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
As the four of us drove into Laucha, the possibility of violence seemed remote. To the east and the west, vineyards dotted the landscape, and a cheerful sign at the entrance to town toasted the local resident crowned that year’s Wine Queen. The town’s medieval houses and narrow streets sat under a looming church spire, watching sternly over the small square at Laucha’s center.
Leo’s house looks no different than the other stone houses in town. Sitting at the simple dinner table shortly after returning from high school, Leo bore no marks from the attack. His attitude, too, was defiant; even though he had lived in Laucha for most of his life, his accent made him sound more Israeli than German.
“I’m not afraid,” Leo said to me in Hebrew about living in this remote town. “I consider myself also an Israeli, but I can’t see myself living in Israel. My friends are here, my connections are here, I’ve been here from the age of 7. As a Jew, I cannot run or hide. To the contrary, I have a right to live where I want. Precisely because of what happened to my grandparents.”
When asked if he’s angry with the Germans—a question that many of his relatives in Israel raised in the days immediately following the attack—Leo shook his head. But he did feel, he admitted, that what happened to him was brushed off by far too many of his schoolmates as a mere act of bullying. He wished, he said, that people in Laucha would realize the attack was very different from a mere violent outburst.
“My generation is all the time asking not to connect them to the past,” he said. “But if that’s the case then they are supposed to be much more angry than me about this incident. They cannot let that happen. Unless they like to be called Nazis.”
As I was talking to Leo, Frank Rothe, a photographer, left to take some snapshots of Laucha. He shot the pastoral countryside, the ancient municipal plaza, people going about their daily lives. Then, he arrived at the field where Lutz Battke was presiding over soccer practice. Rothe introduced himself to Battke, and Battke told him curtly that no photography was allowed at the club. Rothe replied that since the club was municipal property, he could snap shots whenever he wished. Battke pulled out his battered Nokia cell phone, said a few things to the person on the other end of the line, and handed the phone over to Rothe. Michael Bilstein, the soccer team’s vice president and Laucha’s current mayor, tried to convince Rothe to leave, but Rothe wouldn’t budge. When the conversation finally came to an end, Rothe flipped the cell phone shut. A screen saver came on the phone’s small display. It was a portrait of Adolf Hitler.
After hearing Rothe’s account, I wanted to chat with Lutz Battke. He wasn’t at the practice field, so, accompanied by my volunteer bodyguards, I drove to his house and climbed up to the second floor. The shoes Battke had just worn during the football practice were outside the door. I knocked. A woman opened the door, saw my face, and slammed it immediately. I knocked again. There was no answer.
Outside in the street, a young man with short blond hair agreed to answer our questions. He claimed he had never heard of Leo. We told him he was an Israeli-born boy who was beat up by a bully for being a Jew. “Should he even be here?” the young blond asked. “And should you?”
The young man, we later learned from neighbors, was Ronnie, Lutz Battke’s adopted son.
As Battke himself was nowhere to be found, I decided to talk to those residents of Laucha who supported his enterprise. One is Olaf Pleitz, the proprietor of a local company that supplies sanitary appliances and tools for hospitals. Pleitz is one of the key financial sponsors of Battke’s football club. When I called to ask why he was sponsoring a man who had Hitler on his screen saver and goons on his football squad, Pleitz erupted. He shouted that he had the right to sponsor whomever he damn pleased, and that he can’t possibly know what goes on in all of the many organizations he supports.
He was right—as a business owner, he owed no explanation for his actions. That, however, wasn’t the case with Rotkäppchen, a producer of sparkling wine and another enthusiastic sponsor of Battke’s club. The company’s owner, a man with the surname Heise, lives on Tannengartnen Strasse in Laucha, a three-minute ride from Tzipi Lev and Olaf Osteroth’s house and from the practice field where his firm’s sign decorates the fence. When we pulled into his driveway, his wife was leaving the house. We asked her if it was possible talk to Heise, and she said he wasn’t home and asked what we wanted. We said we wanted to know whether Heise could tell us why his firm sponsors a football club that employs a known right-wing extremist as one of its leaders. She took our contacts.
Eight minutes later, Claudia Korenke, one of the firm’s spokespeople, called us from Frankfurt. She talked at length about Herr Heise’s activities to strengthen Germany’s relations with Israel. After I pressed her on the company’s ties to Battke, she promised to get back to me. The next day, she emailed to let me know that Rotkäppchen had decided to cut all ties and sponsorship deals with the club.
I called Alexander Palloch, the bully; his mother said her boy was innocent because he was a Protestant, and therefore forbidden by God from hating foreigners. I called the police to complain about Battke’s Hitler screen saver—based on German laws prohibiting display of Nazi imagery—but the police said that whatever Battke chose to do with his cell phone was his private business. I also called Mayor Bilstein. I wasn’t expecting much; after the attack, Bilstein told local media that there was no evidence that Battke was connected to the attack, and that the children adored him. “[Battke] works with young children, and I do not believe he has bad influence on them,” he said. “We’ve never heard complaints from parents about him. If there were complaints, that would be another story.” But when I finally got him on the phone, the mayor sounded contrite. Leo’s attacker, he said, “comes from a broken home, he escaped from school, and the only guidance he had came from the football club. We can’t allow NPD supporters to coach and teach in this club.” He promised to look into Battke’s politics and vowed that he would resign his position as the club’s vice president if Battke wasn’t removed from his position as coach.
“In 1999, we thought that the club would help to integrate people like Battke into society,” Bilstein told me on the phone. “It is now 2010, and we must admit that we failed. We have succeeded in sports, but everyone is just talking about the Nazi team of Laucha.”
The following day, the Laucha police called again. They told me that they had decided to open an investigation concerning Lutz Battke’s screen saver.
Hearing this bit of news, Lev and Osteroth were happy but not thrilled. They were fighting, they said, for their hometown, a place ravaged by decades of dictatorship before the reunification and years of economic hardship after it. They believed that if people in Laucha had the chance to meet Jewish people, the old animosities would disappear. They also believed that anti-Semitism in Laucha was just a convenient vehicle for material frustrations, not some deep-seated belief. They believed all that, but they weren’t sure. If they turned out to be wrong, they said, they’d pack up and leave, maybe for Israel.
Toward the end of our stay in Laucha, Osteroth took me up in one of his hot-air balloons, and we floated above the region’s green fields. Osteroth said that as long as his family was here, they had to fight. “The role of my generation is not to look back in shame, but to ensure that there will be no closing of the eyes in the present,” he said. He pointed down, toward the center of town. “Otherwise,” he added, “place after place here will become Naziland.”
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