When my children began asking about my parents and my past, I made the decision to tell them the truth about my family and my upbringing. I wanted them to understand what so dramatically changed my life; to give them a sense of knowing their family history in a way that was different than my own experience. Sharing with them in this way would cause me to explore the relationship between my father and myself, and how that relationship was overshadowed by the Holocaust and everything associated with it. The unresolved conflict between my father and myself, combined with his complete denial of any wrong doing , motivated me to search for answers. I found those answers within my newly acquired faith. And learned that against all odds, lasting change actually is possible.
My father was a highly decorated World War II German tank commander and fought in Poland, France, and Russia. After sustaining several injuries, he was presented with the Iron Cross, which was personally awarded to him by Adolf Hitler.
When the war ended with Germany’s defeat, my father’s life changed drastically and effectively came to a standstill. He found himself imprisoned by the victorious Allied Forces and, following his release from military service, he tried to piece his life back together and provide a living for his family.
My mother was a refugee from the Sudeten region, an area populated by Germans. After the end of the war she, like thousand other Germans, was forced to leave her home with her father and mother .Having lost all of their belongings, her parents never recovered from this traumatic experience financially and died penniless.
Born in 1958, I was my parent’s second child and first son. They considered my education and upbringing their highest priority in life and my father especially tried to instill in me what he considered to be the correct German set of beliefs and values.
At an early age, I discovered that my parents were concealing their past in an attempt to protect me from the effects that the Second World War had on our lives.
A noticeable discrepancy existed between my father’s description of his wartime accomplishments and the devastating effect it had on his personal life and the life of people around us.
The early attempts within Germany to deal with the Holocaust caused a major rift in our family. My father refused to entertain any discussion about this topic despite my inquisitive nature and a growing number of mounting questions. Driven by my curiosity and interest in finding the truth about his past and the Holocaust, I explored Israel and Judaism through literature, a series of personal encounters with Jews I was able to speak with and finally a journey to Israel.
These experiences affected and moved me in many ways and resulted in a spiritual journey leading to my conversion to Judaism and emigration to Israel. My decision to convert religiously evolved over a period of seven years and led to increased tension in my relationship with my parents. This tension was especially evident between my father and I. During those seven years our relationship gradually dissolved to a point of almost no communication and eventually our relationship, for all practical purposes, ceased. Immediately following my conversion to the Jewish faith, I immigrated to Israel without notifying my parents. He died six months after I left Germany. His death deeply affected me and for many years I suppressed my feelings about him. My mother succumbed to senile dementia a several years later.
This story describes how history can impacts and devastate a family. As the main character in the book, I struggle with my faith and identity. In the quest to find answers to questions about my parents and my nation’s past, I set out to find the truth and in doing so, I find a new life and separation from family, friends and country. My attraction to Judaism created a turmoil within me that centered somewhere between personal guilt for what had taken place and a true sense of belonging to a people and their beliefs.
Feeling wedged between family and faith, I decide to separate from my family and to leave my home and my country. Twenty years later, I returned to Germany to bury my sister and finally decided to visit my parents’ grave. In a silent dialogue at their graveside I recalled the events leading to my life-changing decision. I discover that I still love and respect my parents and needed to make amends. As a Jew, committed to my belief and faith, I have no regrets about my life, but have wished for an opportunity to finally explain my decision. This book is that opportunity.
Part 1: In the Beginning
A Jewish Cemetery in Germany
“On a little hill amid fertile fields lies a small cemetery, a Jewish cemetery behind a rusty gate, hidden by shrubs, abandoned and forgotten. Neither the sound of prayer nor the voice of lamentation is heard there for the dead praise not the Lord.”
From a Poem of Yehuda Amichai (Israeli Poet, 1924-2000)
Germany, December 24th, 2004
Although it had been almost forty years, I remembered the way to the cemetery in Bamberg as though I had been there the day before. On my last visit, my mother had taken me to my grandparent’s grave, and I remembered watching her as she stood silently in prayer, but I have no memory of my grandparents as people. My grandmother died when I was three, outliving my grandfather by several years. I remembered my mother’s wishes to be buried next to her parents and therefore I knew that I would find her grave next to theirs and I assumed that my father would be buried there too. Now, on this visit to my parent’s grave, I had no clue about what was expected of me, or what I expected of myself.
