Thursday, June 7, 2012

A German Life

In the unlikely event that Shelter Rock ever runs a contest to see which of us has made the acquaintance of the most German converts to Judaism, I think I’ll probably win. In fact, I’m sure I will. For one thing, most of us find the idea itself that a citizen of the nation Daniel Jonah Goldhagen famously damned as “Hitler’s willing executioners” could willingly embrace Judaism as a ger tzedek—that is, as a righteous proselyte eager to seek his or her spiritual destiny as a lately-arrived but nonetheless bona fide member of the House of Israel—that idea will strike most as beyond peculiar. For another, one doesn’t find these people just anywhere. You have to know where to look!

A good place to look, actually, is Heidelberg, where I spent two years teaching in the Institute of Jewish Studies in the mid-1980s. Most of my students were “regular” Gentiles—mostly Lutheran types either headed into the ministry and interested in Judaism as part of their spiritual education as faithful Christians or else more secular souls drawn to Jewish study as a way of coming to terms with the legacy of the Shoah, a legacy that weighs (at least for some) no less heavily on the children and grandchildren of the perpetrators than it does on the descendants of the victims. And some were “regular” Jewish people: the children of Jewish parents, raised in Jewish homes, studying something else in Heidelberg (usually medicine or law) and interested in taking advantage of the existence of the Hochschule (and the presence in town of people such as myself) to take some courses in Jewish history or Jewish literature. But there were also present a small number of people enrolled at the Institute as part of their studies towards conversion to Judaism as well as some who had already completed their conversions and were simply eager to learn more. We had students from all over Europe in the school, but the converts, future and present, were all Germans who had gone far beyond being “interested” in Judaism and who either had chosen or were hoping to choose Judaism as their spiritual path in life. It seems unlikely in the extreme that any of them will ever read this, but I won’t identify them by name anyway lest I contravene our custom of never singling out converts in public.

They were, to say the least, an odd lot. P., for example, was not only a German, but (this was before the reunification of Germany in 1990) an East German of what he himself labelled as “ancient peasant stock” who had fled across the border and sought asylum in West Germany, then found his way into a synagogue and had eventually adopted a religious lifestyle, willingly undergoing b’rit milah and adopting a strict regimen of religious observance. L. was the daughter of not one but two Lutheran pastors, both of them prominent in the church hierarchy and neither even slightly connected to Jews or to Judaism. Certainly neither was descended from Jews. But L. found her way to Israel as a teenager, spoke openly (at least to me, but I think also to others) about the way she could feel destiny drawing her forward for the first time when she made her first visit to Jerusalem and particularly to the Western Wall, and easily about the way adopting Judaism made it tolerable for her to think of herself as a German. M. was the grandson of a guard who served at Maidanek, the death camp near Lublin. He knew his grandfather well, I recall him saying—of the 1,037 SS officers who perpetrated their unspeakable crimes there, a grand total of 170 were prosecuted after the war—but only learned what Maidanek was when he was a teenager, which experience led him too to Israel, where he volunteered on a kibbutz for six months. As a result of that experience, he came home intent on embracing Judaism…and certain, so he said, that he was not merely doing so as a way vicariously of atoning for his grandfather’s sins but, in a more positive vein, as a way of responding constructively to the horrors of the past by doing his part to preserve the religion of the murdered. (I remembering not feeling at all sure that that was a very good reason actually to convert to Judaism. But he seemed intent and clear-minded regarding the reasonableness of what had become his life mission. I lost track of him after we left Germany, so cannot say whether he reached his goal. A little bit, I hope he did.)

All of this sounds odder in the telling than it was in the hearing. I’ve lost touch with all of these people, actually, although I find myself from time to time wondering what happened to them. Perhaps they’re on Facebook! But I write about them today not to announce my intention to hunt for them, but as a way of introducing to you all a book I’ve just read, something that I think you would all find interesting and inspiring.

The book is called A German Life: Against All Odds, Change Is Possible, and it was written by Dr. Bernd Wollschläger, today a family physician in Miami, but formerly a medic in the IDF, and before that the troubled German son of a Wehrmacht general on whose chest Hitler himself pinned the Knight’s Cross on January 12, 1942 for bravery in battle on the Eastern Front. (Since the public display of Nazi symbols is forbidden by Germany law, the author’s father could only wear his medal at home once the war ended. What it meant for the young Bernd to have to spend every Christmas Eve at home with his father wearing a medal awarded to him personally by Hitler with a tiny swastika where the arms of the cross meet is one of the most personal, deeply introspective passages in the book, one you will not quickly forget.) It is an odd book in many ways, and in some ways a flawed one. (It seems odd, for instance, for a man as involved in contemporary Germany history as the author to confuse Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. Nor does it behoove a married man, and a religious Jew at that, to describe his pre-marital affairs in quite as much detail as he does.) Still, the book is moving and very interesting. I recommend it to you all wholeheartedly.

