‘I am the son of a Nazi and I fought in the IDF’
Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger, the son of staunch Nazi and admired German World War II hero, converted to Judaism and fought for the IDF. This is his story.
By ILANIT CHERNICK
“My father was a Nazi. I fought in the IDF.”
These were the words of Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger, the son of staunch Nazi and admired German World War II hero Arthur Wollschlaeger.
Despite this difficult reality, his growing love and fascination with Judaism during his youth led Wollschlaeger to convert, move to Israel and join the IDF.
For Wollschlaeger, his past was something that was always difficult to talk about but it was when his then-teenage son asked him about who his grandfather was that he realized the time had come to reconcile these two worlds.
Speaking during a webinar hosted by Sydenham Highlands North Synagogue in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wollschlaeger explained that “there was a tiny little problem” when it came to answering his son’s “easy” question.
“I had to tell my son that his father, yours truly, is an Israeli citizen, and a Jew who served in a combat unit in the Israeli army as a physician. And on the other hand, my father, his grandfather was a convinced national socialist [Nazi] and [German] World War II hero who was admired by many,” he said. “So to reconcile these two worlds was very difficult but eventually I had to do it because my children asked me questions.”
Wollschlaeger was born and raised in the southern German town of Bamberg, located near Nuremberg.
“It was a town that was never touched in the wars and it was a thousand years old,” he explained. “The sense of history was oozing out… everywhere, and we as children were made aware about its history and we learned to appreciate the history – its history was life.
But, he said, “the one thing I noticed was certain aspects of history were not talked about, not that I knew about them in detail and definitely not at that age but something was missing.”
With a large presence of American soldiers living in the town, Wollschlaeger was keenly aware that Germany had lost the war but this loss was not spoken about.
“So on the one hand the war was this tremendous catastrophe that impacted everybody and every family in Germany, but on the other hand, nobody wanted to talk about it,” he said.
When he asked his father about his role in the war, he would proudly state “over and over the story that he was a youngest German tank commander belonging to an elite unit of the German army under the command of General Heinz Guderian the father of the German blitzkrieg.”
His father’s elite tank unit broke through any country’s border that Hitler deemed should be invaded including Poland, France, the Netherlands Belgium, and Russia during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. In many of these cases, they were the first row.
For pushing into Russia and conquering a city near the outskirts of Moscow, Arthur Wollschlaeger was awarded the Knights Cross and was given this honor by “a man whom he still referred to as his Fuhrer, Adof Hitler.
“So a personal encounter with Adolf Hitler, for him, was the highest honor that a German can receive,” Wollschlaeger recalled.
With his father’s former military friends coming around at least once a year to reminisce about the “good old days” and his father being admired by everyone around him as a hero, a sense of pride was instilled within the young Wollschlaeger.
Until the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972, in which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered, Wollschlaeger had never heard of the term “Jew” before. But it was the picture and headline on the front page of every paper the day after the massacre that changed the course of his life: “Jews killed in Germany again.”
In the wake of the attack, Wollschlaeger said he remembered his father being very angry and yelling, “look what the Jews did to us again! Again they are causing trouble.”
In the following days, they learned about the Holocaust at school and he realized what his father had said after the attack was wrong. Wollschlaeger then asked his father about the Holocaust with the older Wollschlaeger denying that it had happened, adding that his teachers were communists and they were teaching him communist propaganda.
Wollschlaeger became deeply conflicted because he knew his father wouldn’t deliberately lie to him and he knew his teachers weren’t lying.
It was then that he started to learn everything he could about the Holocaust, adding that at the time he had no real idea what a Jew was and had never met a Jew. He wondered whether his father had been involved in the atrocities of the Holocaust but was never given a satisfactory answer.
But one night, his father got very drunk and finally admitted the truth.
“He told me, ‘Bernd whatever you think about me I don’t give a hoot. I will tell you straight that we did the best that the world could expect from us,’” Wollschlaeger recalled. “‘We killed and extinguished these, these non humans, these Jews that you call them. The world is a better place for having them dead.’