I parked the car at the entrance to the cemetery and sat silent for a moment. “You want us to go with you?” my wife asked. I looked at her and glanced briefly at my five-year-old daughter in the back seat. “I’ll be okay. I think I have to do this alone. Thank you, though.”
She nodded and smiled at me. I admit that I was afraid, but until that moment I had not allowed myself to reflect deeply enough on the death of my parents. It seemed extraordinary that I had successfully avoided confronting my feelings about them for all these years.
My father died a little less than six months after I left Germany, and my mother passed away a few years later. For many years I preferred to think they each died of a physical ailment, because that thought was somehow less painful for me to accept. More recently I had come to believe they each died of a broken heart. Whatever the cause, we never had time to say goodbye, and I sorely missed the closure of speaking with them at the end. Nor had I fully honored their memories, letting my anger and resent block the way. Now I tried to face the reality that they were gone for good. I kept thinking of new questions I wanted to ask, times when I should have tried harder to generate conversations with them, however awkward . But they were gone now, my life had changed, and I was left with those questions forever, the answers to which I had to find for myself.
“I won’t be long,” I said as I left the car.
“Take your time,” my wife said as I closed the door.
It was cold outside, and the sky was gray, quite typical for a German winter season. A few snowflakes tumbling around in a slight, cold breeze. I was barely aware of them as they settled on my face, leaving a streak of cold melted water that blended with the tears that were running down my face.
I walked through the gate and glanced at old and new gravestones carved with expressions of love and sorrow. Not consciously knowing where I was going, I followed my instincts, turning left and then right and then left again. I remembered that my grandparents’ grave was close to a wall whose purpose was to separate the Christian graves from the Jewish cemetery. Recognizing the wall, I scanned the gravestones for their names and suddenly found myself standing in front of them.
A simple gray marble stone with four names etched in dark color on the gray headstone.
I had never visited their grave since leaving Germany for Israel almost twenty years earlier.
At times I angrily rejected the notion of visiting their grave to pay respect to their memory, and I guess that I was not ready to do so. But so much had changed since then. I was a father now, and loved my children, and they deserved answers about their family history, my life, and that of my parents and grandparents.
I finally disclosed my past to my son and he was so taken by my story that he decided to write an essay about it. That prompted his teacher to call me , inquiring about this fantastic story, and I decided to confide in the teacher. I was invited to speak to my son’s class, and then his entire school. The act of revealing the truth had the effect of connecting me again to my parents and convinced me to return home after more than twenty years for this visit.
Standing in front of their grave I did not know how to respond to the powerful feelings surging through me, and I just stood there frozen in time. On the headstone, my father’s full name was followed by the symbol of the Iron Cross, indicating that a soldier was buried there. My mother’s name was beneath his, and I spoke to both of them. “Here I am,” I mumbled into my frozen beard.
Choking on the only words I could manage to whisper, I closed my eyes to visualize their faces. I remembered the last time we were together, when I hugged my mother. She was holding me tightly, probably knowing that we would never see each other again.
I thought it would be difficult to remember my father after so many years, but his stern gaze and dark eyes flashed into my memory with unmistakable power. My mind was flooded with flashbacks of our times together: fishing and hunting trips in beautiful forests, along the blue rivers and lakes in Bavaria; long walks together on Sunday mornings; the lively debates about life and politics. The memories came rushing back so vividly that I could almost hear our voices. I could even remember the smell of my mother’s perfume, my father’s violent eruptions of anger and aggression, his dependence on alcohol and his failing attempts to control his drinking.
I remember, most of all, my conflicting feelings toward his military career and his long service in the German Army. He did more than serve, of course: he served with devotion, pride and stubbornness. I remembered how he proudly displayed his medals and ribbons. How could I reconcile myself to those things? In the same way, how could he have reconciled himself with my decision to change my life so radically without driving himself mad? True, there were times when he discussed the dark side of the Second World War, and in doing so he showed regret. But he was never willing to discuss the horrors and pain inflicted by Germans in the name of Germany.
