Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger spoke at the New Synagogue (Macdonald’s shool) in Netanya with the title “A German Life: Against all Odds Change is Possible,” and this is also the title of his autobiography. I have written about him before (see IsBlog April 18, 2014). But, it was quite different hearing his story personally and he spoke very movingly. His visit was arranged by Renie and Henry Hirsch, who also celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
This is my summary ofhis talk. Bernd was born in 1958, after WWII, in the southern German town of Bamberg and grew up not knowing anything about the war or about the Holocaust. His father was a highly decorated Wehrmacht Colonel and tank commander who had been the deputy of Gen. Guderian. Bernd grew up believing that his father was a war hero. At about the age of 10 or so he learnt from his mother about the tragic side of the War and also was befriended by the old widow who lived upstairs, who happened to be the widow of Count von Stauffenberg, the Colonel who led the plot to assassinate Hitler, who was executed with hundreds of others when the plot was unsuccessful. He started to question his father’s story.
When he was 14 his life was changed completely by the tragic events of the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. The news media reported that Jews had been murdered in Germany again,and he found that last word surprising and wanted to know more. At school the issues were discussed and he learnt for the first time about the Holocaust of the Jews in Europe during WWII. But, he was met with silence at home, “we don’t discuss that.” He decided to go out of his way and found the remainder of the Jewish community of Bamberg, a group of about 30 old Jews who used an apartment as a synagogue. The names of ca. 1,300 Jews of Bamberg who had been murdered during WWII were in plaques upon the walls. He volunteered to help them as a shabbos goy and was befriended by several of them. Several had numbers tattooed on their arms and one of them, who for years never spoke to him, eventually opened up and told him that he was a survivor of the sonderkommando at Treblinka.
At the age of 18 Bernd obtained specific evidence that his father had participated in massacres of Jews on the eastern front (“we had to do it”) and he decided to cut himself off from his family. He asked if he could convert to Judaism and was referred to an Orthodox Rabbi in a nearby town. At first he was turned down, but he persisted, while beginning his medical studies, and eventually underwent an Orthodox conversion in Frankfurt. Through his Church he had joined a German-Israel youth friendship group and had met several Israelis, including a girl he liked. At the age of 20 he decided to visit Israel and stayed with her family in Jerusalem, where he learnt that her father was also a survivor with a number on his arm.
He returned to Germany finished his medical training and then made aliyah, eventually marrying a Jewish American girl. They lived in Tel Aviv and he served in the IDF as a medical officer. They had a son and after some years they moved to the US, to Miami where his wife was from and he became a Board certified physician there where he has a private practice in Aventura. He kept his father’s story from his family until his son was 14 and also started to ask questions. This led him eventually to publish his story.
He speaks widely about his life experiences and tries to combat anti-Semitism. Apart from his own autobiography he has written a novel entitled “Samson’s Shadow” and a work entitled “Stauffenberg: my life in the shadow of a hero” (see http://bwollschlaeger.com/home/ ). He was a very engaging and articulate speaker and answered frankly many questions from the audience.