Becoming what my Nazi father most hated: a Jew

  • DrBerndWollschlaeger2
When Dr Bernd Wollschlaeger’s son asked who his paternal grandfather was, his father struggled to give him an easy answer.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jul 09, 2020

While most of us would have no trouble answering this question, Wollschlaeger didn’t know how to explain that his father had been a highly decorated Nazi war hero.

“I could tell my son that his own father was a proud Israeli citizen who had served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), but how could I tell him that my father was a convinced national socialist and German war hero?” Wollschlaeger told a Zoom audience on Monday night. “How could I reconcile the two?”

The Bavarian-born physician shared his extraordinary life story at the invitation of Sydenham Shul, recounting how he had gone from being the son of a prominent Nazi to converting to Judaism and moving to Israel.

Born in Bamberg in 1958, young Wollschlaeger grew up with an appreciation of German history, but also a sense that something wasn’t being spoken about.

“Something was missing,” he says. “I knew the war had happened, and that people had won and lost. The fact that American soldiers were based in our city meant we didn’t win. I figured that out. But there was something else.”

After speaking to his parents, Wollschlaeger learned that his father had served in the war as a tank commander, participating in rapid advances across Poland, France, Belgium, and Russia, clearing the way for the invading Nazi army.

“He was awarded the Knight’s Cross, and said it had been awarded by a man he still called ‘My Führer’,” Wollschlaeger says. “It was the highest honour for him. His army buddies still visited him, and together, they would celebrate the old days and toast my father. He made them proud.”

However, Wollschlaeger felt that something was amiss. His suspicion was proven correct in 1972, when he and his family witnessed the brutal murder of the Israeli Olympic team at the hands of terrorists at the Olympic Games hosted in Germany that year.

“The newspaper headlines the next day said that Jews had been killed in Germany once again,” recounts Wollschlaeger. “I was confused. What had happened the first time?”

When through school he discovered the extent of the Nazi atrocities and confronted his father, he was verbally assaulted.

“I confronted my father about Auschwitz, Mengele, Eichmann, and all the rest,” he recalls. “I asked him to tell me about the Holocaust. He stared at me, told me I was spewing communist propaganda, and there was no such thing. Was my father actually lying?

“I learned whatever I could. I had never met a Jew, but I knew they had been wronged. I kept asking my father, but he was never upfront. One day he said it never happened, the next he said he didn’t take part and blamed the government or the SS.

“He tried to convince me that any civilians killed were partisans. I was stunned: 1.2 million children were involved in fighting, and that’s why they died? It made no sense.”

The truth emerged one evening when Wollschlaeger’s drunken father made his true feelings clear. “He told me he didn’t care what I thought, but that he had done his best to kill non-humans and make the world a better place,” Wollschlaeger says.

He learned later than his father had enhanced the Nazi killing apparatus by clearing the way for mass murder to take place, his tank unit removing all opposition and making killing possible.

“I loved my father, but that was the end for me. I couldn’t become like him,” Wollschlaeger says.

Not only was he determined to break with his father, he decided to become the very thing his father loathed: a Jew. After meeting a group of Israeli students visiting Germany, Wollschlaeger visited Israel, toured Yad Vashem, and developed a sense of respect for Jews and how they had rebuilt their lives after the Holocaust. He decided to become a part of it.

Returning to Germany, he sought help from the tiny community of remaining Jews in Bamberg, and asked to learn about Judaism. In return for becoming the “Shabbos goy”, he was offered Jewish tutelage and became absorbed in Jewish literature and culture over several years.

“I went every weekend, growing closer to Judaism and away from my family,” he says. “Towards the end, I missed Christmas dinner. When I came home, my mother cried, and my father yelled at me. I called him a murderer, and said that I refused to sit down with a person like him. He told me to leave, and I did.”

Liberated but without funds, Wollschlaeger tried to convince the Jewish community leadership to send him to the rabbinic court to convert to Judaism officially. His wish was granted, and in 1986, Wollschlaeger became Dov ben Avraham. After applying to the Jewish Agency, he bought a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv, and left Germany for a new life on a kibbutz, joining the IDF and becoming a doctor along the way.

His family’s past continued to haunt him, however, and he regularly feared being called out as the son of a Nazi. Only after marrying and having children did he fully confront his history and reconcile himself with his father’s actions.

“I had thrown my old life into a virtual closet, and wanted to forget it,” he says. “When my son told his class that his grandfather had been a Nazi, I was called in to see the principal. When I told him it was true, he encouraged me to talk to my son about it properly. The moment I did, a weight was lifted from my shoulders and I finally moved on.

“I decided to step out of the shadows, learn from a painful past, and make sure it never happens again. Hate has dire consequences if we let it go unchallenged. I’m a proud Jew committed to seeing other Jews flourish. Together, we need to ensure that never again means just that.”

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