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Nazi’s son talks of overcoming hatred

Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger, a German officer’s son, discusses the path that led him to convert to Judai

Posted: November 17, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: November 17, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger in the Israeli Defense Forces prior to a parachute exercise.

 

Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger was born in Bamburg, Germany, in 1958. The son of a highly decorated Nazi officer spoke about his life of family, secrets, curiosity and eventual conversion to Judaism to attendees of the Ghosts of the Third Reich lecture at Chabad of SCV on Oct. 21.

He grew up in Germany after World War II and heard little regarding the war. Wollschlaeger’s own parents shared nothing except to call his father a “hero.” As a tank commander for the Nazi regime, his father was awarded the Knights Cross medal by a man he “referred to adoringly as his fuhrer,” Adolf Hitler.

After the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes in the 1972 Olympics and a front page newspaper headline reading, “Jews Killed in Germany Again,” Wollschlaeger became insistent on knowing more and approached his father about the details.

“When I asked my father what this meant, he told me it means nothing,” Wollschlaeger said. “He told me we were done with them in our house. “Them,” meaning the Jews.”

Wollschlaeger began to dig for answers, reading everything he could about the war and finally learning the truth about the Holocaust.

“For the first time I heard the names ‘Auschwitz’ and ‘Birkenau,’” he said. “I found out it was a deliberate decision by the elected German government to kill and exterminate an entire people in the name of an ideological hatred.”

Wollschlaeger needed to know what his father’s role in the killing was. One night, after one of his father’s drinking binges, he asked again. The answers he received changed the view of his father forever.

His father told him the Nazis had to “clean up the riffraff, the ones not worth living.” He said this, referring again to Jews.

“Women, 1.2 million children, babies,” Wollschlaeger recounted his disappointment. “I lost all respect for my father and began to distance myself from him. It was a very painful process.”

Judaism

Wollschlaeger went on to learn more about the Jewish people and culture, helping out in a Jewish community center every Friday, Saturday and on holidays for many years. Eventually, he would ask to be converted to Judaism.

“My father was furious when he found out I was identifying myself with what he called ‘subhuman’,” he said.

After much learning and consideration, he made a final plea to the rabbinical court who asked him why he wanted to convert.

“I told them from my heart,” he said. “I felt this was my family and I wanted to be a part of it. I had no other family.”

In 1986, the court approved his conversion. Wollschlaeger immediately made a decision to leave the country and move to Israel. His father disowned him. He applied for Israeli citizenship and studied to become a doctor. Later, he was drafted into the military and served as a physician for the Israeli Defense Forces.

Full circle truth

Wollschlaeger kept his German origins and his father’s Nazi allegiance from everyone, eventually even his wife, and children. His history and family secrets that he continued to keep came full circle when his 14-year-old son asked him about his grandfather. Wollschlaeger made the choice to tell him the truth.

When his son shared the information with his class during a family history day, telling his classmates his grandfather was a “famous Nazi,” Wollschlaeger and his son were called to the principal’s office of the Jewish school his son was attending.

When he confirmed the story was true, not a fictional tale, the principal and rabbi urged him to share his story, which is what he does today.

“I learned hatred has a beginning,” Wollschlaeger said wrapping up the lecture. “People aren’t born with hatred. It starts with one word, and when no one challenges that, it sinks into someone and triggers a deed, which triggers an action. If the action remains unchallenged it will spread to habits.”

Wollschlaeger’s message today is to challenge those words of hatred and stand up when they are spoken in the community, even if they are directed to someone else.

“Hatred leads down the path of destruction,” he concluded. “We know what hatred can do. We can prevent it from happening.”

 

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