Bernd Wollschlaeger, born in 1958 in the small German town of Bamberg, is the son of a former Nazi tank commander and member of one of the elite units of the Wehrmacht, the Germany army, for which he was awarded the Knight’s Cross personally by Hitler.
Bernd loved his parents and admired his father, but growing up he needed to know all about what his father refused to discuss with him, what the Nazis did to Europe, Germany and the Jews, and what was his role.
When Palestinian terrorists murdered Israel’s Olympic athletes in 1972, the German press noted that again Jews had been killed in Germany. The fourteen year-old Bernd wanted to know what that meant. However, he could not get a straight answer from his parents. What he learned about the Third Reich at school horrified him. When he asked his father about German crimes his father told him that Bernd’s “teachers were all communists and liars and that a Holocaust never actually existed.”
Curious too about Judaism and Jewish faith, Bernd sought out a small orthodox Jewish community in his home town where he met and befriended a Holocaust survivor who began to teach him Judaism. Increasingly rejected by his own family, these mostly elderly Jews became Bernd’s new family.
One day he read about a peace conference being held in a nearby German town for Israeli Jewish and Arab youth organized by Neve Shalom. He decided to attend and from that point on his life would never be the same again. He now wanted to visit Israel.
In 1978 Bernd sailed to the Holy Land. He was reunited with his Israeli and Palestinian friends, fell in love with Vered, one of the young Israeli women, visited his Palestinian friend Chalil, and prayed at the Kotel. There, before the ancient stone wall he felt a spiritual stirring he had never known before. A kindly Orthodox man, watching him in his reverie, approached and encouraged him to seek out and reclaim his n’shamah, his Godly soul.
Bernd returned to Germany, completed his medical degree, converted to Judaism, and made aliyah. These acts severed whatever bond was left with his father and family.
In Israel, Bernd joined the Israeli Defense Forces as a medical officer, served for two years in the West Bank during the first Intifada, married and had a son.
The First Gulf War frightened his American-born wife, and so with a heavy heart he agreed for her sake to move to Florida. They divorced three years later. Bernd remarried and had two more Jewish children. Today he is a practicing family physician and an addiction specialist.
Bernd wrote of his remarkable journey, love of Judaism and Israel, and self-search:
“Initially, I came to seek answers about the Shoah, the crimes committed by Germans against [the Jewish] people, and of course the role my father played during that part of German history. Now I feel that there are other issues I need to explore. Why am I so attracted to this country? Why do I feel at home here? Why does Jewish faith and prayer seem to touch something deep inside me? Now I am searching for who I am. Since we’ve been here in Jerusalem, I’ve felt so close to finding it, but I still don’t know….
Many stories have been told by survivors, but this memoir (publ. by Emor Publishing, 2007) is the first I have read written by a child of a perpetrator.
When his own children asked about his family past, Bernd vowed not to do as his parents had done:
“I decided to break the wall of silence and tell them the truth about me. I needed to express what compelled me to dramatically change my life. I finally had to explore the relationship with my father and how it was overshadowed by the Holocaust. Our unresolved conflict and his denial motivated me to search for answers, and I found them within me and my acquired faith: Against all odds, change is possible…”
Dr. Wollschlaeger spoke to my synagogue community during this year’s Yom Hashoah Commemoration. We came to know of him from our member, Claudia Ehrlich Sobral, a child of survivors and a documentary film maker who produced “Ghosts of the Third Reich” which highlights Bernd and several other descendents of high ranking Nazis confronting the legacy that each carries.
Bernd’s courage to confront the truth and the transformation he underwent in order to create a new life despite his family’s past amazes and inspires. His memoir will move you and I recommend it.
Hag Shavuot Sameach!