Posted on Tue, Jun. 19, 2007
Doctor's secret: A Nazi father, now a Jew by choice
BY JOHN DORSCHNER
Bernd Wollschlaeger has two stories to tell.
First, he's a former officer in the Israel Defense Forces, a physician who developed expertise in biological warfare. He lives in Miramar, runs a family practice in North Miami Beach, has become a legislative leader of the American Medical Association and is active in local Jewish causes.
Now, at 49, he has decided to tell ``my coming-out story.''
It is this: He was born the Christian son of a World War II German tank commander -- a third-generation warrior who received Deutschland's highest military honor, the Iron Cross, which was pinned on his uniform by Adolf Hitler himself.
As a teenager, Bernd studied the Nazis and the Holocaust and was repelled by what he learned. Ultimately, he converted to Judaism and moved to Israel.
''This was, and is, very difficult to deal with,'' he said. ``I never saw my father again.''
But recently, after telling his children about his father, he started talking -- first at Hillel Community Day School, where his two eldest children attend. Now, he has created a website -- AGer manLife.com -- and plans to publish a book under that name.
''He is an amazing individual,'' said Brian Siegal, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's local chapter, where Wollschlaeger was elected to the regional board. ``He's gone through an amazing self-reflection and contributes greatly to the work we are doing.''
For years, he kept his past secret, not even telling his first wife, a Jew he met in Israel -- an omission that, when revealed, seriously damaged the marriage.
''I lied, plain and simple,'' he said. 'I was ashamed of my past, and it wasn't something that you could work easily into a conversation in Israel. `My father was a Wehrmacht officer.' That's definitely a party pooper.''
`A TRAGIC FIGURE'
Here is Wollschlaeger's story, based on interviews, e-mails and a manuscript of his book:
Growing up in Bamberg, a small town in Bavaria, Bernd came to view his father, Arthur, as a brooding drunk whose life had been shattered by the Nazis' defeat. ''I think he was a tragic figure. He got caught up in a system. Then his whole notion of the world collapsed,'' Wollschlaeger said.
Arthur had been educated at NAPOLA, the elite Nazi training academy. He never joined the Nazi Party, but he embraced Hitler's vision of making Germany great again.
Arthur won the Iron Cross for a tank charge in Poland. He was wounded five times during the war -- the last an open head wound from a grenade. After the defeat, he spent a year in a U.S. prison camp. Eventually, he became a government bureaucrat, but his life was never the same.
At home, he drank a lot and talked proudly about his Iron Cross, while brushing off other aspects of the Hitler era. ''Son, I have told you everything you need to know.'' Sometimes old army buddies dropped by for long bouts of booze during which they sang Deutschland üeber alles and Die Fahne hoch, the Nazi Party anthem.
From an early age, Bernd didn't like his father's authoritarian bearing and his parents' insistence on obedience.
After Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a teacher told Wollschlaeger's class that the Israelis ``brought it upon themselves. . . . Some people believe that they are special and too powerful and, in my opinion, they are.''
Wollschlaeger, then 14, thought that was an odd response to a slaughter, and he didn't understand when some people said, ``Not again.''
He knew the Nazis had put Jews in concentration camps and that some had been murdered. ``But [I] had no idea about the industrialized and sophisticated killing machine designed to systematically exterminate an entire ethnic group.''
He began reading everything he could find on Jews and Israel. His parents noticed. ''Why are you so preoccupied about their suffering?'' his mother, Elizabeth, asked him. ``Jews were not the only ones who died in the war. Have you forgotten what I told you about our suffering? We lost everything and had to start all over.''
In 1979, as Wollschlaeger was starting college, the American TV series Holocaust was shown in Germany. 'My father's reaction was predictable. `Nobody in this house will watch this program,' he yelled. 'This is just another smear campaign by those Jews in Hollywood, and we don't have to listen to their lies.' ''
But another time, Arthur admitted that on the Eastern front he had seen ``cattle cars filled with civilians, mostly women and children.''
Still, he insisted to his son that he learned the extent of the killing only after the war.
Writes Wollschlaeger: ``This was hard to believe, and I recognized that even in retrospect, my father was camouflaging what he knew.''
At a peace conference in Germany organized by Israeli and Palestinian young people, Wollschlaeger heard their stories and decided he had to make a trip to Israel to see for himself. His father thought that was a ``ridiculous idea.''
