Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger captivated the audience at Hebrew Academy this past Monday, discussing his life growing up as the son of a Nazi tank commander and later converting to Judaism and moving to Israel.
Born in Germany in 1958 to a protestant and Catholic family, Wollschlaeger (pronounced wool-shly-ger) received bits and pieces of the history of World War II, but was unaware of the Holocaust because his family and school kept it a secret. His father told him he was a decorated War hero and one of the first tank commanders to roll into the Soviet Union. Once Wollschlaeger finally learned about the Holocaust and realized his father was a Nazi, he confronted him. His father said that “the Holocaust had to happen because someone needed to get rid of rif-raf in the east.” This only made him turn away from his family, disgusted by what they did to the Jews.
Wollschlaeger took it upon himself to learn more about the history of the Jews. He found a small Jewish community in Germany and became the “Shabbos Goy” in exchange for lessons with the Rabbi. One year he missed Christmas Eve with his family because it fell on Shabbos. When he arrived home his father was livid and Wollschlaeger refused to sit at a table with him, knowing the atrocities he committed against the Jewish people. His father kicked him out of the house without money, and Wollschlaeger was left to survive on his own.
The Jewish Community took Wollschlaeger in because of his many years of learning with them, and after two years of studying, he converted to Judaism. He changed his name to Dov and immigrated to a kibbutz in Israel. He went into the Israeli Defense Force where he worked as a medical officer and later moved to Miami to become a physician. He married a Jewish woman and now has three children.
Wollschlaeger was afraid to talk about his story until his son finally asked about his grandfather. He was forced to face the past, but when he did, Wollschlaeger felt a weight being lifted off his shoulders. He took his son back to Germany where they visited his parent’s graves. Ironically, the graves were so close to the Jewish side of the cemetery that the shadows of the Star of David from the Jewish tombstones were cast over their graves.
“If you don’t step out of the shadow of history while you’re alive,” Wollschlaeger told his son. “It will be over you while you are dead.”
Many students felt the speaker stood out from other speakers because his story and perspective were so unique.
“It showed a different point of view,” said Dan Cohen (12th grade). “When you look up to someone it’s usually your father, but he didn’t look up to him, he actually went against him.”
Others said they learned a lot from the speaker and expressed their hope that the school will bring in similar speakers.
“I loved him,” said Avram Hilu (12th). “He generally wanted to know the truth when it came to things. It showed hatred isn’t inherited, it’s learned from society.”
By: Rina Reich (11th grade) with additional reporting by Tehila Moore (11th grade) and Ezrah Sultan (11th grade)