For German Converts, A New Home for the Soul


Trekking through ice-coated fields in a brutally cold Russian October, Lt. Arthur Wollschlaeger pressed on, as he and his swastika-emblazoned companions conquered the western Russian city of Orel — another victory for the unrelenting German Werhmacht infantry. He had earlier taken part in invasions of Poland, Holland and France — a World War II military career that began when he first entered the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, in 1938.

Half a century later, 30-year-old Bernd Wollschlaeger — Arthur’s son — trudged through olive fields in his Israeli Defense Forces convoy, a new M-16 slung over his shoulder as his unit approached Ramallah and set out to guard Israeli settlers living on the West Bank.

“I was a soldier very much like my father,” the younger Wollschlaeger, now 50, wrote in his self-published 2007 memoir, “A German Life: Against All Odds, Change is Possible.” He has been a Jew for 23 years.

Wollschlaeger, who grew up in a staunchly nationalist and Catholic home in Bamburg, Germany, first became fascinated with Judaism when he peered inquisitively at a six-pointed star that decorated an apartment near his dentist’s office. It was part of that town’s tiny Jewish community, he would later learn.

But the first incident to really ignite his passion for Judaism was the terror attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a moment that shook Germany back to the largely unspoken atrocities of World War II.

Though pockets of Germans have been converting to Judaism since the end of World War II, Wollschlaeger is an early member of a little-studied second wave of predominantly liberal German converts, a small but growing group now two or three generations removed from the Holocaust. Local rabbis estimate that each year hundreds of Germans convert to Judaism.

They lack the acute guilt that resonated throughout postwar Germany, but they have paid a steep price for their conversions. Their decisions have often put them in sharp conflict with their own families, and many continue to feel ostracized in their newfound German Jewish communities. They seem always to be confronted by an inevitable question — “Where were your parents or grandparents during the war?”

Some of the converts have Nazi histories in their families, and some do not. Some suspect long-buried Jewish roots in their families.

Either way, the conversions have altered their lives irrevocably. “I was looking for a kind of home for my soul,” said 62-year-old Joshua Markku Bjoerkman, a Finnish-born, Swedish passport-bearing German, who converted in 1995. “I always felt that I wanted to belong to the Jewish people.”

For Ulrike Offenberg, a historian who ultimately underwent an Orthodox conversion in the early 1990s after spending years studying Jewish history, the downside to her conversion was crystal clear. “I was aware,” she said, “that such a step would identify me at least in the eyes of others as part of the victims’ side, which I am not.”

The road to conversion in Germany has been a rocky one. Despite a bet din, or rabbinical court, that was available to converts like Wollschlaeger and Offenberg, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — under Orthodox auspices — often refused to recognize German conversions. Then about 10 years ago, an Orthodox bet din under the supervision of the Central European Rabbinate was established in Germany and quickly faced a competing group of local rabbis. This only led to more confusion in the Orthodox community, according to Josh Spinner, an Orthodox rabbi in Germany and vice president of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. In the Liberal and Conservative movements, until very recently converts had to rely on a London-based bet din that periodically traveled to Germany, added Rabbi James Baaden, who has chaired some sessions.

But in 2004, the German government created a centralized, entirely home-based bet din called Deutsche Rabbinerkonferenz, with two branches — the Orthodoxe Rabbinerkonferenz Deutschland and the Liberal-Conservative Allgemeine Rabbinerkonferenz, Rabbi Spinner explained.

While no exact figures exist, Rabbi Spinner estimates that only a few dozen Germans convert to Orthodox Judaism each year. The lack of an Orthodox infrastructure of day schools and kosher restaurants keeps the conversion figure low, Rabbi Spinner said.

But rabbis in the Liberal (the European rough equivalent of America’s Reform movement) and Conservative movements estimate that there are hundreds each year in their community, where rabbis have encountered a diverse group of Germans interested in converting, many of whom grew up with little familiarity of anything Jewish.

“There are many more candidates for conversion ‘lishma’ in Germany — that is, individuals who have encountered Judaism without any connection to Jews, often in quite intellectual and spiritual ways,” Rabbi Baaden said. He noted that even those who have interacted with Jews have found inspiration from mere acquaintances, even bosses at work.

“One frequently encounters cases of people who have never met any Jew and somehow through reading — or television programs or occasionally music — learn about Judaism and on this basis choose to convert,” he said.

“What we also have in Germany that’s relatively unique is people who have studied Christianity a lot, and they realize it’s not for them, and they’re looking for monotheism without Jesus,” added British-born Rabbi Walter Rothschild, who has served in Liberal German congregations for the past two decades.

