While his grandmother's uncle served as a commander on a Nazi submarine in World War II, Lt. Benjamin (Benny) Gerloff will serve as a naval officer in the Jewish state's Navy after completing the IDF's naval officers course last week, Ynet reported on Monday.
Gerloff, a Christian whose parents immigrated to Israel 25 years ago, completed the course alongside the first religious woman officer, Lt. Yaela Ashwaga from Kiryat Netafim.
Gerloff's brother served as a platoon commander in the Kfir Brigade and his sister served in the Oketz Unit.
"The people of Israel in the Land of Israel have a significant part in our faith," said Gerloff to ynet. "My great-grandfather was a priest during World War II, in a German current that opposed Nazism and was therefore persecuted by the Nazis."
Gerloff explained that his great-grandfather on the other side of his family helped his Jewish friend send parcels of food to his relatives in concentration camps. "To this day we have some of the letters of thanks he sent him," said Gerloff. "From there, from those days, my love for Israel was rooted in my family and my father came here at the age of 18 to volunteer. In our eyes, the people of Israel and the Land of Israel are part of God's plan and that is why I serve in the IDF and it is important for me to defend the country."
Much of Gerloff's family still lives in Germany near Neuberg northeast of Frankfurt.
A black-and-white photo from a wedding in the early 1940s, features a Nazi navy officer, Gerloff's grandmother's uncle, who was drafted in the German military after the war broke out and commanded a submarine that was eventually sunk.
"I don't know much about him, other than the fact that he was required to enlist," said Gerloff to Ynet. "My grandmother always emphasized that he was not a Nazi. It is definitely not banal so it intrigued me. When I did roots work in seventh grade, my grandparents told me that they had come to Israel in the past to volunteer to help Holocaust survivors."
"Grandma remembered that her father had read verses from the Bible to her as a child," added Gerloff. "She revealed to me that once, as a child, she had returned from school and performed the 'Heil Hitler' motion in front of her family, and her father immediately made it clear to her that this movement was not done in their home. One of their family friends, a Jewish doctor, gave them a menorah to take care of before he was forced to leave."
"As a non-Jew, it is difficult to find your place here and integrate religiously and socially, but in the course I received attention and consideration from the commanders and friends," added the new naval officer.
Gerloff's congregation in Israel worships on Fridays, so he was easily able to maintain his faith throughout the course, according to Ynet. He prays in Hebrew and reads the bible in Hebrew. On Christmas, he was allowed to go on vacation.
"Because of me, even the semantics in the course were changed to 'prayer times for the religious,'" said Gerloff. "There are things in the Jewish kashrut that I observe out of respect for the Jewish religion and tradition and also due to orders on the subject. I will not come with a sandwich from home that has pork sausage because this is a Jewish and democratic state and it is important to me that it has a Jewish character."
Gerloff's relatives watched the ceremony on Zoom, as most of them still live in Germany. "My grandparents were especially happy to see me with navy uniforms and officer ranks," said Gerloff. "The 89-year-old grandmother is still in Germany and always prays towards Jerusalem, and my 93-year-old grandfather also expressed pride in me."
The new naval officer will serve as a shift officer on the command bridge of the INS Oz, a new Sa'ar 6 vessel which will arrive in Israel in the coming months from Germany, according to Ynet. Gerloff will be notified soon if he will be part of the crew to sail the ship from Germany to Haifa.
“It could definitely be a personal and meaningful closing of a circle for me,” said Gerloff. "During the course, which requires different and varied abilities, we already sailed from Athens with the Greek navy but this is something else."