Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger, M.D., has spent half his life repenting for the sins of his father.
The neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of a young counter-protester is a reminder of the menace that can surface if we are not vigilant.
Learning as a teenager that his dad was a fascist sympathizer who was proud of his role as a tank commander in Hitler’s army turned Wollschlaeger’s life around, leading him to convert to Judaism, to make aliyah, marry a Jewish woman and eventually write a memoir, A German Life: Against All Odds Change Is Possible, intended to explain his journey to his own children.
On Sunday, Sept. 10, Wollschlaeger will speak at a brunch for Israel Bonds at Young Israel of Oak Park. He will tell his extraordinary story, which took him from Bamberg, Germany, to Israel, to the U.S. He and Rose live in Miami, where he practices family medicine. Their three children — ages 18, 24 and 28 — live in Florida.
“He’s a terrific speaker, very supportive of Israel and what we’re doing here at Israel Bonds,” says Adam Grossman, assistant director of Israel Bonds Midwest Region. “People leave the room very emotionally charged; his talk speaks to a level of hope you cannot imagine.”
Wollschlaeger, 59, was part of the post-World War II generation in Germany that was just being taught about his country’s extermination of Jews. In 1972, his teachers talked about the murder of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich that year. That triggered what would become a radical personal transformation.
“I asked myself, ‘Why the Jews?’ I had no idea what Jews were; I asked myself intellectually who are they and then approached them emotionally, became a Shabbos goy. The spiritual march took abouteight-nine years,” he says.
Wollschlaeger assumed the role of “Shabbos goy” — the non-Jew who performs tasks forbidden to Jews on Shabbat — for the small surviving Jewish communities of Bamberg, Frankfort and Munich.
“I served Friday to Saturday night and, in return, I was able to listen, learn and understand what Jewish life was. I never worked for money; it was a spiritual journey. I wanted to be one of them,” he says.
Wollschlaeger’s friends didn’t understand why he identified so closely with Jews, but they joined him on a Shabbos to see what the Jewish community was like. They were respectful. His father, on the other hand, demanded that Bernd get rid of the Jewish “paraphernalia” he had brought in the house. He was combative — and unrepentant until the end.
“He called me a traitor. He had no remorse,” Wollschlaeger recalls. “It was shocking, not only because of what he did but also because he persisted in believing it. When he was drunk, he would say Germany did what everybody wanted to do anyway.”
At age 28, Wollschlaeger left Germany for Israel. Six months later, his father died. He did not return for the funeral. Nor did he come home for his mother’s funeral a few years later. He is in touch with his sister in Germany.
“I turned away from my father. He disgusted me. He was a common criminal,” Wollschlaeger says. His mother, who had emigrated from Czechoslovakia as a girl, didn’t understand why her son had gone to such an extreme. Her attitude was that she, too, had been a victim.
Wollschlaeger earned his medical degree in Germany and moved to Israel with one year of his residency remaining. Before he could finish, he was drafted into the IDF as a medical officer. He later finished his training at Sackler School of Medicine in Tel Aviv. He met Rose, an American Jew, and they eventually moved to Miami. He serves on the board of the American Jewish Committee-Broward County.
Speaking in front of Jewish groups in the U.S. and for other organizations worldwide provides a forum for Wollschlaeger to talk not just about his personal history, but also to confront the ways we confront hatred. The neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in the death of a young counter-protester is a reminder of the menace that can surface if we are not vigilant.
“They don’t want discussion; they want to kill you,” he says. “Our system will be slowly destroyed by these people, no matter what party we belong to. We need to come together and protect our institutions.”
Even as he decries the white nationalists who probably won’t change their minds — they’ll always hate blacks and Jews — Wollschlaeger’s message is to counter hatred with love.
“It sounds corny, but you need to understand that the majority of Americans are good, hardworking people,” he says. “They reach out to neighbors — black, white, Muslim — and we need to support a framework of living together, collaborating, visiting mosques, synagogues and churches. With the increasing fanaticism and religiosity, we have to stand up and say we live together.”
Julie Edgar Contributing Writer
The Israel Bonds brunch is free, but make a reservation by emailing Israel Bonds at email@example.com or by calling (800) 969-3987. Registration begins at 9:30 a.m., followed by a 10 a.m. program with Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger at Young Israel of Oak Park, 15140 W. 10 Mile Road, east of Greenfield.