who died six months later. His mother died several years later. He met his American wife in Israel and they came to the United States in 1991.
Wollschlaeger, who had an Orthodox conversion in Israel, declines to put a denominational label on himself.
“In the Holocaust they didn’t ask whether their victims were Reform or Orthodox or kosher or not kosher or shomer Shabbos or not shomer Shabbos, so why should we?” he asked. “If asked my identity, I say, ‘I am a proud traditional Jew.’ I am an Israeli and a Jew who happens to have been born in Germany.”
Wollschlaeger, whose 2007 memoir is called A German Life (Emor Publishing), said his aim in telling his story is to help others understand “how we as individuals can stand up and make a difference to prevent something like the Shoa from happening again.”