But his mother gave him the money for the trip and asked him to deliver a prayer for her in Israel. Wollschlaeger later wondered whether his maternal ancestors had been Jewish. But his mother, now dead, never said.
On the morning of the trip in 1978, Wollschlaeger's father drove him to the railroad station. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he went to the Western Wall, sometimes called the Wailing Wall. He slipped the prayer his mother had requested between stones.
``After doing so, I closed my eyes to pray for her soul. I forgot the world around me and imagined the thousands of people who had prayed at this very spot over the centuries.
``I lost sense of time and place and prayed with a fervor I had never felt before. I was weeping and I felt the divine presence in me.''
He continued his quest for understanding Judaism and Israel. He had been baptized a Catholic, but religion had not been practiced in his household. He viewed Christianity as cold and abstract.
The more he read about Judaism, the more he was impressed with its depths.
In medical school, he sought to talk to a rabbi about converting. The small Jewish community remaining was suspicious of his motives. ''Please understand that I cannot encourage you to convert,'' the rabbi told him. ''Actually, I should discourage you, because Judaism does not proselytize.'' Still, the rabbi offered to help him learn.
He studied for 10 years.
Finally, as he was finishing med school, Wollschlaeger convinced Jewish teachers of his sincerity. He was ready for conversion. Because so few religious leaders were left in Germany, he had to travel to Switzerland for a mohel to perform his circumcision and to France for the immersion in the ritual bath or Mikveh.
After passing his medical exams, he celebrated with his classmates. Then, while somewhat inebriated, he went to find his parents, who were having dinner at a restaurant. He told them about his conversion and his conclusion that to lead a full Jewish life he needed to move to Israel, because there were so few Jews left in Germany.
''I am losing my only son,'' his father said bitterly.
LIFE IN ISRAEL
In Israel, he started taking classes in Hebrew while working in a kibbutz that raised bananas. His father regularly sent letters. Wollschlaeger refused to open them. Six months after he arrived, his sister told him that his father was dead. He had been diagnosed with cancer and ``chose not to receive treatment.''
Only then did Wollschlaeger open the letters. In the last, his father wrote that he had removed Bernd from his will and asked that he not attend his funeral.
Eventually, Wollschlaeger married a New York woman who also had emigrated to Israel, and they had a son. After Iraq's Scud missile attacks on Tel Aviv and Haifa during the first Gulf War, she had had enough of the danger, and in 1991, they moved to South Florida, where she had relatives.
They had a second child, a daughter, but the pressure of the move and other factors ended the marriage. In 1999, he married a Hispanic Catholic. They have a daughter, who has been baptized. ''She's being raised in a Jewish-Catholic environment. When she's old enough, she will make her own decision,'' Wollschlaeger said.
Over time, he told his children bits and pieces of his past, and it was son Tal who started telling others.
''One day, we were learning about the Holocaust at school,'' Tal said, 'and the teacher asked, `Was anyone's family in the Holocaust?' And I raised my hand and said, 'My grandfather was a Nazi.' I was the class clown and everybody thought I was kidding.''
Wollschlaeger spoke to the class and has kept speaking about his past to selected groups, even appearing on a WLRN show, but he rarely discusses it in the healthcare field, where he is a maverick.
While many doctors are political conservatives, Wollschlaeger drives a Honda Accord with a Barack Obama bumper sticker.
For his practice, he rented an office in a blue-collar area of North Miami Beach. ``I did not choose medicine to get rich.''
In Jewish causes, he has gone on solidarity missions to Israel with American Jewish Committee leaders and was elected to the regional board of the Anti-Defamation League, dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism.
''He wants justice to be served in the world,'' said Andrew Rosenkranz, the league's regional director. ``He's an extraordinarily kind-hearted man.''
Seeking closure on his past, Wollschlaeger recently traveled to Germany and met his sister for the first time in 18 years. She remains ''incredulous'' at his decision. ``In her perception, I destroyed the family.''
He submitted a manuscript of A German Life to several publishers and was rejected. He is now planning to self-publish a limited edition and hopes to connect with a major publisher.
He acknowledges that all children are shaped by their parents in some way. From his dad, he says, he learned ``to be disciplined in everything I do and stubbornness.''
He also inherited his father's weakness for alcohol. ''I was a happy drunk. I stopped because I wanted to be a good father.'' He has been in recovery for 12 years and is trained to be a specialist in treating addicts. Earlier this year, he was elected president of the Florida Society of Addiction Medicine.
``I learned what my father didn't learn.''