Though Rabbis Baaden and Rothschild say that they would never discriminate against a potential convert based on Nazi family ties, many converts have felt a far different attitude from Jewish-born congregants.

“If there’s a feeling that there are more converts than the born Jews, maybe the born Jews feel somehow that they are a minority,” said the blond, blue-eyed Bjoerkman. He says he has noticed tensions even in his ultra-accepting Orianenburger Strasse Synagogue, when born-Jewish members have not been able to find seats due to the sheer number of converts and non-Jewish visitors to the shul.

“The problem comes in terms of integration into communities where exactly these elements — religion and culture — are relatively unimportant, but ethnic and historical factors form a major bond,” Rabbi Rothschild wrote in an unpublished essay titled “The Conversion Problem in Germany.” In the essay, he suggests that many born-Jewish congregants may feel threatened by a knowledgeable convert. But, he wrote, “Those who have a real interest in Judaism as a religion will rejoice that more people come to pray.”

On the eve of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is marked this year on April 21, The Jewish Week tells the improbable stories of three German converts to Judaism who have, in varied ways and through circuitous journeys, indeed found a home for their souls.

BERND WOLLSCHLAEGER: Gaining A Faith, Losing A Family

Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s in Bamburg, Bernd Wollschlaeger remembers hearing “Die Fahne Hoch,” or “The Flag on High” — the anthem of the Nazi party — as the tune rumbled through his home when his father Arthur’s army friends gathered, as they often did, for drunken games of cards. An avid supporter of Hitler during the war, his father obliged his wife’s request and never officially joined the Nazi party, as was typical of many regular Wehrmacht soldiers. But to Bernd, his father was still a Holocaust perpetrator.

Bernd never heard the term “Jew” until days after the PLO terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Games in 1972, when his teacher introduced the word in class. From that day on, at age 14, he began reading every book in the public library he could find about Israel. His interest extended to his home.

“I asked the simple question, ‘Was my father involved?” Wollschlaeger told The Jewish Week. He never got a satisfactory answer.

As a teen, he told his father he intended to travel to Israel to learn more about both Jewish and German history.

“Be careful what side you pick — your own family or those Jews,” his father warned.

While studying dentistry, Wollschlaeger attended a conference in a nearby German town about Israeli-Palestinian youth coexistence. The conference was filled with young Palestinians and Israelis — including a beautiful Israeli blonde named Vered. Wollschaleger and Vered formed an emotional bond that would eventually lead him to Israel.

But the first person to make him think about converting was his Palestinian roommate at the conference, Chalid, who quickly picked up on Wollschaleger’s attraction toward Judaism, and asked him, out of curiosity, if he wanted to become a Jew.

Shockingly, his father decided to provide the travel funds, begrudgingly passing the money to him through his mother.

But when he overheard the young man speaking to Vered on the phone, he warned, “You will never set a foot in this house again if you get involved with a Jew girl.” Yet his mother asked him to put a prayer in the Western Wall for her — Wollschlaeger and his sister had always suspected that her mother’s family might have had some Jewish ties — and she told him cryptically, “You will experience what it means to go home.”

In Israel, Bernd went with Vered to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and he broke down in her arms.

Approaching the Western Wall hours later, he grabbed a kipa to cover his head for the first time, as he touched the wall and rocked back and forth along with Jews around him in prayer.

Back in Germany, though the relationship with Vered soon ended, Wollschlaeger was more convinced than ever to go ahead with becoming a Jew. After telling a priest in a confessional booth that he was renouncing Catholicism, he returned to the Magen David next to his childhood dentist’s office, which turned out to be the home of a tiny Jewish community organization of fewer than 30 members. The community’s chairman, Yaacov Eisenberg, listened to his entire story.

Eisenberg warned the young man of the repercussions he might face, but nonetheless began teaching him the basics of Jewish ritual. As Wollschlaeger became more familiar with Judaism, Eisenberg introduced him to an Orthodox rabbi. Meanwhile, as Wollschlaeger continued his medical studies he also attended Shabbat services in nearby Nuremberg regularly. His favorite, most deeply felt prayer became the Kaddish, a blessing that spun his mind back to the murdered athletes in Munich.

When Wollschlaeger completed his studies to his teachers’ satisfaction, Eisenberg, the rabbi and his cantor in Nuremberg sent their recommendations to the Orthodox bet din. Meanwhile, he could no longer keep his intended conversion secret from his parents.

“Why are you doing this to yourself? Why are you doing this to us?” was his mother’s reaction, he recalled.

“Stay here, or join your Jews,” was his father’s ultimatum.

Despite his parents’ dismay, Wollschlaeger decided that after his conversion and medical school graduation, he would immigrate to Israel and enlist in the army.