As I stood there I recalled my mother’s role as the always-suffering victim of my father’s rage. I also remembered those few rare moments when I witnessed their passionate embrace, but these eventually gave way to the slamming of doors, screams in the night, and tense silence that lasted for days.
But time had passed, and there I was paying tribute to my parents at their final resting place. Torn between regret and sorrow for all I had not done for them and for us, I reminded myself why it all happened and why I had responded in the way I did.
What shaped their lives? And how did this shape become my reality?
Of course it had begun a long time ago, long before I was born, but even after so many years have gone by I had yet to comprehend what really happened. What really motivated me to change my life so dramatically? While standing in front of my parent’s grave I wanted to understand their life and mine. My life came full circle and I had to reach closure here and now.
Russia, October 3, 1941
It was a cold morning, and he awoke drowsy and fatigued. The amphetamine tablets had helped him to stay awake for the three days since the last briefing with the general, but now fatigue finally caught up with him. In the turret of the Tiger tank he felt the cold metal through the thick material of the uniform he had worn for so many days. “Where am I,” was his first thought as he opened his heavy eyelids. His mighty Tiger tank, the pride of the German tank force, rested on top of a hill overlooking the town of Orel, on the Oka River, in western Russia.
As he struggled to clear his mind, he felt the physical and mental strain of the last few months. Since June 22, 1941, the German military forces pushed eastward in their all-out attempt to conquer mighty Russia. With victory now in sight, his tank force had come under the command of the legendary General Guderian, commander of the German Tank Forces, and the conquest of the town below them had taken on great strategic importance. Orel stretched along both banks of the river, only 237 miles from Moscow.
The same cold weather facing them had once stopped and defeated the mighty general Napoleon. Days were already getting shorter and colder, and these signs of oncoming winter urged him into action. He had learned as a young boy that taking action for the “Vaterland (Fatherland)” was a definitive sign of courage. He had learned this at the National Socialistic Political Education Academy (NAPOLA), where he was also taught that the welfare of the group should be primary the focus of attention and effort. Fear was a weakness, he learned, and tears were for women. He would be a warrior with an iron heart.
The blood of his ancestors nourished his heart. His grandfather had fought in the war of 1871 against France, and his father sustained serious injuries in the First World War, crawling out of the blood-filled trenches of France. He was the offspring of warriors, an officer of the mighty German Wehrmacht, a young warrior ready and willing to unleash the power of his iron war machine. It was time to act!
As he slowly came to being fully awake he soon realized that he had spent all night in the turret of the Tiger tank. His legs were stiff and his hands nearly frozen. In the early daylight he could survey the position his tank had assumed the night before. He turned his head toward a group of trees on the smooth slope of a hill about 400 yards away. What he saw, nestled among the crown of trees near the bottom of the slope, sent chills down his spine. The powerful 76-mm gun of a Russian T-34 tank was pointing straight at him. “Oh God,” he mumbled in his frozen beard. “They must still be asleep.” He pushed at his weapons officer with his right leather boot and a loud gurgle and a curse told him that Heinz was waking up. “Heinz,” he hissed, “get ready for battle. We are going to kill a Russian this morning.” He felt the invigorating thrill of the hunt. Every inch of his stiff body was now flooded pumped with adrenalin, sending his blood like hot sparkling wine through his arteries and veins. Today is the day, he thought. Today we will conquer Orel and this is how it will begin. This is my chance to serve Germany. “Fire,” he heard himself scream, tearing apart the frozen skin of his dry lips as he did so. The taste of his own warm blood in his mouth heightened his excitement. Seconds later the explosion of the Russian tank temporarily blinded him as a direct hit ignited the ammunition on board and incinerated everyone within.
At the end of that cold October day the town of Orel surrendered to General Guderian’s tank units. Senior Lieutenant Arthur Reinhard Wollschlaeger commanded the first Tiger tank in the attack on the last line of defense around the town. His Iron Cross assured, he crossed the bridge over the Oka River. Today Orel, he thought, tomorrow Moscow. Victory for Germany seemed all but assured.