“That was the last straw that broke the camel’s back of trust, I loved my father because he was my only father. I admired my father – but that was the end,” Wollschlaeger said.
Soon after, he approached a former teacher and confided in him. His teacher’s response was that the only thing he can do to deal with this is to make amends to those who were harmed.
Wollschlaeger responded that he didn’t know any Jews and his teacher said he could help as he knew that a group of Jews and Arabs from Israel were going to be visiting Germany for a conference on coexistence. He took part and it was here that he had his first exposure to Jews and his love for Israel and its people began to grow.
After falling in love with one of the visiting Israeli girls named Vered, Wollschlaeger eventually made his way to Israel. His father was not happy about it. Wollschlaeger found out that Vered’s parents were Holocaust survivors and later went with her to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Her father, who had survived several concentration camps, guided him through.
“I emotionally collapsed,” he recalled. “How can it be that these people… had no hatred towards me, even though I’m a German.”
Although his relationship with Vered didn’t work out, the spark inside him was lit and Wollschlaeger got involved with the local Jewish community in Bamburg, Germany.
After building a close relationship with them for over seven years, he converted to Judaism.
Wollschlaeger, now a qualified doctor, bought himself a one-way ticket to Israel, joined a Kibbutz, learned Hebrew, did a six to 12-month internship at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and drafted into the IDF.
“It was during the First Intifada and I was stationed near Beit-El,” he said, adding that his commanding officer changed his name to Dr. Dov. “It was a war zone and we needed to fight for survival. We were just 30 soldiers… And here I was standing, a young German – the son of a Nazi, in the uniform of an Israeli officer.”
He added that being in the IDF played a key role in helping him to become accepted as an Israeli then and now.
Wollschlaeger made it clear that he “is proud to be a Jew” and “to fight against those that did what they did to us Jews.
“I’m proud of having a Jewish family and Jewish children – my daughter was born Jewish, my son was born Jewish and I connected to them by identifying with the suffering of the 6 million,” he stressed. “I made a commitment to continue talking about my experience, and talking about what happened to me… I’m fully convinced that I did the right thing and I’ve never regretted it.”
For Wollschlaeger, making sure that something like the Holocaust never happens again is extremely important especially for his generation of Germans.
“What we can do as my generation of Germans, we still have to step out of the shadow, look back, learn the painful lesson and move forward to make sure that it never happens again,” he explained. “ And that’s my job… My passion is to tell others that we need to always spread the news about who we are, that we always need to be abide by the rules and that we always need to learn from the past.”
What he learned from the past is a very simple lesson, one that he even attributes to his father, “words have consequences – words of hatred have consequences.
“If left unchallenged these words fall in the fertile ground of the mind of others,” he said adding that this can change habits and norms, “and the norm will then be that it’s okay to kill Jews, it’s okay to kill it because it’s normal, and it’s all because nobody said anything about” those words of hate.
Asked what we can do to fight antisemitism, Wollschlaeger told IsraelNewsStand that we must “be proud to be Jews and support each other.
“Antisemitism is on the rise, unfortunately and specifically in the United States, it’s out of control – not only the coronavirus,” he stressed. “We need to ask ourselves, what’s the future of us Jews are, and the future is not to run away, the future is not to turn around and let this happen, but to speak up and be proud to be a Jew.
He made it clear that “we must speak up in writing, in speaking and speak up against whatever shape or form of antisemitism [is emerging],” adding that one thing he’s learned about antisemites is that they are cowards.
“Be proud to be a Jew, I am proud to be a Jew… and I am going to [continue] helping others make sure that we as Jews have the right not only to live, but to flourish wherever we’re living and build peaceful relationships with others.
“[We] are all part of the human family,” he concluded.
The webinar was hosted by Rabbis Yehuda Stern and Yossy Goldman of the Sydenham Highlands North Congregation in Johannesburg, South Africa.