The son of a Nazi soldier who rejected his father’s past and became a medical officer in the Israel Defense Forces spoke of his journey, recalled the World War II era Holocaust and warned of history repeating itself when he recently spoke at Congregation Ahavat Olam in Howell.
Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) commemorates the victims of the Holocaust and was marked this year on May 1.
On April 29, Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger, the son of a decorated Nazi officer, told the story of how he converted to Judaism, immigrated to Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces as a medical officer.
“Let’s start listening to what the other side has to say and then ask questions and allow them to see you are a human being, too, with concerns and fears you want to deal with,” he said.
“Most important, allow the other side to see you are interested in a dialogue, not in conflict. That’s the kind of behavior we have to teach and if we don’t we are deluding each other that violence and strength are the only ways to resolve conflict.”
Wollschlaeger was born in Germany in 1958. He said his father, Arthur Reinhard Wollschlaeger, was a high ranking German army officer and tank commander during World War II.
“Growing up in his shadow, I realized there was more to the story than he was willing to tell me,” he said.
Wollschlaeger described his father’s military experience and how he became a national socialist (Nazi).
“My father was the youngest high-ranking officer in the German army, so he said. He belonged to an elite unit of tanks under the command of Gen. (Heinz) Guderian, who is the father of the German Blitzkrieg, and we would call him an elite soldier.
“So as a soldier he was not necessarily a national socialist nor did he (have to be) a national socialist, but he chose to embrace and swallow the ideology hook, line and sinker, because he was schooled in the National Political Institutes of Education, the West Point of the Nazis,” Wollschlaeger said.
He described how his father went through a rigorous pro-Nazi education and said that even after the war his father could not shed the ideology.
“He was still proud of what he was doing and he eliminated the horrific aspect of national socialism by not talking about it, and when I confronted him (after) I learned about what happened in Germany, he denied it. He explicitly prohibited me from asking him further questions,” Wollschlaeger said.
He said he learned more in the decades after his father’s death and after the reunification of Germany.
“My father was not only a soldier, he was actively participating in the murder of civilians,” Wollschlaeger said.
He recalled living in a rented apartment that belonged to the family of a German colonel who had attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
“(The colonel’s) widow lived in our house and rented the apartment to us. That was point No. 1 where I learned not every officer was like my father,” Wollschlaeger said.
He said he was also significantly influenced by the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
“The reaction of my father toward (the massacre) was anger at the fact that ‘the Jews stained our (German) image in the world and look what they do to us again.’ I asked myself, ‘What does this again mean?’ ” Wollschlaeger said.
He said his father defended the Holocaust as a necessary evil to cleanse the world of vermin.
Wollschlaeger said he eventually had to break away from his father and his family because no one wanted to take responsibility for what had occurred. He traveled to Israel and became convinced he needed to learn more.
“The more I learned about it, the more I came closer to Judaism in a spiritual way. I converted in Germany in 1986, immigrated to Israel in 1987 and became an Israeli citizen,” he said.
He served in the Israeli military from 1988-90, attaining the rank of captain.
“My father kicked me out of the house because a month after my conversion I migrated to Israel with a clear-cut goal to join the Israeli army and to give something back that was taken from them,” Wollschlaeger said.
Following his military service, he continued his life in Israel as a physician.
“I understood that these people who accepted me as one of them cannot be like my father depicted them and I became one of them,” Wollschlaeger said.
He said he made choices to take his life in a different way.
“Not only to talk the talk, but to walk the walk. Everybody in my generation was in some shape or form affected by World War II,” Wollschlaeger said.
He said he does not tell his story to promote himself, but rather because “I want people to understand a message, do not judge people by where they are coming from. I am German, so I automatically would be bad. Another person is a Muslim, he is automatically a terrorist. Do not judge people by belonging to a group, judge them by the individual character and what they did in life.”
He said everybody has a choice to “raise your voice when injustice is happening and be aware that words have consequences.”
He said he saw what happened with his father and he sees similarities in the current political climate and other communities.
“If you do not stand up to words of hatred, hatred will perpetuate and hatred will come into a habit,” Wollschlaeger said. “Look what is happening in our country. I do not speak up against politics, but the behaviors that are evolving, the propaganda that is being used is almost a 99% copy of what happened during national socialism,” Wollschlaeger said.
He said much of the rhetoric used in politics today sounds similar to the propaganda of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, not because American politicians are national socialists, but the de-individualization of a group like the Jews, de-personalization and demonization, “it is the same thing we are doing here (with) Mexicans and Muslims, the same thing.”
“If you talk about false facts, if you talk about lying media, that was exactly the propaganda Goebbels used. It is exactly word by word out of Goebbels’ propaganda book. Creating black and white, creating enemies of the people,” Wollschlaeger said.
He said Americans are living a post-truth, pre-fascism phase.
“Using tools, using language and using the propaganda mechanisms that were used once before and the outcome, well, you know what happened. Not that they are creating the new Auschwitz, but creating groups of people that are the enemies, groups of people that need to be demonized and removed, groups of people that are being compared to vermin.
“If it’s the Mexicans, or the Jews, or the Muslims, as a Jew I know that when people go after other people it is only a short while before they are coming after me and who speaks up when I am the one? We have to speak up,” Wollschlaeger said.