A Pre-Review of A German Life by Bernd Wollschlaeger, M.D.
Author's Note: A special thank you to Congregation Kesser Maariv of Skokie, IL and the Jewish United Federation of Chicago for hosting Dr. Wollschlaeger who spoke before an audience of an estimated eighty members and friends of Congregation Kesser Maariv last Sunday evening, March 2, 2014.
Regular readers may recall a recent piece Looking for Rabbi Meyer Juzint After British Tanks Entered Bergen-Belsen published by The Examiner on February 16, 2014, http://www.examiner.com/article/looking-for-rabbi-meyer-juzint-after-british-tanks-entered-bergen-belsen in which I discussed the psychology of Bergen-Belsen Kommandant Joseph Kramer after his arrest and detainment by British forces on April 15, 1945.
" ...there is no impossibility between being a "good father" for your children who eagerly await your return home and killing someone else's children while 'at work'. Research, I suspect, would reveal that the children of German soldiers and officers did not know what their fathers did at work." Dr. Wollschlaeger's story is a confirmation of that suspicion. "Born and growing up in postwar Germany, I had been unaware of my father's past. This was far from uncommon." (p.15, A German Life)
Imagine if you will this prototypical Norman Rockwell(ian) scene: a sentimental, warming, cuddly "snapshot" of a young boy sitting astride his beloved grandpa's still rugged legs. The two of them idle away the hours chatting about "kidstuff" that children so enjoy relating to a loving, listening ear. The lad is at a point in time when his natural inquisitiveness is restrained by his innocence.
However, these "matters of conversation" mature as a bright pre-adolescent discovers what seems an ever-widening discrepancy between the sanitized version of his family's history and that which he hears in the streets or in the classroom. As the discrepancy widens, the seeming contradiction more glaring, it remains only a matter of time before the boy asks: "So what did you do in the 'great war', Grandpa?"
Suddenly, all silence breaks loose.
Something similar happened to Bernd Wołlschlaeger, born more than a decade after the conclusion of the war in Europe. Bernd's father, Arthur Reinhard Wollschlaeger, in the years prior to and during the Second World War was a highly-decorated German officer and patriot who "did more than serve, of course; he served with devotion, pride and stubbornness". It was he who led the attack on Orel, Poland and whose Iron Cross Hitler personally pinned onto Bernd's father's uniform.
This should not surprise many informed American readers who may already know that what seems to have happened to Bernd's father we see often with our own veterans who, like Senior Lieutenant Arthur Reinhard Wollschlaeger, upon conclusion of hostilities, are not only lost but at a loss without any idea what to do or what they will be able to do as civilians. Many turn to addictive behaviors as did Lieutenant Wollschlaeger, a man haunted by the demons of his past which he tried to exorcise with alcohol-apparently without much success.
Describing a home life disrupted by his father's behavioral mania which Bernd's mother attributed to her husband's most serious of five battlefield wounds, here was a German patriot whose defeat in war "left him a bitter and frustrated man." (p. 18, A German Life)
Remembering a time of innocence when Bernd loved and admired his father (whom he had to address as "Father"-never as "Dad" p.17, A German Life) as his very own "knight in shining armor", the author admits to having had "conflicting feelings toward his (father's) military career and his long service in the German Army"-which a post-war divided Germany and government could not fully appreciate as evidenced by the "meager disability payment" he received in the post-war years for his five war injuries. (P.18, A German Life)
Even the "history buff" (a term I have always detested) of the Second World War knows the importance of September 1, 1939 when German forces invaded Poland, unleashing the four einsatzgruppen A, B, C, D of SS murderers upon Polish and Russian Jewry.
The author relates in "The Return", a remarkable chapter about a new, though "strange patient" who sought out Dr.Wollschlaeger's advice on the presumption that the son of a war hero would naturally sympathize with his afflictions. During their first consultation, Dr.Wołlschlaeger learned that his new patient, a man in his eighties who complained of restlessness, lack of sleep and paranoia, had served in the Leibstandarte SS, "Hitler's personal bodyguards".
When he asked for a pill to cure him of his ailments, Dr.Wollschlaeger advised him that there was no such medicine, but that there was one way he could help himself.
"So what can you offer?" the patient asked.
"The truth will set you free ... and allow you to forgive yourself ... "
The man left, angered to discover that Dr.Wołlschlaeger was not his father's son in the way he had hoped.
Instead, he had previously undergone halachic (in strict accordance with Jewish law) conversion and chosen the path of Torah Judaism as "kopara" (atonement) for the shame he felt upon learning that his father had withheld from him the nature and extent of his involvement in what historian Lucy Davidowicz called "the war against the Jews."
"Is there a special place in your heart where you keep your love for your father?" I asked Dr. Wollschlaeger in the question and answer period following his presentation.
The author responded in a manner that reminded me of how Simon Weisenthal, author of The Sunflower, responded to a dying young German soldier's last request, that he wished to confess, but only to a Jew, his commission of a sin, that of a horrendous war crime in which he had taken part.
Weisenthal responded that he could not grant him absolution for his sin because it was not he who the soldier had harmed, that the only ones empowered to forgive him couldn't because they had died in a locked barn set ablaze by German soldiers who machine gunned those of their arson victims who somehow had climbed to the loft in a desperate attempt to jump or others who madly tried to burrow out from under the barn's stone foundation without any tools but their hands only to be shot as they struggled to emerge but could not because the portal they had dug was too narrow.
"I forgave my father the wrongs he had done me but could not those he had done others," he responded.
I hope to present an in-depth review of A German Life within several days.