Sitting in a Swiss hospital awaiting his brit milah and then at a French mikveh awaiting immersion, Wollschlaeger said he knew he had made the right decision. He selected the Hebrew name Dov, which means “bear,” as does his German name Bernd.

Just days before his medical school final exams in 1986, Wollschlaeger and Rabbi Lieberman made their way to the bet din, where he held nothing back, discussing in detail his relationship with his father.

That week, he became both a doctor and a Jew.

He arranged to make aliyah, receiving his Israeli visa and a free, one-way El Al ticket. He visited his parents one last time.

Arthur Wollschlaeger’s parting words were, “I am losing my only son.”

BURKHARD SCHWARZKOPF: A Suspicion Of Jewish Ancestry

Every Easter, young Burkhard Schwarzkopf anxiously anticipated the arrival of his father’s eldest brother, who would shower him with heaps of expensive presents, in the family’s small German town of Aschaffenburg.

Only during his teens in the early 1970s would the boy find out that this very same adored uncle had been a fervent World War II German soldier — who boastfully brutalized French Resistance fighters and lauded Nazi ideology. Schwarzkopf was already skeptical about Christianity, but his uncle’s ideology drove him even farther from his family’s Catholicism. At 12, he knew nothing about the Shoah and only began learning about the atrocities the next year, at his public school.

But he had a nagging suspicion there might be some Jewish blood in his background from stories his mother told about her mother. Schwarzkopf’s grandmother was a tailor and had many Jewish clients.

“She was really astonished when, one at a time, one after another, these clients weren’t there anymore,” Schwarzkopf, 50, recalled as he sat at a café in Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

Under the Nazis, every German citizen was required to carry an Aryan identification card, but Schwarzkopf had been told that his grandmother initially had trouble acquiring the card because she may have had some Jewish ancestry. But she died when he was only 4, so he never had the chance to ask her.

On the other side of the family, however, Schwarzkopf’s uncle subscribed to Nazi ideology and boasted of his service in Paris, arresting French communists and Resistance members.

“My father was very passive about it,” Schwarzkopf said. “I was kind of angry about my father too — I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you blame him?’” His father, being just a boy at the time, said he was too young to speak out.

The agnostic teenage Schwarzkopf attended Justus-Liebig University in Giessen, where he became interested in Jewish literature and culture and went on to study Jewish philosophy.

After completing university, he reported on Berlin’s Jewish population as a freelance journalist, and he often visited the kosher grocery store owned by an elderly Bratislavan Jew named Alexander Kalisch.

When his questions became too deep for Kalisch’s expertise, Schwarzkopf sought out Rabbi Walter Rothschild, who, after some deliberation, decided that Schwarzkopf could attend his Jewish education classes. The student was so diligent that the rabbi quickly realized he was an ideal candidate for conversion.

Before the bet din arrived and just before his brit milah, Schwarzkopf visited Kalisch’s store once again, where the old man asked him what Hebrew name he intended to choose.

“‘How else could I pray for you when I don’t know the name?’” he remembers Kalisch asking.
In excitement and fear, Schwarzkopf was unable to sleep the night before and began reading a random page of Tanakh, about the prophet Zacharias, or Zachariah in English. The first sentence of the section was, “You will be crying in the month of Av,” Schwarzkopf said, and his brit was to occur on the fifth day of Av. He chose Zacharias as his Hebrew name.

Schwarzkopf said he received anesthetics for his ritual circumcision, but he remembers having difficulty walking after the ceremony. “For approximately two weeks or so I walked like a cowboy,” he said, blushing.

Following his conversion in spring 2003, Schwarzkopf spent 14 months in Israel, where he learned Hebrew at an ulpan program in Haifa and volunteered, with the Jewish Agency, as an English teacher for Ethiopian and Russian students.

From there, he headed to Jerusalem, where he studied at a yeshiva and did German translation for a film on Jews in Arab countries. He intended to stay in Israel, but his then girlfriend, who he’d known for many years from Germany and who would become his wife despite the intermarriage, did not want to move to Israel. They moved back to Germany, where she is becoming acclimated to Judaism.

“She’s completely tolerant about it,” Schwarzkopf said, noting that she often comes with him to synagogue.

His wife would not comment as to whether or not she plans to convert. The idea, she said, “is still too small to talk about.”

ULRIKE OFFENBERG: Judaism As A ‘Second Skin’

Just north of the River Spree in the winding streets of East Berlin lies the Oranienburger Strasse synagogue, a Liberal egalitarian congregation whose accepting environment attracts many German converts to Judaism.

