1. News

Raised in a Nazi family, he converted to Judaism

Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger talks with about a hundred people Sunday at an event hosted by Chabad of Clearwater.
Published Feb. 13, 2013

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


  1. Former NFL running back Warrick Dunn spends time with new homeowner LaToya Reedy and her son, AnTrez, at 918 43rd St. S. SCOTT KEELER  |  Times
    The retired Tampa Bay Buccaneer running back partnered with Habitat for Humanity and others to give a hardworking nursing assistant and her son the home of their dreams.
  2. Duke Energy Co. workers are competing in a line worker competition in Kansas this week. | [Courtesy of Duke Energy Florida] Duke Energy Florida
    Four Duke Energy Florida competitors are from Tampa Bay, as well as two coaches.
  3. An 18 month-old girl died after being left in a car Monday. No charges are expected, police say. WFTS  |  Courtesy of
    No charges are expected after 18 month-old girl was left in a Jeep as her father took a truck to work, police say.
  4. University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle pieces together a skull that might have been Emelia Earhart's. SANDRA C. ROA  |  University of South Florida
    DNA from a skull found in 1940 could prove whether the famous aviator has been found.
  5. Alexandra Toigo, 32 and Sabrina Pourghassem, 23, pose for a photo at Hofbrauhaus St. Petersburg holding their signature beer mugs during Oktoberfest 2018. "LUIS SANTANA  |  TIMES"  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The beer hall’s property owners filed a lawsuit saying the restaurant missed its rent starting in August.
  6. Port Tampa Bay on Tuesday agreed to sell a half-acre it owns near the Florida Aquarium for $4.7 million to Streams Capital of Tampa, which is looking at building a 33-story condominium and hotel tower. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times
    The buyer, Streams Capital of Tampa, is looking at building a 33-story tower with a hotel, condominiums and retail.
  7. Nearly a year after it was left abandoned and half-sunk off the Tampa side of the Howard Frankland Bridge, a salvage crew finally raised and towed the Moonraker II to the Courtney Campbell boat ramp. It is slated to be crushed. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    The boat was an eyesore to those who live off Tampa Bay. Then it became a political statement. Now it’s been towed and will soon be crushed.
  8. Republican Sen. Joe Gruters said Florida consumers are required to pay the sales tax, but rarely do so if online sellers don't collect it.
    The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee unanimously approved the bill Tuesday.
  9. Stephanie Vold, a medical assistant and intake specialist for OnMed, holds the door while Austin White, president and CEO of the company, talks with a nurse practitioner during a demonstration of their new telehealth system at Tampa General Hospital on Tuesday. The hospital is the first to deploy the OnMed station and plans to install them at other locations. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    The closet-size “office” with a life-size screen is another example of the changing face of medicine.
  10. A Hernando County Sheriff's deputy talks to students in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School in 2018. Earlier this month, the school district put forward a proposal to move away from a contract with the Sheriff and establish its own police force. On Tuesday, it announced it would drop that idea.
    Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis spoke out this week against the proposal.