CLEARWATER — More than a hundred people crowded into a large room at the Holiday Inn Express in Clearwater this week, eager to hear a story that fascinated them even before the speaker, Miami family physician Bernd Wollschlaeger, began to speak.
"I read about this in the paper and it sounded fascinating to me," said Jim Patton of Clearwater. "I wanted to hear how a gentleman raised in Nazism could come to Judaism."
Invited by Chabad of Clearwater as part of its distinguished speaker series, Wollschlaeger spoke for more than an hour about his family's Nazi past during World War II.
Born in 1958, Wollschlaeger grew up in Bamberg, Germany, the son of a former Nazi tank commander. His father was a member of one of the elite units of the Wehrmacht, the Germany army.
"My father was there in the attacks on Poland, France and Moscow," said Wollschlaeger, "and he was awarded the Knight's Cross by Hitler himself."
His father, he said, wore the medal around his neck every Christmas as a reminder of the "good old times" — the war years.
But as Wollschlaeger, an only son sandwiched between two sisters, grew into his teens, he got curious about the war years. Germany must have lost, he decided, because American troops were a constant presence in and around his town.
"I knew as a child there were certain things you didn't talk about," he said. "My father was very tight-lipped and so was my mother."
The tipping point for the son's curiosity came in 1972, after the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, and six others, by Palestinians at the Summer Olympics in Munich. The German press proclaimed that once again Jews had been killed in Germany, and the young Wollschlaeger wanted to know what that meant. Unable to get a straight answer from his parents, he began doing his own research.
What he found, he said, horrified him. He had learned something of the crimes of the Third Reich in school, but not all. He asked his father for specifics.
"My father told me my teachers were all communists and liars and that a Holocaust never actually existed," Wollschlaeger told the attentive crowd.
As the conflict between father and son worsened, the son turned to a small orthodox Jewish community he found in his home town and was befriended by a Holocaust survivor there. In exchange for chores he performed for the group, his new friend taught him about Judaism.
"Those 30 or so people became my family," he said.
His own family rejected him when they learned of his search.
"It's either them or us," his father told him.
His quest to learn led to a conversion to Judaism in 1986, at age 28, by a German rabbi. With a medical degree in hand, the young Wollschlaeger made his way to Israel, stayed on a kibbutz, learned Hebrew and served as a medical officer in the Israeli defense forces. He met his first wife there and the couple had a son.
In 2007, when his son was 14, the age he had been when he seriously began to question his past, the boy began to ask about his paternal grandparents.
"I had a hard time talking about my life for a long time," Wollschlaeger said, "but when my son began asking questions, I told him the truth.
That truth took the form of a book published in 2007 by Emor Publishing in North Miami Beach called A German Life: Against All Odds, Change Is Possible.
"I never intended the book for publication," he said. "I wanted to teach my son."
The book details his long and arduous journey of learning, converting, going to Israel, and moving to the United States to live a Jewish life and become the father of two more children, both daughters. It talks of a German family that never reconciled.
Wollschlaeger said he doesn't regret his choice. Living in Israel, he said, confirmed his feelings of being a Jew.
"When I go back there, I feel I have come home," he said. "When I go back to Germany (which he does twice a year to visit his parents' grave), I feel I am opening a closed chapter of my life."
He concluded the talk with some words of insight and advice.
"You cannot escape history," he said he told his son. "The shadow will always follow you."
For the audience he also had a bit of advice: "Don't let words of hatred go unchallenged, "he said. "If you nurture bad behavior, the worst in people will rise up."
Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]