A History of Violence
It wasn’t just a case of bullying when a 16-year-old Jewish boy was beaten up in a small German town where hate runs deep
It was a warm spring Friday earlier this year, and a 16-year-old boy was hanging out with his friends at the bus station in Laucha, a tiny town in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt. With less than 3,300 residents, Laucha is the kind of place that offers its adolescents little by way of entertainment. For lack of better options, the bus station is the town’s main teenage attraction.
Alexander Palloch arrived at the station a bit after 6 p.m. At 20, Palloch had already built a reputation as an unemployed drunk; he’d twice been arrested for distributing extreme right-wing propaganda. He spent much of his free time getting into fistfights.
According to police reports, eyewitnesses later testified that Palloch wasn’t particularly drunk when he approached the 16-year-old—his parents have requested he not be identified, so we’ll call him “Leo”—at the bus station. Still, Palloch was belligerent. “Jewish pig!” he yelled at Leo, and began pounding the stunned boy’s face. Leo struggled and managed to get away. He ran onto Bahnhofstrasse, too fast to notice that Palloch was giving chase. But Palloch was faster: After 30 or 40 meters, he caught up with Leo, knocked him to the ground, and punched him again.
Watching the scene unfold from his car, Mario Traebert, a local resident, slammed the breaks and opened the door. He yelled at Palloch to stop. The bully froze for a second, just long enough for Leo to escape. Traebert opened the passenger door and yelled at Leo to jump in. The bruised boy obliged. Watching his prey speed away, Palloch ran after the car and managed to kick its back door.
The incident could have easily been regarded as just another fight between two teenagers. It could have been filed as just another one in the 150 assaults instigated each year, according to local police records, by young men associated with the extreme right: thugs attacking immigrants, left-wing activists, or homosexuals.
But the words Alexander Palloch chose to shout just before attacking Leo prompted the police to classify the crime as an anti-Semitic attack, a far more infrequent occurrence in Laucha. With very few Jews living in the region, the number of attacks in Saxony-Anhalt usually hovers around one or two per year, though these incidents are treated more seriously than other hate crimes. Indeed, the more one looked into the attack, the more visible were the dark specters of history. As I learned from in-depth conversations with local authorities, activists, and residents, Laucha, which on the surface seemed to be the locus of a successful story of German reunification, was going through a battle for its very soul.
As a native-born Israeli who has lived in Germany for three years, I am constantly fascinated by this battle. Whenever a news report offers a glimpse of the old demons thrashing beneath the blanket of postwar German sensitivity and tolerance, I rush to the scene. So as soon as I heard about Leo, I headed to Laucha.
Leo makes a compelling protagonist. His maternal grandfather, Yoseph Lev, survived the Holocaust by hiding in the empty building of the Warsaw ghetto as the rest of his family was hauled off to Auschwitz. His paternal grandfather, Amitzur Shapira, was one of the 11 Israeli athletes who were murdered in the terrorist attack during the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Born in Israel, Leo moved to Laucha as a child after his mother, Tzipi Lev, divorced his father and fell in love with a German man, Olaf Osteroth. She was a choreographer specializing in mass gymnastics; he, an avid hot-air balloonist and a notable figure in the world of German aerial sports. They met on an athletes’ exchange program between Israel and Germany, and before too long Tzipi and her two sons were headed to Laucha.
In many ways, the tiny German town wasn’t too dissimilar from their home, Oranit, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank named for the pine trees that surround it. Like Oranit, Laucha was quiet and rural, the sort of place where everybody knew everybody else. And despite their historical baggage, Tzipi and her sons found little in Laucha to make them feel unwelcome. Little, that is, except for the house on 14 Obere Hauptstrasse: Every year on April 20, Adolf Hitler’s birthday, the resident of the second floor of the two-story house would place a small statue of the Führer in the window, along with the Reich’s black, white, and red war flag. Anyone walking by the house on April 20 could also hear loud Nazi-era music booming from within. But everyone assumed it was just an isolated incident, one loose screw in an otherwise orderly town.
In 1999, a handful of people from Laucha decided to organize a soccer team known as BCS99. It was conceived as an educational enterprise—the idea was to set up a place for Laucha’s youth to learn the lessons of good sportsmanship—and as such was funded by the municipality, the regional council, the German Football Federation, and a host of local businesses.
The driving force behind the team was Lutz Battke, a chimney-sweep and the resident of the second-floor apartment on 14 Obere Hauptstrasse. Everyone in Laucha knew that Battke was involved with some sort of right-wing politics, but this didn’t seem to trouble any parents, who were happy to have somewhere to send their kids. As far as most parents were concerned, Battke was helping their kids stay out of trouble, turning them into athletes instead of hooligans, teaching them discipline. And if the man who could keep the local kids off the streets and inspire them to invest their hours training rather than drinking or fighting also held a few extremely unkind opinions, so be it. As long as he didn’t act out on these opinions, went the common logic, no damage was done. Tzipi Lev herself subscribed to this logic, sending her oldest son, Leo’s brother, to play for the club. Another player was Alexander Palloch, Leo’s attacker.
From his perch as the club’s coach, Battke devoted a considerable chunk of his time to his other passion, politics. Using the clubhouse as a meeting place, he oversaw the local branch of the National Democratic Party, or NPD, an extreme right-wing party widely considered to be a neo-Nazi organization. A few local politicians objected, but the community at large showed no support for these protests—as far as they were concerned, Battke was an upstanding member of the community and whatever political activity he engaged in was acceptable.
But as time passed, Battke took steps toward gaining real power, and his sporting activity started to merge with his political goals. In 2001, for example, he designed a flag for the football club that—with its black, white, and red palette—suspiciously resembled Nazi iconography. Jana Grandy, Laucha’s then mayor, vowed to boycott the club and tried to stop its public funding. She failed. Two years later, in 2003, Battke formed a political party, which he named after the club, and was elected to local office. In 2007, when Tzipi Lev and Olaf Osteroth brought an Israeli dance group to perform in Laucha, Battke tried, according to local news reports, to recruit a few of the club’s players to march in protest; when the club’s managers told him that was a step too far, he canceled the march. Instead, he printed posters featuring a blood-dripping Star of David and hung them all over town. Again, the local press reported about Battke’s actions, which he explained as being in opposition to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. And again, nobody seemed to care: By 2009, when he was up for re-election as a city councilman, Battke ran as an independent, landing a spot on the NPD ticket, and won more votes than any other candidate.
Alarmed by Battke’s rise, Saxony-Anhalt’s Ministry of Economy tried to suspend Battke from his job as regional chimney sweeper, a position that resembles that of rural volunteer fireman. Battke fought the move in court and won—the NPD, after all, is not outlawed in Germany.
Its legal status aside, however, the NPD still alarms most of Germany’s human rights organizations, who treat the party as dangerous and extremist. When I called the Mobile Beratung für Opfer rechter Gewalt—a nonprofit group that aids victims of right-wing attacks—and expressed an interest in traveling to Laucha, the helpful social worker on the other end of the line went silent. Then she suggested I might need bodyguards, and assigned two of her volunteers to join me and my photographer on our visit to the small town.