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My Father’s Nazi Past Changed My Life

Dr Bernd Wollschlaeger

"Abba, mi haSaba sheli?" (Daddy, who was my grandfather?). A harmless question from a young boy interested in knowing something about a no longer living grandparent. Most of us would be emotionally touched by such an enquiry, and only too eager to pass on some information and affectionate anecdotes about our own parent.

But what if that grandparent had not been loving, caring and respectable? What if he had been a dedicated and highly decorated Nazi tank commander in WW2, honored by Adolf Hitler himself with The Knight's Cross? What if he dismissed accusations against the Nazis for their ill-treatment of Jews as misinformed, or just lies emanating from communist schoolteachers and other misguided individuals? What if he described Jews as troublemakers, and sincerely believed that the world should be grateful to Germany for eliminating so many of them?

And what if you and your son were Jewish?

It's hard to imagine a more explosive emotional cocktail, and where on earth can one start to construct an answer to the boy's innocent enquiry?

A packed hall in Modiin had his audience's rapt attention as guest speaker, Dr Bernd Wollschlaeger, shared his experience of growing up in post-war Germany. Son of a stern, Protestant father and a devout Catholic mother, he was raised Catholic and might have become a priest, but a career in medicine tipped the balance. His war hero father was his "knight in shining armour", and he must have wanted to be proud of his father. Yet bit by bit he pieced together a picture of his father that seemed to offend decency and natural justice, and which he could not reconcile with his developing moral standards.

A turning point was the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Watching the opening ceremony on TV with family and guests, he was struck by their palpable sense of chilly unease as the Israeli team paraded in the stadium. Days later, the massacre of Israeli participants and the newspaper headline "Jews killed in Germany again" pushed the young Bernd to find out more for himself about what Jews are, what happened to them under the Nazis, and why. And there began a most remarkable journey, punctuated with a bizarre succession of chance encounters that ultimately led him to convert to Judaism, to make aliyah to Israel, to serve in the IDF, to marry and produce Jewish children, and to embark on a mission of speaking and sharing his experiences with both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences around the world.

His is indeed an unusual and intriguing story, and an on-going one. He is still searching – for meaning, for who he is, for spiritual satisfaction, and for an understanding of why Judaism touches something deep inside him. His key message is our shared need to guard against hatred and suspicion of "the other". In the future, when his own grandchildren ask their parents, "Mi haSaba sheli?", there will be plenty to tell - with openness, truth and pride.

To find out more about Dr Wollschlaeger's life and purpose, see his book A German Life and this video:  



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