By Stephanie Smartschan
JFLV Director of Marketing
When Bernd Wollschlaeger’s son was about 14 years old, he asked him a simple question.
“Dad, who was my grandfather?”
“I had to tell him these two extremes in my life,” said Wollschlaeger, speaking at the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley’s Major Donor Reception on Sept. 27. “On the one hand, yours truly, that’s me, is a Jew by choice, an Israeli by choice, and an officer in a combat unit in the Israeli army … And on the other hand, my father, his grandfather, was a highly decorated World War II German tank commander, an elite soldier, and a totally convinced national socialist.”
Wollschlaeger was born on May 9, 1958, in Bamberg Germany, a 1,000-year-old city in the southern region of Bavaria untouched by war, “a living, breathing museum.”
With history all around, he noticed even as a child that no one spoke about the period from 1939 to 1945. He knew there was a war, and that Germany probably didn’t win, but that was it.
He pressed his parents for more, and they eventually told him two different stories. For his mother, the war meant suffering. But for his father, it meant glory.
His father was the youngest German tank commander serving in an elite unit of the German army, often the first to roll into critical battlefields. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross by Adolf Hitler, “a man whom he still adoringly referred to as his Führer,” Wollschlaeger said.
“You have to put yourself in the shoes of a 6, 7, 8-year-old boy,” he said. “I didn’t know about Adolf Hitler, I didn’t know about wars. I only saw my father the hero.”
In school, he learned the Jews who were killed in the war were “collateral damage.” But then something happened that changed the national conversation: The Munich Massacre.
In the summer of 1972, a Palestinian terror group took members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage during the Munich games, ultimately killing 11 Israelis.
“That was the watershed moment, and we didn’t anticipate it, that separated us from the past,” Wollschlaeger said.
A few days later, a subject came up at school that was never discussed before: the Holocaust.
“I never heard this term before, it was not common knowledge. The murder of 6 million Jews, not as a result of collateral damage, but as deliberate policy of the German government, elected German government, in the name of Germany, in the name of my people. I was shocked,” he said.
“I remember I walked home after having very emotional encounters with my teachers, some cried. And I asked my father, look in school, we talked about the Holocaust, what do you know about it? And my father looked at me and said your teachers are all commoners, it’s a lie. It never happened. “
Caught between a rock and a hard place of who to believe, he began reading everything he could find about the Holocaust. He pressed his father, an alcoholic, for more answers, and eventually drew out more of his deepest thoughts.
“The Holocaust was necessary because the Jews took over,” his father told him. “They were just messing up the whole natural balance and we had to kill them in order to restore the balance in nature. Why is the world angry about us? This is what we do.”
“That was the last thing that broke the camel’s back of trusting my father,” he said. “This was not a hero anymore, it was a murderer.”
He asked his teacher, a former Jesuit priest, what he could do and the teacher said “you have to make amends.”
The teacher was responsible for organizing trips of young Israelis to Germany and asked him to participate. He developed a relationship with one of the Israeli girls and when he got his passport a few months later, he went to see her.
Her family took him in and brought him to Yad Vashem, patiently explaining the whole story, what his people had done.
When he returned home, eager to learn more, he connected with a small community of Holocaust survivors in his home town. We’ll teach you, they said, but you will be our “Shabbos goy” in exchange.
He began spending Friday nights and Saturdays observing their services. When one year Christmas and Shabbat coincided, he missed Christmas and returned home after only to hear his father tell him to “get out.”
After years of study and good treatment by the local Jews, he decided becoming a Jew was what he needed to do. He ultimately converted to Judaism and served in the Israel Defense Forces.
Today he lives and practices medicine in Aventura, Florida, and shares his story with Jewish communities across the country.