In addition to members Markku Bjoerkman and Burkhard Schwarzkopf, 42-year-old Ulrike Offenberg also calls the shul home. She has been grappling with Jewish history and Holocaust issues since age 15. Completely moved from learning about Jewish history and philosophy, she converted 17 years ago in a process that took more than four years to complete.

“I thought that this could be a proper way of life for me,” said Offenberg, who now has a doctorate in German-Jewish and East German history. “All my adult life I spent as a Jew. It’s become my second skin already.”

Offenberg grew up in East Germany, with a Protestant mother and an atheist father who were both born in the 1950s post-Holocaust era. As far as she knows, her grandparents were not directly involved in World War II and were neither Nazi supporters nor Resistance fighters. They were, as Offenberg called them, “average Germans.”

As a teenager, she began volunteering for Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste, or Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, an organization founded in the ‘50s to send German volunteers to countries that suffered from Nazi occupation. The volunteers rebuilt churches, cleaned up cemeteries and visited concentration camps annually.

“[The experience] got me to deal with the question — who are Jews? Why were they persecuted?” Offenberg said, noting that the more she continued learning, the more she pondered the idea of converting.

“But for a long time I fought with myself because I thought, ‘Yeah, as a German with at least a collective past of Nazi involvement, it’s somehow not possible to convert, to blur these limits,’” she continued.

Despite her hesitations, Offenberg decided to officially become Jewish through an Orthodox conversion process in the early 1990s, and she said her relationship with Judaism has been changing ever since.

She remembers being attracted to the regimented lifestyle and limited choices of the Orthodox community.

She remained Orthodox more than a decade and married a born- Jewish community member. But when her marriage dissolved a few years ago, Offenberg found herself something of an outcast within the Orthodox community — particularly because she was a convert, she explained.

“I found myself in a very difficult position within the Jewish community as a divorced woman, and I had really bad experiences with rabbis and community structures,” Offenberg said, noting that her neighbors’ exclusionary attitude essentially drove her out of the community. “There’s a permanent suspicion that a convert is not a real Jew and will leave the next moment.”

Leaving the Orthodox world, Offenberg joined the egalitarian Conservative congregation Oranienbruger Strasse. Here, in what seems like a more comfortable fit, she has read Torah on the bima and is just one among so many converts that many members believe the converts outnumber the born Jews in this shul. For Offenberg, this phenomenon is telling of the progress her generation has made in remaining connected to — yet distant from — the realties of the Holocaust era.

“People in my generation don’t have to overcome a guilt complex,” she said, noting that even her parents were not yet alive during the Holocaust. “They have a more rational approach toward history and historical responsibility. If someone is willing to learn and it’s obvious that there are not other obstacles or psychological problems, then it’s possible to convert.”

Bernd Wollschlaeger arrived in Israel in 1987 and trained for his Israeli medical license in Tel Aviv, where he met an American Jewish woman who would soon become pregnant with his son. In June of that year, he learned that his father had died of cancer.

By 1988, and now married to the American woman, he received his draft notice from the Israeli army, where he fulfilled his three years of service, first in the West Bank and then at Central Command in Tel Aviv.

“For me, the ironic circumstances in the Israeli army came when I served in the West Bank,” Wollschlaeger told The Jewish Week. “Is this a perpetuation of a family history where every male member served in the military proudly?”

Upset and uncomfortable, Wollschlaeger spoke of his mother’s final words before her death: “You are like your father now.”

Wollschlaeger loved Israel, but his wife became anxious about the ongoing terror attacks, so the couple moved to Miami in 1991, where they had a baby girl. At this point, Wollschlaeger still had not told his wife about his family history and, although she knew he was German, she didn’t know about his non-Jewish past.

“My ex-wife found it perturbing that her husband was unwilling to share his most intimate thoughts,” he said, and their marriage crumbled three years after the move to Miami. Though anxious to return to Israel, Wollschlaeger today remains in Miami, where he eventually remarried and fathered a third child.

Wollschlaeger decided to visit Germany in 2004, where he reconnected with his very ill sister, who told him that she, too, suspected Jewish ancestry in their family. Their mother had always told her, “If I shake the tree, a Jew would fall out.” Wollschlaeger plans to research his mother’s genealogy further, which may, he thinks, be linked to the Marrano Jews in Spain.

Today, Wollschlaeger continues in private practice as an internist and serves as president of the local medical society. He also works for Miami’s German Consulate, where his patients include aging Holocaust survivors.

“I always will be the son of a 100 percent supporter of the Nazi party,” Wollschlaeger said. “But I made a difference out of it.”

“Yes, I started my process motivated by guilt,” he added. “And I finished it based on conviction.”