BOOK BEAT Naples Sun Times December 26, 2007 – January 1, 2008
by Philip K. Jason
There is a Yiddish word – beshert – that means something like “destined” or “meant to be.” For Bernd Wollschlaeger it seemed “beshert” that he should find his way to an embrace with Judaism and to Israeli citizenship. The son of a German tank commander who was decorated for serving his country faithfully and who turned a blind eye to Nazi monstrosities, Bernd Wollschlaeger walked a path that had little logic or predictable progression. At various steps along the way, a compelling spiritual energy urged him along. Dr. Wollschlaeger, who is now a family physician and addiction specialist in Miami, tells his story in “A German Life: Against All Odds, Change Is Possible.”
The story is framed by a scene at the Bamberg cemetery in December of 2004. After estrangement and long absence, the Jewish Miami doctor visits the graves of his Catholic parents, graves curiously located near a wall that separates Christian from Jewish burial plots. Across the wall from where he stands are tall gravestones bearing the Star of David. It is Wollschlaeger’s fate to psychically hover above that wall, his identity in a complex flux of pain and joy, of historical and familial forces and deeply personal longings and choices.
The body of the book tells of a young boy’s curiosity about things that no one wished to talk about. Born in 1958 into a non-practicing Catholic family, young Bernd is driven to ask questions about Germany’s Nazi past. He finds what he comes to understand later as a collective, willed amnesia. His father is a classic case of the “just following orders” patriot, a man who seems haunted by repressed guilt feelings, but who nonetheless insists that he had done nothing wrong and who was proud of his war record. Still, the alcoholism and abusive outbursts barely mask deep-seated conflicts within the war hero turned civil defense administrator. There is a buried self-hatred that turns him into a cold, cruel, distant parent – one who cannot give or receive the love of his son and finally poisons that love. The truths Bernd seeks are ones that his father cannot face.
His protective mother is generally ineffective in bring her husband and son together; she is also hiding parts of the past, though she is more open emotionally.
A turning point in young Bernd’s life is the 1972 Munich Olympics. He is attracted to the Israeli athletes and their national flag, saddened at their death by Palestinian terrorists on German soil, and outraged at the attitudes that his father and countrymen reveal. A year later, he is stirred by the Yom Kippur War. Bernd’s continued quest for understanding continues to alienate him from his father and, to some extent, from his German identity. The usual generational rebellion of a teenager is complicated by Bernd’s personal quest. In 1979, while a dentistry student at the University of Bonn, Bernd views the American television series on the Holocaust that is shown for the first time in Germany. At about the same time, he hears about and attends a peace conference in Koblenz featuring Arab and Jewish Israeli youth.
“Beshert” also means something like “soulmate,” the person with whom one is destined to unite. A gorgeous young Israeli woman whom Bernd meets at this conference seems for a while to fill this role. Vered certainly becomes his muse, his inspiration, and when he finally decides to visit Israel, she is an important part of his motive and his education. But the country itself is really the soulmate, the beloved, and eventually – after serious self-questioning and extensive study leading to his conversion to Judaism – the man now known as Dr. Wollschlaeger (he had switched from dentistry to general medicine) makes aliyah (immigrates under the Law of Return) to Israel. The author details his experiences as a medical officer in the Israel Defense Force, and he records as well his complex and meaningful encounters with Israel’s Arabs.
The more recent years in Wollschlaeger’s life, including his two marriages and relocation to Miami, are handled in summary fashion, as the main theme of his personal transformation is largely complete when he adopts Israel as his spiritual and political home.
Though plagued by sloppy proofreading, “A German Life” (published by Emor Publishing) is a colorful, moving, and highly informative narrative. A spiritual quest rooted in contemporary history, it is an important contribution to the literature of self-creation.
Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.