Given some of my earliest memories, you may find it hard to believe that today I am a Christian pastor who loves the Jews and Israel.
I was born into a family infested with the dark obsession of anti-Semitism. My maternal grandfather worked for Hans Ludin, the German ambassador to Bratislava who deported 22,000 Jews to the death camps. Ludin was arrested in my home town of Linz, Austria, by the Americans and later hanged for war crimes.
| As Hitler Youth, Werner’s stepbrothers
Peter (left) and Wilhelm, with their mother Lina
As a young man, my father, Wilhelm Oder, joined the national socialist party in Austria. To destabilize the country, the Germans had been sending in agitators to commit violent acts against the government, and Wilhelm was one of their local collaborators. When the Austrian Chancellor was assassinated in 1934, the government arrested the Nazi agitators, including Wilhelm. He was tried as a terrorist and was about to be executed when the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) marched in and “merged” Austria with the Third Reich.
Wilhelm then joined the Waffen-SS and was trained in the concentration camp at Dachau. Afterwards, he was sent to the Polish village of Rabka, where the Nazis requisitioned a girls’ school and turned it into a center for training the Einsatzgruppen (death squads for the SS operating throughout Eastern Europe).
For the duration of the war, Wilhelm stayed at the training center and became an expert in killing Jews. He developed the Genickschuss method of shooting a victim in the nape of the neck, which proved the most efficient means of execution other than the gas chambers.
When the Russians pushed the German army back into Poland, Wilhelm was captured and put in a prisoner of war camp. Fearing execution if his SS past was discovered, he managed to escape and make his way back into Austria, where he hid out with other Nazi fugitives. Eventually American forces identified and arrested him with the help of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.
War crimes trials in Austria were often “kangaroo courts” that mocked the accusers and relied on questionable “character witnesses” to hand down acquittals or easy sentences. The witnesses against Wilhelm Oder were neutralized by positive testimonials, resulting in a relatively light sentence of six years hard labor. When released from prison, Wilhelm lived as a hero near his home town, an early breeding ground for Hitler’s Nazi movement.
Wilhelm was a womanizer and was still imprisoned when he fathered me. My family lived in a beautiful country estate, but we were forced to move to a slum after the release of my father, who was incredibly violent, and sired many children by various women. When he came home when I was three years old, he brought all his demons with him.
I became intensely violent, aggressive, and developed a blind hatred towards the Jews. This is not something which just happens; it is a learned behaviour. I started to have nightmares. I was screaming every night out of fear, because I saw demonic beings in our home that I thought had come to kill me. These nightmares lasted for six years, every night the same nightmare, the same screaming. I became very sick and frightened, was out of my mind and knew sooner or later I was going to die.
At the age of nine, I cried out to God for the first time in my life, “I do not want to die, I want to live!” Although I knew nothing about God, that was my first prayer. Seven years later I met Peter Wiegand, a young German Christian who I later learned had felt called to be an evangelist in Austria at the same time as my desperate prayer. Peter was the first person to tell me about the love of God. This was an incredible concept for me, that somebody who is called God loves me. From the moment I decided to trust in Jesus, the torment and nightmares stopped and my sanity was restored. I was delivered from the evil of anti-Semitism and received a love for Israel and the Jewish people. I will never forget that night when the finger of God wrote the love for Israel indelibly on my heart.
But giving my life to Jesus was not a quick fix. My moral and psychological life was a mess. For the next seven years, I learned biblical principles at a Christian youth center in Austria. Slowly, my life got back on track.
I went back to my family, who were still committed Nazis and anti-Semites. I told them that Jesus had become my Savior and said, “What did you do to the Jews? Do you know that Jesus is a Jew?” It was like throwing a hand grenade. All hell broke loose. I was accused of things; I was shot at. I still have the scar where a bullet grazed the back of my head.
In 1972, I left Austria for Capernwray in the north of England to attend Bible school, where I met my wife, Avril. I eventually became the pastor of Tuckton Christian Fellowship in Bournemouth.
Because of my love for Israel, God gives me many opportunities to speak at Holocaust memorial days and conferences. I am grateful to God for the privilege of standing for Israel and the Jews in a world of increasing anti-Semitism.
This account was adapted from an article originally published by International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ). The interview was conducted by Herta Leithgöb and translated into German by Lisa Rüdiger. You can read the entire story of Werner’s life in his book, Battling with Nazi Demons, available through Amazon.