His father was a senior Nazi who was personally awarded the Iron Cross by Adolf Hitler. But Bernd Wollschlaeger is a Jewish convert who served in the Israeli military after a remarkable journey of discovery.
Growing up in Bamberg, in the German state of Bavaria, Mr Wollschlaeger was taught that the Holocaust was a lie and that his father, Arthur Wollschlaeger, was a war hero.
Arthur was personally decorated by the Nazi leader for his actions on the Eastern Front, where he served as a tank commander under general Heinz Guderian.
But he did not get the glorious death in battle he expected – he was captured in 1945 and his only son, Bernd, was born in 1958.
Bernd Wollschlaeger (pictured in 2012) and his father Arthur (right) proudly wearing the Iron Cross awarded to him by Adolf Hitler
Arthur Wollschlaeger with his Czech wife Elizabeth. Bernd’s mother also felt betrayed by her son but would later visit him in Israel, telling him: ‘I see Arthur in you, you became a warrior too.’
Arthur Wollschlaeger, left, with Heinrich Himmler, second from right
‘What he told me was a knight-in-shining-armour story,’ said Bernd, 62.
‘And his war buddies who came to our house at least once a year to celebrate the “good old times” told me that my father was a hero and I should respect him as a hero.
‘So as a little boy – and I was very impressionable like all little boys – I admired him as a hero.
‘But there were question marks in my mind that came up right and left.’
The first clue was right at home.
In a remarkable coincidence of history, the Wollschlaegers lived in a house owned by the widow of Claus von Stauffenberg – the man who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
The Stauffenberg widow lived upstairs and Bernd, who would play with her grandchildren, lived downstairs with his family.
Bernd said: ‘My father referred to Claus as a “traitor.”
Bernd Wollschlaeger with his Israeli-American wife and children in Florida in 2007. He left Israel in 1991 and moved to Florida. Today, he is a family physician in Miami and has three children Tal, 31, Jade, 26, and Natalia, 23 – all raised in the Jewish faith
Bernd Wollschlaeger giving a talk in 2018 and as a younger man holding a Torah scroll
Bernd Wollschlaeger with senior Israeli politician Avi Dichter
‘But his wife, his grandchildren and the pictures I saw in her home upstairs suggested completely the opposite – he was a loving, caring man obviously.
‘So of course I couldn’t intellectualise that yet but there was a question mark: “Why is my father saying that?”‘
But the ‘major turning point’ for Bernd came when Palestinian terrorists massacred 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team – six coaches and five athletes – at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich.
‘For the first time, at least in my life, the old wounds were opened and we were forced to deal with the past and why it’s such a big deal that Jews are being killed in Germany again,’ said Bernd.
‘I had to ask myself: if such a horrible thing had happened to the Jews – and I didn’t know about the Holocaust or anything of that nature yet – why is my father not talking about it?
‘Why is he so angry?
‘He actually referred to the slaughter of the Israeli athletes, saying, “Look what they do to us again! They, the Jews, are tearing down our reputation to make us look bad.”‘
And the massacre raised another question – if Jews were being killed in Germany again, when had it happened before?
Arthur Wollschlaeger with his wife, Elizabeth, on their wedding day
Bernd Wollschlaeger as a child on the day of his Holy Communion (left) and as a baby (right)
Bernd’s teachers told him the truth.
‘I was not only shocked to hear about it, I was perplexed because my father was a war hero, he must have known something,’ recalled Bernd.
‘I asked him and he told me that this was all a lie, that my teachers were communists and that the Holocaust never happened.’
Arthur Wollschlaeger wearing his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross
And when the 1978 TV series, Holocaust, was broadcast in West Germany a year later, the senior Wollschlaeger dismissed it as ‘Jew propaganda’.
‘I started to fill in the blanks because I suspected there was a big gap – a dark hole that my father didn’t want to shed light on, and the more I read, the more I learned,’ said Bernd.
‘The more I studied, the more I came to the conclusion that my father was a liar.’
It was only when drunk that his father would abandon his lies.
‘He never apologised for what happened to the Jews,’ said Bernd.
‘He told me once the world should be celebrating what the Germans did, because we got rid of the vermin.
‘He said we did the dirty job that nobody wanted to do but everybody was complaining about.’
In later life, Bernd would be shown a picture of his father sat next to Heinrich Himmler, the leading architect of the Holocaust.
He would also learn that his father’s unit would terrorise Jewish villages in Russia, slaughtering the locals, and tearing out pages from the Torahs in the synagogues to use as insulation for their tanks.
Furthermore, he discovered that his father had sent people to their deaths at Auschwitz.
‘He knew exactly what Auschwitz was,’ said Bernd. ‘He participated in the murder of Jews.’
The 1987 funeral of Arthur Wollschlaeger, complete with military honours
Determined to learn more about the people his father had persecuted, the young German asked his teacher, a former Jesuit priest, to help him.
The priest took Bernd to an annual interfaith summit organised by the church, designed to bring together Jews and Arabs from Israel.
Bernd recalled: ‘I bonded with an Israeli girl and she said, “If you want to see me again, you have to come to Israel,” which I did three months later.’
