Change is always possible against all odds
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ILAN OSSENDRYVER
Pictured: Dr Bernd Wollschlaeger.
The hugely successful fundraising evening focused on turning lives around.
Guest speaker, Dr Bernd Wollschaeger, epitomised this theme. A Florida-based physician, his illustrious career pales in comparison to his life story. “I’ve been unable to speak about my life before,” he said. “I was so ashamed. How could I say I’m an Israeli citizen, a Jew, but my father was a Nazi?
“I was born in a Catholic town in South Germany called Bamberg. When I was about seven, I noticed adults didn’t talk about recent history. I knew 13 years before I was born, there was a war. Eventually my parents had to break their silence.
“My father was one of the German army’s youngest tank commanders, a major in an elite tank unit, under General Heinz Guderian. Hitler awarded him the Knight’s Cross. For a child, it was clear cut: he was a hero.
“My mother told me a different story: in that war she lost everything dear to her, including my grandparents. An ethnic German from Czechoslovakia, she fled with her family from Soviet troops.
“In our house, there was a photograph of an officer on the wall. It belonged to our landlady, who my mother called ‘the Countess’. When I asked my father about him, he called him ‘the Traitor’.”
Wollschlaeger discovered that his landlady was Nina von Stauffenberg, widow to the man in the photograph, Count Claus von Stauffenberg, the colonel who led a failed assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944. He was executed.
“From her, I learnt of a Germany where men like my father and her husband made choices.
“At school, we learned that democratically elected Nazis established a brutal dictatorship. We learned that 80 million people died in the Second World War, including six million Jews. And then came the summer of 1972.”
He described the massacre of Israeli athletes in that year’s Olympic Games in Munich. “When news broke after hostage negotiations, that the kidnapped athletes were murdered, there was a headline: ‘Jews were again killed on German soil’.
“My father said: ‘It means nothing. In our house we don’t talk about Jews.’ Perplexed, I asked him about the Holocaust; he told me my teachers were lying Communists. I didn’t know who to believe. I started voraciously reading anything about Jews; the more I read, the more I realised maybe my father was one of those who killed Jews.
“One night, he admitted it. He said killing Jews was necessary; they had to be purged from society. It was the last straw: I turned away from him.”
At 19, Wollschlaeger joined a project in which young Israelis came to Germany. “When they left, I wanted to visit them in their country.” Which he did. A friend’s father took him to Yad Vashem. “There I was really introduced to the Shoah. I was ashamed, curious as to what made Jews, Jews. I decided to enter the Jewish world.”
He returned to Bamberg where he came across an elderly Jewish community. “‘Be the Shabbos goy’, said Yitzchak Rosenberg, its chairman,” embracing Wollschlaeger’s idiosyncratic stubbornness to become a Jew.
There followed a difficult seven-year path into Judaism. “It was an intimidating character test and a very important day when I was presented as a Jew in the Rabbinical Court of Europe in 1986.
“In 1987, I took a one-way ticket to Israel. While being sworn in as an IDF officer, I asked myself if I was still my father’s son. Telling my story lifted a weight from me. Soon after, I went to visit my parents – by this time they were buried in Germany.
“Embracing Judaism helped me realise we all have choices. Words of hate can sprout into deeds; unchallenged deeds can become habits. Tolerated habits can influence character formation, which can become norms.
“It explains but doesn’t excuse how Germans looked away while millions died. As a society, we don’t learn. It’s easier to hate than take a corrective stance. Change is always possible against all odds.”