Nazi-raised German who converted to Judaism to speak here

Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger is a native of Germany and the son of a former Nazi tank commander. Tormented by his father’s service in Hitler’s army, Wollschlaeger eventually moved to Israel, served in the Israel Defense Forces and converted to Judaism. He will share his remarkable journey in a presentation about his book, “A German Life: Against All Odds Change is Possible” (Emor Publishing, $18.95), on Sunday, Sept. 21 at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion.   

Bernd Wollschlaeger was born in 1958 in the small German town of Bamberg, the son of Arthur Reinhard Wollschlaeger, a former Nazi tank commanderand member of an elite unit of the German Army during World War II.  He was personally awarded the Iron Cross for his service by Adolf Hitler himself.

Currently a board-certified family physician in family practice in Adventura, Fla., Dr. Wollschlaeger will describe growing up in Germany in the shadow of his Nazi officer father, and years later, making a trip to Israel, where he learned the facts about the Holocaust and more about the Jewish people.  

“His detailed account of a remarkable life transformation is truly spellbinding — a meaningful story for the entire community, both Jewish and non-Jewish,” said Susan “Shayna” Scribner, who is helping to coordinate the program.

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In anticipation of his St. Louis presentation, the Jewish Light caught up with Wollschlaeger for an interview.

Was your father still living at the time of your visit to Israel, and your conversion to Judaism?  If so, how did he react to your remarkable transformation?

My father struggled with the fact that his only son was in the process of converting to Judaism.  He tried to convince me to reconsider, thought that it might have been a passing obsession, but in the end my father made it very clear that if I would go ahead, he would disown me.

What were the consequences of your being disowned by your father and other members of his family?

My father explicitly stated in his will that I was not to attend his funeral.

Was there a specific event more than any other that caused you to take such a sharp turn in the path of your life?

Yes, specifically the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, which forced a public debate about the significance of the killing of Jews on German soil.  My father’s reaction was dismissive, “not again with them,” and subsequently I got interested in exploring the truth.

Have you experienced any skepticism on the part of your fellow Jews as to the sincerity of your journey?

Very rarely I encounter fellow Jews who consider all Germans as evil, including me.  Most welcomed me into the tribe.

Have you met any other children of former Nazi soldiers or officials who have converted to Judaism?

Yes I have, and we are all still trying to reconcile our past.

What shocked you the most about your father’s role during the Holocaust?

His inability to admit that his generation, and he personally, were responsible for the mass murder of millions of people.

What have you told your own children and grandchildren about your father’s past and your own journey?

After many years of silence, I told  my children the truth about their grandfather, and I shared with them my story.

How have your experiences and your conversion to Judaism affected your medical practice?

I try to be a compassionate physician and learned never to discriminate against anyone, and not to let prejudice and stereotyping cloud my judgment.

What do you want readers of your book and those who hear your talk in St. Louis to take away from the experience?

That each of us has the ability to change the world by rejecting hatred and prejudice.  Change has to start within us and we have to stand up, speaking loudly against intolerance and hatred within our families and community.

Any other thoughts or observations you would like to share?

We are living in troubled times in which tribalism and violence appears to be the dominating force shaping current events.  We must realize that we have to learn to build bridges, collaborate and communicate with each other.  If we let the forces of hatred dominate, we will lose.  If we respond to hate with more hate, we will lose.  It takes courage to stand up and call for peace.  We tried war and it did not work.