Gross Lecture Features German-Born Jewish Physician Delivering Personal Perspective on the Anatomy o
When Bernd A. Wollschlaeger, M.D., was growing up in West Germany in the 1950s, Nazis and Jews were two subjects that were never discussed in the presence of his father, a decorated German tank commander in World War II. It took him many years of emotional and spiritual turmoil to reconcile the Nazi legacy of hate with his desire to live a meaningful life. Along the way, Wollschlaeger converted to Judaism, emigrated to Israel, started a family, and came to the U.S. to complete his training as a family physician.
“For me, hatred against other people has a very personal meaning,” said Wollschlaeger, who delivered the 12th Biennial Ralph H. and Ruth F. Gross Lecture at the Louis Calder Memorial Library on November 21. “But I have learned we all think in stereotypes, because our ancestors long ago had to put people in categories quickly in order to avoid danger. Today, that type of thinking can lead to hatred against Jews or Muslims, blacks or whites. As physicians, we have a moral responsibility to make a conscious effort to overcome our personal biases and treat everyone in an equal manner.”
In introducing Wollschlaeger, Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School and CEO of UHealth, said, “There is no better person to discuss the topic of hatred.” A voluntary assistant professor in the Miller School’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, Wollschlaeger is a specialist in addiction treatment who was honored in 2012 as “Family Doctor of the Year” by the Florida Academy of Family Physicians.
Mary Moore, Ph.D., Librarian Professor and Chair of the Department of Health Informatics, welcomed the more than 150 attendees and thanked the Gross family members for their support. The Ralph H. and Ruth F. Gross endowment, made to the Calder Library by Mrs. Gross in memory of her husband, sponsors the event, which was hosted by the Department of Health Informatics, the Medical Faculty Council, Calder Library and the Miller School’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.
Patricia Bergman, one of the daughters of Ralph H. and Ruth F. Gross, recommended Wollschlaeger as this year’s speaker. She attended the event with her sister, Carol Clarkson.
In his deeply personal talk, Wollschlaeger told how he was born in Bamberg, Germany, in 1958 and grew up in a family – and a nation – that refused to talk about the past. “As a child, I asked why there were U.S. soldiers stationed in our town and why our country was divided, but my parents were very tight-lipped.” Gradually, Wollschlaeger learned that his father was a dashing young tank commander who fought in Poland and the Soviet Union and received the Knight’s Cross from Adolph Hitler.
But when Wollschlaeger asked about the picture of another German officer in the hallway, his father would only tell him, “That man was a traitor.” Not long afterwards, he learned the man was General Claus von Stauffenberg, who led a 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler and was executed when it failed. “The portrait belonged to our landlady, Nina von Stauffenberg, who was the general’s widow,” he said. “In talking with her, I learned there was a different side of Germany – there were people like my father who blindly followed orders, while others relied on their own moral compasses and resisted as best they could.”
That year, the 14-year-old Wollschlaeger saw that hatred against the Jews was not a thing of the past when a team of terrorists kidnapped and killed a team of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. “I started to read everything I could to try to learn the truth,” he said. “I felt shame, guilt and anger because of my family. One of my teachers suggested that I try to make amends to those who were harmed.”
Wollschlaeger began meeting with a small group of young Israelis, both Arabs and Jews, who kept a low profile in the community. “I found they were human beings with the same interests and fears as me,” he said. After becoming friends with an Israeli girl, he traveled to Israel and stayed with a family of Holocaust survivors. “I asked myself how can a people who have suffered so much rebuild their lives, create a new country and stay true to a faith that they never betrayed.”
Attracted by that sense of faith and his own humanistic ideals, Wollschlaeger joined Bamberg’s small Jewish community, which became his family of choice, and eventually was allowed to convert to Judaism. In the process, he was disowned by his father, and never spoke to his parents again.
In 1986, Wollschlaeger emigrated to Israel, where he married, started a family and served as an officer in the nation’s military. But as the son of a Nazi, he concealed his past from everyone, including his wife. While completing his medical training at Jackson Memorial Hospital and opening his practice in Aventura, Wollschlaeger never talked about the secrets in his own past.
“A decade ago, my 14-year-old son asked me about his grandfather,” Wollschlaeger recalled. “At that point, I knew I had to reveal my background.” Soon all the students in his son’s Jewish school knew the family story. “I was going through a divorce and having a difficult time,” Wollschlaeger said. “The rabbi encouraged me to share the story, and when I talked with my son’s class I felt a huge weight had been taken off my shoulders.”
Not long afterwards, Wollschlaeger traveled with his son back to Bamberg to visit his parents’ grave in the Protestant cemetery that was separated by a wall from the Jewish cemetery. “I told him that my parents were still living in the shadow of history,” he said. “They chose not to escape from the past. But I hope that my son – and all of you – can step out of that history and move forward to avoid the same mistakes and help make a better world.”