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.
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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Ze’ev Avrahami was born in the Sinai, expelled to Israel, and now lives in Berlin. He is a father and a writer.
Ze’ev Avrahami was born in the Sinai, expelled to Israel, and now lives in Berlin. He is a father and a writer.