I read the book almost accidentally: Si Seidel, a long-time Shelter Rocker, shared with me an on-line clip he came across featuring the author speaking in a Boca Raton synagogue on Yom Hashoah. (If you are reading this electronically, you can access the clip by clicking here.) Just sitting and listening to the man speak was a riveting experience that led me to do just a bit more research. When I found his book for sale—the book is available on and all the other on-line sites—I resolved to read it and, if it was as powerful as his remarks were, to recommend it to you.

In the past, it’s been the rare book by a post-war German grappling with his or her nation’s past that I’ve found totally successful. (I’ve generally found such books to teeter back and forth between self-serving and self-righteous, neither of which attitudes I find especially appealing.) But Bernd Wollschläger’s book is different. (If you look for it on-line, spell his last name Wollschlaeger and it will pop right up on your screen.) For one thing, the author writes totally guilelessly and openly, describing his relationship with his parents, but particularly with his father, painfully and very movingly. That the author himself clearly seems to understand his relationship with his father to constitute the background for his decision to embrace Judaism as a ger tzedek is itself unusually insightful, but that he trusts his readers to understand nuances that are generally glossed over in this kind of book—and particularly books written in English for non-Germans—is even more impressive. Wollschläger’s father, for example, was not a member of the Nazi party. Nor does the author hold back from describing the contempt in which his father held the S.S.—whom he looked down on as less than “real” soldiers assigned to foul clean-up work that no true German soldier would undertake after the Wehrmacht, the “real” army, had successfully secured some new territory for the ever-expanding Reich. Nor does he hold back from describing his father as a principled man brought low in life not by his regrets regarding his wartime record but by something as prosaic as alcoholism. What emerges is a complicated portrait of a complicated man and his long-suffering wife. You won’t like his father. But, even despite yourself, you will feel for him…and for his predicament in life and for his inability successfully to break with his own past and for his ultimately failed relationship with his only son.

Throughout the book, the author drops hints regarding the possibility of his mother being of Jewish ancestry. He himself clearly does not know if her dark, guarded comments in that direction were true. Nor does he even know if he understood her properly when she made occasional vague comments that could have meant what he himself obviously hopes they did mean. Yet the author appears specifically to have chosen not to pursue that line of ancestral research, although it seems odd—at least a little—that he hasn’t. But, as noted above, it is precisely in the author’s guilelessness that the books’ power, and also its charm, lie. Wollschläger seems unwilling to dissemble, clearly aware that the book’s power has to rest in his willingness to write openly even about things that most people in his situation would hide or at least prefer to omit. The chapters covering his initial trip to Israel, in the course of which he was shown around not only by an appealing Jewish girl doing her army service on Kibbutz Yahel, about sixty miles north of Eilat, but also by an angry Palestinian young man from Abu Ghosh, an Arab town just west of Jerusalem on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, are very successful. Most moving of all is his description—also unguarded and very openly written—of his encounter with an old man at the Wall who seems just for a fleeting moment to be able to peer into the author’s soul and who tells him something that, for once to mean the words literally, changes his life.

Jews born into the faith tend to find the whole concept of conversion slightly mysterious, as though embracing Judaism were the equivalent of signing up for a lifetime of obsessive insecurity about the present and worry about the future. That being the case, it would do readers so-mystified to read this book, which is as stirring and encouraging as it is frankly written. The traditional High Holiday liturgy never seems to tire of reiterating that the gates of repentance are never closed, that t’shuvah, return, is always possible. We say it. And mostly, even, we mean it. But to read Bernd Wollschläger’s story is to be reminded that that truth is not only applicable to specific instances of wrongdoing or moral miscalculation, but to life itself: the ability to chart one’s destiny in life specifically along the lines of one’s own moral consciousness and to pursue a path forward in life that, for all it may constitute a total break with one’s own past, is solely and absolutely a path of one’s own making, and to do with specifically without reference to one’s own past or one’s family’s history—that is the deepest of all lessons readers will take from this book. I enjoyed it immensely and I think my readers will too!

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