His father was a Nazi. He is a Jew.
This paradox summarizes the life story of Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger, today a family physician in the Miami area. He will relate his story on the morning of March 2 at West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest. Wollschlaeger has also committed his story to print, in his book, A German Life: Against All Odds, Change is Possible.
Wollschlaeger was born in Bavaria in 1958, more than a decade after WWII had ended. His own awareness of the Holocaust grew slowly. His father, Arthur, a tank commander in Hitler’s army, denied it. His school omitted it. Only his mother was willing to admit there was a “dark side” to the war, he said.
Wollschlaeger learned more as a preteen, from a landlady whose husband, a German officer like his father, was executed for participating in the Operation Valkyrie assassination attempt on Hitler.
Then, in 1972, the national dam of silence burst. Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists at the Munich Olympics. Once again, the world saw “the murder of Jews on German soil,” Wollschlaeger said. Germany’s Chancellor, Willy Brant, used the massacre as a “catalyst” for his nation to “radically discuss everything, and deal with the past,” Wollschlaeger said.
Finally, Wollschlaeger confronted his father, who at first continued his denials, then admitted: “I couldn’t stop it, and it needed to be done.” His father had “condoned the murder of millions.” While he never worked in a death camp, Arthur was a leader in the Wehrmacht, did attack civilians, and did murder Jews. He had served under Heinz Guderian (the man who developed the “blitzkrieg”), had been photographed with Heinrich Himmler (the head of the SS), and had been decorated with the Knight’s Cross by Hitler himself.
“My father,” Wollschlaeger concluded, “was not an innocent man.” Moreover, despite his father’s insistence that he was doing his job and being a good soldier, Wollschlaeger realized, Arthur also knew that he had a choice. And chose to follow, not resist, the Nazis. “This shocked and disgusted me,” Wollschlaeger remembers.
His desire to learn more about the Jews and their suffering in the Holocaust led him on a lifelong journey. It took him to Israel in 1978, where he found Jews who did not hate Germans. It took him to the Jewish community in Germany, where he learned about Judaism and the Jewish community. It took him to Switzerland for his bris (circumcision), to France for his mikvah (ritual bath) immersion. And in 1986, at age 28, he became a Jew, and received his medical degree.
Next, his journey took him back to Israel. Wollschlaeger joined a kibbutz, worked in a Tel Aviv hospital—and served in the Israel Defense Forces as a medic in the West Bank during the first intifada. He was also in Israel during the first Gulf War.
By 1991, he was 33 and had married an American-Israeli woman and had two children. Then she decided to move the family to Florida. Later, he and his wife divorced; he is now re-married and has another child.
It was his children who helped him deal with his past, according to Wollschlaeger. “When my children started asking questions about my parents, I decided to break the wall of silence and tell them the truth about me,” he said. “I needed to express what compelled me to dramatically change my life. I finally had to explore the relationship with my father. Our unresolved conflict and his denial motivated me to search for answers, and I found them within me and my acquired faith.”
It was his youngest, a teen at the time, who encouraged Wollschlaeger to write his 2007 memoir. He also spoke at his children’s school; a teacher there knew a journalist, which is how Wollschlaeger landed on the front page of The Miami Herald. This led to speaking engagements locally, then nationally, then overseas— in England, Switzerland, South Africa and Australia.
Wollschlaeger returns to Israel annually, sometimes with his children; his daughter is studying in Israel now. He also has served on the regional boards of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
He returned to Germany as well, 20 years after he left. Arthurhad died six month after he left, having disowned him due to his conversion. He did reconcile with his mother, who later developed Alzheimer’s disease.
And he has discovered that, on his maternal side, his family fled to France from the Inquisition. He had unwittingly reclaimed his own Jewish heritage.
Wollschlaeger changed his citizenship, his faith, and his life, but through it all kept his name. He wanted, he said, to “hang on to something to remind me of my past. I have changed how I think and feel and belong in the world. But I’m the same person. It’s still me.”