By James Russell
Special to the TJP
Bernd Wollschlaeger’s Nazi father deserves a lot of credit for putting him on the path to becoming a Jewish advocate for acceptance and justice.
The Florida physician told his story to a crowd of 150 people Wednesday, Nov. 13, at Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth at an event which was co-presented by the Southwest Region of Israel Bonds and the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. His journey to self-discovery and eventually Judaism was spurred by a string of events beginning in his childhood in Bamberg, Germany, in the middle of the 20th century. His father was strict, a Catholic and an alcoholic. He barely described his mother, other than that she was doting, Protestant and fearful of her husband.
World War II had been over for a decade by the time he was born in 1958. The city in East Germany looked untouched by the war, as if nothing had ever occurred there. The past, he said, was never discussed.
“The sense of history was off. No one talked about the past, just the present,” he said.
When the past was discussed at home, his parents shared dueling narratives. His father described a story of glory, how he was awarded some of the most prestigious awards by the “Fuhrer.” His mother’s was more painful, about a difficult time in the country’s history.
He learned more about German history, and his family’s, from an unlikely source, his landlady, Nina Schenk Gräfin von Stauffenberg. She knew the Nazis well. Her entryway was a portrait of her late husband, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who led a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
His father dismissed the late general and called him a coward. When teachers taught about the Holocaust, his father said his teachers were lying Communists and the S.S. was acting within its authority to exterminate 6 million Jewish people. But when his father had no remorse for the 11 Israeli athletes and a West German police officer who were killed by a Palestinian group during the 1972 Munich Olympics, Wollschlaeger was done with his father, and, eventually his Christian faith, too.
He soaked up all the information he could about the Jewish people and Israel. He discovered what that yellow star above a building in town represented. He learned about the Holocaust.
He was 18 years old when he met a group of Israelis visiting one of his Catholic teachers, who led interfaith dialogue sessions. Among them was a young woman whom he would eventually follow to Israel.
Wollschlaeger hitchhiked from Germany, across Italy, and took a ferry to get to Israel to see her. But as the son of a well-known, decorated Nazi general, he was nervous he would be turned away. He was welcomed with open arms by the young woman’s family. Her father, who showed him his Auschwitz tattoo, showed him the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
“How can my father hate these people?” he remembers thinking.
When he returned to Germany to study medicine, he acquainted himself with members of the local synagogue.
Inside, a man showed him another memorial. “Who are these people?” he asked his guide.
“They died in the Holocaust,” he said.
That’s it, Wollschlaeger thought. He was going to become a Jew.
He worked for months as the “Shabbos goy” (a Gentile who turns lights on and off and performs other duties for those who are shomer Shabbos) for the community of survivors, studying the faith and preparing for his conversion.
His relationship with his family was strained. His father eventually cut him off after he ditched Christmas for the Sabbath. The small community of survivors became his adopted family and even paid for his medical education.
When he went before members of the German beit din in 1986, they only had one question for him.
“How does the son of a Nazi become a Jew?” he recalled. “Guilt doesn’t count.” (Not feeling guilt is sort of hard for a Catholic, he quipped.)
He made his case and passed. He moved to Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces for a year. He then moved to Aventura, Florida, to practice medicine and raise a family.
But he still felt guilty about his past.
The guilt became public when his son, who inspired him to tell his story, told his Jewish day school classmates about his Nazi grandfather. The rabbi summoned Wollschlaeger, concerned about this news. He told his story to the rabbi in his office. Then to his son. Then, he said, he was encouraged to speak to anyone who would listen to his story.
“I stepped out of the shadow. I made sure I learned my lessons and could go on forward,” he said. He was his father’s son but not responsible for his father’s sins.
Decades later the burden was finally lifted.
In addition to Israel Bonds and the Federation and host Beth-El Congregation, community partners for the event were Chabad of Fort Worth, Chabad of Southlake, Congregation Ahavath Sholom, Congregation Beth Israel, Congregation Beth Shalom, Fort Worth Chapter of Hadassah, Isadore Garsek Lodge of B’nai B’rith, Jewish War Veterans and Southwest Jewish Congress.