Bernd Wollschlaeger remembers the day his son spoke about his family during a school program. The boy’s tale so rattled everyone at the North Miami Beach Jewish day school that they summoned Wollschlaeger to confirm it.
After all, it’s not every day that a Jewish child announces his grandfather was a Nazi tank commander who was personally decorated for heroism by Adolph Hitler.
“The story is really quite unbelievable,” acknowledged Wollschlaeger, who has written of his Christian family’s wartime past and his own conversion to Judaism in a memoir, A German Life.
In a phone interview with NJJN from Miami, where he runs a family medical practice, he related that family history, his discovery of the events of the Holocaust, his move from Germany to Israel, and his decision to become a Jew.
It’s a story he will also tell on Wednesday, Aug. 11, at the annual Vanguard event of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
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.
Curious about his parents’ past, Bernd as a child heard conflicting 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 “as a terrible catastrophe for the country.”
On trips with his father, an avid fisherman and hunter, the boy heard a markedly different description.
“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, Adolph Hitler. Of course I was very proud of my father. He was a hero.”
‘Hero to criminal’
Then an event occurred that changed his life — 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Wollschlaeger, who at 14 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 what he learned. After several years of increasing conflict between father and son, his father made a startling declaration: “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 19-year-old Bernd 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. He became its “Shabbos goy” for seven years before deciding to move to Israel and convert. Father and son never spoke again and the elder Wollschlaeger died six months later. His mother died several years later from dementia. He met his American wife in Israel and came with her to the United States in 1991.
Wollschlaeger, who had an Orthodox conversion in Israel, is an Israeli citizen and served in the Israel Defense Forces. He 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 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.”