When Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger’s children asked him about his family, he told them the truth: Their grandfather was a highly decorated Nazi tank commander who received the Iron Cross by Adolf Hitler himself.
But when they asked him about his own biography, he told a very different story, but just as truthful: Wollschlaeger, now a doctor in Miami, had an Orthodox Jewish conversion in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces.
On Wednesday, March 18, he will talk about his transformation and his complicated relationship with his parents during his appearance at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick.
The program is being presented by the synagogue’s nonprofit Daniel Pearl Education Center. The center often focuses on Holocaust education, running an annual trip with students of various religious backgrounds to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
“I first heard him talk in Florida five years ago, and his story struck me as very compelling,” said center chair Dr. Andrew Boyarsky.
Boyarsky said he expected attendees from area churches that have partnered with the center on the museum trip.
In a previous interview with NJJN, Wollschlaeger acknowledged his story unnerves people.
“It’s kind of shaken people up, just the raw emotion,” he said. “People want to understand more about how history impacts the present.”
Born 13 years after the end of World War II, Wollschlaeger grew up in Bamberg, ironically in the house where Lt. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg — who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1944 — had lived.
As a child, he was curious about his parents’ past; but when he would ask, he would hear two different versions from his mother and father. His mother, a refugee from the Sudeten region, was the daughter of wealthy industrialist parents who lost everything in the war, which she described as “a terrible catastrophe for the country.”
His father, an avid fisherman and hunter, told a markedly different story.
“My father described it as the best time of his life,” said Wollschlaeger. “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.”
When Wollschlaeger was 14, in 1972, West Germany hosted the Olympics; 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Wollschlaeger, who had never met a Jew and knew nothing about the Holocaust, saw headlines in the German media proclaiming, “Jews killed again in Germany.”
Unable to get a straight answer from his parents about what that meant, he did his own research and was horrified by the history he was exposed to for the first time. After several years of increasing conflict between father and son, his father made a startling statement: “Somebody had to deal with Jews.”
“My father went from the level for me of hero to common criminal,” said Wollschlaeger. “I lost all respect for him. How could people like my father be so callous, inhuman, and unethical?”
After a teacher set up a meeting between the then 19-year-old boy and a group of visiting Arab and Israeli teens, Wollschlaeger went to Israel, immersing himself in Jewish culture and teachings and a society living in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Returning to Germany, he found a small Jewish community in Bamberg, becoming its “Shabbos goy” for seven years before deciding to convert and move to Israel. Father and son never spoke again and the elder Wollschlaeger died six months later. His mother died several years after that from dementia. He met his American wife in Israel and came to the United States in 1991 with her.
He tells his story in a 2007 self-published book, A German Life: Against All Odds Change Is Possible, and on his website, agermanlife.com.