He took a train to Italy and a ferry across the Mediterranean, and the girl’s parents welcomed him into their tiny apartment.
It was a transformative experience.
‘They hosted me like a long-lost brother,’ said Bernd.
‘I asked the father how he learned German and he showed me the number tattooed on his forearm, and I was shocked.
‘He didn’t blame me for that, he was a very, very nice man. He was in Auschwitz.
‘He told me, “I don’t hate Germans, but I want to know if they teach you.” And I said, “probably not enough.”
‘And he took me to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and there I realised the extent of the murder and I broke down emotionally. I cried.’
Claus von Stauffenberg and his wife, Nina, the latter of which lived upstairs from Bernd
On his return to Bamberg, Bernd offered to help his local Jewish community as a shabbos goy – a gentile who performs certain activities prohibited for Jews during the Sabbath.
He said: ‘I came every Friday and every Saturday, and I did what I thought would be something that was important for me.
‘And the closer I came to this family-of-choice – and I knew the liturgy, the language, the mannerisms – the more distant I felt from my family of origin and it came to a breakup.’
The decisive moment came when he was asked to say kaddish – a Hebrew prayer – at the graveside of an older friend who had passed away with no family of his own.
The man had been a Sonderkommando during the Holocaust – a Jew who was forced, on pain of death, to assist in the murder of his own people – and felt deeply ashamed of it.
‘When I did that, I knew I crossed a line,’ said Bernd. ‘I wasn’t a German anymore.’
He asked Itzhak Rosenberg, then the head of the town’s small Jewish community, to help him undergo conversion.
His application to convert was refused for two years, but eventually Bernd received religious instruction under Rabbi Nathan Peter Levinson.
He said: ‘I underwent an orthodox conversion in Germany in November 1986 and it was a very, very difficult process – not an intellectual endeavour, but an emotional and spiritual endeavour.’
By that time, Bernd had also completed medical school, so he decided he would travel to Israel and serve in its army as a medical officer.
He saw his father one last time the night before he departed.
‘I went to say goodbye the night before I left on January 7,’ said Bernd.
‘He didn’t want to see me. He called me a traitor, he was drunk like always but he called me a traitor. And that was that.’
‘To him, it was really the ultimate betrayal,’ he added.
Arthur Wollschlaeger died in June 1987. He was given a full military funeral.
His last words to his only son were contained in a series of letters sent to him in Israel.
‘I read them 20 years later and they were very gut-wrenching, very angry and very dismissive,’ said Bernd.
‘They were torn between loving me as a son and then losing me as a son.
‘And yet in his will he stated explicitly that I was forbidden to attend his funeral – I wasn’t there anyway.
‘I was also forbidden to carry his name, I was forbidden to approach his graveside and I was called a traitor.’
Bernd’s relationship with his mother, Elizabeth, also suffered.
She had grown up an ethnic German in Czechoslovakia, but lost both her parents and her childhood home in the war.
Her son’s conversion made no sense to her.
‘She was shellshocked,’ said Bernd.
‘She said “how can you identify with the victim” – i.e. the Jews – “when we were all victims?”‘
She developed senile dementia soon after losing her husband, but was able to visit her son in Israel once – in 1990.
When they reunited, Bernd was wearing his army uniform.
He recalled: ‘She looked at me and she said, “I see Arthur in you, you became a warrior too.”‘
He tried to talk about what had passed between them, but it wasn’t to be.
‘I think it was kind of a final way of saying goodbye, by being with her without having a profound discussion anymore,’ he said.
Though his father never recanted Nazism, Bernd – who recounts his spiritual journey in his memoir A German Life – has learned to forgive him.
‘It would be too simple to say that he was an unrepentant Nazi – that would be too simple – but for him the world stopped in 1945,’ said Bernd.
‘He went from being a nationally-celebrated hero to nothing. That was for him a huge setback.
‘He would wear the Knight’s Cross, which was awarded him personally by Adolf Hitler, with pride on Christmas.
Bernd Wollschlaeger, right, at an interfaith summit in 2018
‘I remember like yesterday: he was standing next to the Christmas tree, there were real candles, a festive atmosphere and the Knight’s Cross round his neck.
‘That was my father.’
He continued: ‘I forgave him for who he was – not for what he did to others – but for who he was to me.
‘I teach my children if anybody is different, you need to embrace the difference and understand it. You cannot hate.
‘But we’re living in a cacophony of madness.
‘Everybody is sitting in an echo chamber, only listening to what they want to listen to, and they don’t communicate and don’t have the ability to talk to each other.
‘We need to return to opening up and being vulnerable and listening to others before we condemn them.
‘If we turn to hatred, it will be hell on Earth. We are already creating hell on Earth now. And I don’t want it to happen.’
Bernd left Israel in 1991, following his then-wife, an Israeli-American, back to the United States before they divorced in 1995.
Today, he is a family physician in Miami, Florida, and has three children Tal, 31, Jade, 26, and Natalia, 23 – all raised in the Jewish faith.
He also remains in touch with his surviving sister, Helga, 59, having already reconciled with his older sister, Christa, before her death in 2006.
As for his father, Arthur Wollschlaeger was laid to rest in Bamberg – just a short distance away from the Jewish section of the cemetery.