The gray Israeli army bus rumbled along the road filled with potholes that lead to the army camp. It was early in the morning, and daylight was beginning to light the rolling hills and orchards of olive trees on the slopes above. The bus passed an old Palestinian man standing on the side of the road wearing his traditional Keffiyah and smoking a cigarette. He might have been a local farmer, his dried and wrinkled face tightly wrapped around prominent cheekbones. His eyes were dark, staring at us with a mixture of hostility and resignation. He looked straight at me and our eyes met for a fleeting moment, but I remember that man. I was sitting at one of the windows, which were covered with iron bars, and I felt uneasy in this cage. My new army uniform was covered with a layer of fine dust, which turned my green fatigues to a dirty brown. I clumsily held my M-16, which I had received only the week before, and its cartridge filled with bullets. I was holding it with both hands and tried to keep it pointed at the ceiling of the bus. During countless drills we had been instructed by our sergeant about the use of our rifles, and once we crossed the Green Line into the West Bank he ordered us to insert the cartridge. The Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, had begun just that month and we were cautioned about stone throwing teenagers and militant Fatah members who might assault military vehicles.
Despite these looming dangers I felt comfortable in the company of the almost forty other men – new immigrants from all over the world, drafted like me into the Israel Defense Forces. I felt a mixture of tension and relief, almost like a “real” Israeli. After my arrival in Israel I was assigned to an Immigration Center in a Kibbutz, or communal settlement, which was based on a unique community concept. It was a socioeconomic system based on joint ownership of property, and on equality and cooperation in production, consumption, and education. Initially, most Kibbutzim were based on agricultural production, but soon had to adapt to changing conditions and integrated manufacturing facilities and even hospitality services. Several hours daily I had to attend a Hebrew language school, or Ulpan, and there I learned enough modern Hebrew, also called Ivrith, to get along. The remainder of the day I spent working in the banana fields of the Kibbutz, which gave me physical strength and endurance.
Still, I felt like I was living in a bubble, protected from the real experience of life in Israel. After receiving my draft orders I knew that the honeymoon was over and I had to face a new chapter of life in my adopted homeland away from home. Here I was, a German and now a soldier in the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces. How did I get there?
Then and there came a sudden and unwelcome realization I was a soldier very much like my father. He had fought in the war I despised so much and fought for what I saw as the wrong ideals. Now I was here, in the Army, but why? What triggered this dramatic change in my life? Born in Germany and growing up in postwar Germany, I had been unaware of my father’s past. This was far from uncommon. Nobody spoke about Germany’s infamous past and within my family most tacitly avoided asking questions. Once I discovered this, I could no longer avoid the questions. From that point on my actions and inactions played an important role in changing my life. Was it guilt that drove me? Or the shame of belonging to a people who still harbored the perpetrators of unspeakable crimes against the people I had now chosen to join? I then knew that I had yet to deal with these issues, but had not yet allowed myself to do so – to reflect on the dramatic shift in my life and how it affected my family.
My thoughts were interrupted as the bus suddenly turned onto a small road leading to the entrance of the army base. I looked out through the window and saw the outline of the army camp appearing on top of the hill. Several barracks and tents circled around a water tower and were surrounded by a barb wired fence. The bus came to an abrupt stop at the gate and the sergeant ordered us to leave the bus. “Dov,” he called me using my Hebrew name now, “watch the back of the bus and be alert. There may be a sniper waiting for us.”
“No problem,” I answered in my accented Hebrew. I carefully observed the barren area around the bus. Most of the olive trees had been uprooted because snipers hiding in the olive orchards had attacked a bus like ours a few weeks earlier. Perhaps those were the old man’s olive trees, but what could we do? We had to remove the trees to protect ourselves. Despite the early morning heat I felt cold and uncomfortable. This would be my home for the next few months. At least it wasn’t as cold as in Russia, where my father fought in the Second World War. I had a burning desire to tell him why I was here in Israel, convinced that doing so would begin to build the common ground that eluded us when he was alive. But it was too late for that now.
April 30, 2007
Topical Currents at 91.3WLRN – hosted by Joseph Cooper
From WLRN’s website:
“Monday, April 30th, 2007 Topical Currents is with Miami’s Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger, author of A German Life. Born in mid-1950s Germany, he discovered his father was a decorated Nazi war hero who had kept the past hidden from his children. Dismayed by the legacy of the Holocaust, the son rebelled, converted to Judaism, and even emigrated to Israel. The rift between family and faith never healed.”
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