Rolf Beier was 10 years old when the Nazis came to power in his native Germany. But the rise of Hitler did not affect him and his family as much as it did the people who appear with regularity in this newspaper.
The Beier family were not Jews, after all. They were unobservant Protestants living in Canada. But in 1933, Beier’s father, who worked in the aircraft industry, was brought back by his company to Germany from Canada.
Beier remembers returning to a homeland he no longer recognized. He recalled the menacing flags and the earsplitting demonstrations.
“It was chaos,” he said, his face crinkling up with the memory.
Now 82, the San Mateo resident reflected back on his life, and the events that led him to become the person he is today.
His early childhood years in Canada have left him with almost no trace of a German accent. Beier’s memory is not what it once was. Yet those most difficult memories, during wartime, still cause him to pause a moment while he wells up with tears.
Beier, who spent several years of his life as a foot soldier in World War II fighting for a regime he did not believe in, converted to Judaism at the age of 78.
“I’m a happier man as a Jew,” he said. “I definitely feel that it’s given me a belief system that I feel comfortable with.”
Beier’s best friend in Canada was Jewish, and he remembers that it meant nothing to him then. “They happened to be Jews, so what?” he said. “There was no stigma, or anything attached to that.”
But his return to Germany under Nazism forced him to confront what he called “the Jewish question” for the first time.
In school in Dessau, he remembers that a Jewish boy in his class disappeared suddenly, with rumors circulating that his family had picked up and left for New York.
“I asked, ‘Why?’ and people said, ‘Don’t you know?’ They saw the writing on the wall.”
In public school, Beier’s history teacher was an early member of the Nazi party: “His constant thing was, ‘Remember you are the Aryan race and you are superior.'”
But Beier was uncomfortable with that, to say the least, and he was the type to speak his mind. He told his classmates this theory was not what he had been taught. He found himself being disciplined in the office of the principal, who also was a Nazi. Though he did not undergo physical punishment, he had to write numerous essays on Aryan superiority.
Fast-forward to 1942. Beier finished high school, and unlike most of his classmates who volunteered to join the army, he opted out. Yet he was drafted anyhow.
“I was in the German Air Forces, trained as a paratrooper, but never jumped,” he said. Fighting on the Russian front, he got within 100 miles of Moscow. He was wounded three times, suffering multiple injuries and temporary deafness. But rather than describe any of these incidents in great detail, there is one episode he tells most often — one of his most defining moments in the war. In fact, he calls it “life-changing.”
He was on his first furlough in 1943, allowed to go home to visit his family after 18 months of fighting. While on the train home, he was made to guard one of two cars of Russian prisoners every time the train stopped, which was often.
“There was a crack this wide in the door of the cattle car,” he said, putting his hands close together to demonstrate. “And this guy tapped me on the shoulder. In good German, he said, ‘Can I go take a leak?’ I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ So he convinced me. Then I said, ‘If you get out and run, you know I have to shoot you.’ He said, ‘Yes.'”
Beier opened the door, and the prisoner slipped out and relieved himself. It was then that Beier was able to peer through the crack. The sight of the prisoners crowded together with no food, no water, nor containers to get rid of their waste, was something he has not forgotten.
The two men had a brief conversation, in which Beier learned the prisoner was the same age as he was.
“He didn’t want to fight anymore. He wanted to study just like I did.” Later, Beier realized that the so-called enemy was just like himself.
“What in the world are we doing, and how come we’re fighting this war?” was his overwhelming thought.
Yet the war was far from over then, so Beier had to return to the front. When he did, he saw that much of his unit had been killed. He himself was soon wounded again, and his injuries from shrapnel landed him nearly deaf in the hospital.
By war’s end, Beier felt the best thing he could do was turn himself over to the Americans. After a harrowing journey out of Berlin during the bombardment, he was taken as a prisoner of war by the Americans — intentional on his part — for the next year and a half, during which he helped build a hospital.
Finally, the war was over, and Beier started to study at the University of Freiburg. The Quaker-run American Friends Service Committee was distributing food there, and Beier was struck by the fact that the country that had just defeated them in war was now in Germany to help. He got involved with the organization, driving their trucks or doing translation work, while he studied geology.
Then, when Beier heard about an international students seminar to help re-establish communications between Germany and the rest of the world, he applied and was accepted.
“The seminar consisted of people from Norway, Hungary, Romania, Greece, France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, all countries that Germany had occupied and had treated miserably,” he said. ” And here I was, a German soldier, coming to this seminar.”
Beier said it was difficult at first, especially since the Polish representative was Jewish, but as time went on, he won them over.
“I did not feel responsible because whatever little bit I could do to help, I feel I did,” he said. “But what I feel remorseful for is why wasn’t I more active in persuading people that that is the wrong way to treat other people.”
Also taking part in that seminar was Florence Ilfeld, a descendant of a German Jewish family who were among the first Jews in New Mexico.
She and Beier have been married 57 years.
Florence’s family was not religious, so she said Beier being German wasn’t a problem for her or her family.
“I was cautious at first. I thought, ‘Who is this guy?'” she said. Though all of her family escaped Germany before the Holocaust, Beier said, “I was suspicious of Germans, but he convinced everybody that he was such a good guy that it didn’t take very long.”
While the Beiers raised their three children mostly in the Quaker tradition, two of their daughters are now actively Jewish.
“With my wife being Jewish, it certainly was an avenue for me to explore and to get acquainted with Judaism,” he said. “The belief system, the concepts and the philosophy, everything about it appealed to me immensely.”
Whenever the Beiers would visit their daughter in Bend, Ore., they would attend Shabbat services there, conducted by a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement, David Zaslow.
“I just fell in love with him, he is fabulous,” said Beier. “And so my explorations continued, and I realized that Judaism is the road I want to pursue.”
So after studying from afar with Zaslow, doing all the required reading and taking a stab at Hebrew at a men’s retreat in Oregon in 2001, at the age of 79, Beier became a Jew.
Florence Beier says her husband’s conversion has made her more of a practicing Jew, as they took the Hebrew class together, and now regularly attend Beyt Tikkun in San Francisco.
“It was through my daughter, my wife and my own initiative, and a lot of elements,” concluded Beier, who said he definitely felt himself become more spiritual as he aged. “I’m a seeker of spirituality and of finding something that satisfies my inner needs, and Judaism is definitely it. I’m now a happy, convinced Jew.”