When Bernd Wollschlaeger was a teenager in the early ’70s, he had more than the usual adolescent identity issues to work out.
At age 14, he learned that his father, who had portrayed himself as a decorated World War II hero, was actually a “hard-core Nazi” who had no remorse for the Holocaust or for his actions in Hitler’s army.
Wollschlaeger spoke April 21 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto at an event hosted by Chabad of the Greater South Bay. The 55-year-old physician made the trip from his home near Miami to share his story, which he wrote about in his 2007 book “A German Life: Against All Odds, Change Is Possible.”
In Palo Alto, he told a rapt audience of 100 that the painful discovery about his father eventually led him to adopt both Judaism and Israeli citizenship.
When Wollschlaeger’s father would take him hunting in the forests near their home in picturesque Bamberg, Germany — where there had been a Jewish community dating back to before 1300 — he would proudly tell the boy about Hitler awarding him the Knight’s Cross, the Nazis’ highest award for bravery or leadership, or about his days as a Nazi tank commander.
Those stories were emblematic of Wollschlaeger’s youth, when his entire picture of World War II was painted by his father. But as a teen, he began to discover bits of the truth from an amazing first-hand source: the widow of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (a man who was shot dead for his involvement in a failed 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler). She lived upstairs from the Wollschlaegers in a two-story building that belonged to the von Stauffenberg family.
Then Wollschlaeger began to learn more about Jews and the Holocaust in school following the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He began asking questions, but his father refused to answer. “Your teachers are Communists. It’s all a lie,” he told his son.
Eventually, the father did speak. “He blamed the SS for everything, said that civilians were fair game, and that natural law dictated that the Wehrmacht [Germany’s armed forces] had to ‘clean up the riff-raff in the East.’
“That’s when he totally lost me,” Wollschlaeger said. “From that point on, I separated from my father as a father, as a guide in life.”
When he was 18 years old, Wollschlaeger met a delegation of young Israeli Jews and Arabs who were on a trip to Germany. Soon after, he hitchhiked to Italy and took a ferry to Haifa, where he was met by one of his new Israeli friends and taken in by her
The young woman’s father, who had a tattooed number on his arm, took Wollschlaeger to Yad Vashem.
“It was the first time I understood what 6 million really meant,” he said. “I wanted to find out about Jews, about their spirit that had allowed them to go on living, to build families and a new state.”
Back in Germany for his medical studies, Wollschlaeger introduced himself to Bamberg’s small survivor community and convinced them to let him be their “Shabbas goy.” After Wollschlaeger’s father threw him out, the Jewish community treated him as one of its own and supported him financially.
Wollschlaeger told the audience he remembered thinking: “If they treat me as one of them, then I want to be a Jew.” He said he also felt Judaism was “a fulfilled way of living.”
So following several years of study, Wollschlaeger was converted by the German beit din in 1986. In 1987, he made aliyah to Israel.
After learning Hebrew and updating his medical license, Wollschlaeger was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. “I suddenly had this fear that I would be found out,” he said, “so I locked the door to my past and threw away the key. I didn’t even tell my wife.”
The door swung open when his own son, at age 14, began asking about the grandfather he had never met.
Then living with his Israeli wife and their children in the United States, Wollschlaeger decided it was time to share some basic facts about his past.
“I didn’t know how to tell him that his father is an Israeli, but that his grandfather was a decorated World War II Nazi tank commander,” Wollschlaeger said.
An audience member asked how his wife, a Jew, reacted to such a stunning revelation. Wollschlaeger said it, in part, led to their divorce, but that now his ex-wife has forgiven him and they remain friends.
After the revelation, his son mentioned in his Jewish day school class that his grandfather had been a Nazi, and Wollschlaeger was called into the principal’s office. When Wollschlaeger confirmed that what his son had said was the truth, the principal urged Wollschlaeger to stop suppressing his painful story and to speak openly about it as a means of healing.
From that point on, he has been sharing his personal narrative with audiences and speaking out against hate.
Wollschlaeger paid a price for keeping his dark secret, but eventually realized he had to step out from history’s shadow and learn from his father’s mistakes. “I came to terms with the fact that I am not responsible for my father’s sins,” he told the audience.