Born in Berlin, Yonathan Lutz Langer became a karate champion at a young age and was well educated. But that didn’t stop him from falling in with the wrong crowd – a group that eventually became a virulent neo-Nazi group.
“I was in a karate group with guys who were 10 years older than me. They were tough, competitive and very cool. I felt lucky to be in the group,” Langer said. “I felt a sense of belonging.”
Langer was addressing about 100 European parliamentarians in Krakow, Poland, ahead of World Holocaust Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. It was part of a symposium organized by the European Jewish Association with the aim of motivating political leaders to take action against anti-Semitism.
Langer’s new-found karate friends began to listen to hate-filled music and watch films that celebrated who they considered to be war heroes, “SS soldiers whose strength and ability to take people down were inspiring to us as karate champions.”
The group started the German (neo-Nazi) Brotherhood and Langer rose to be the group’s leader. He said the hate seeped into his heart. The goal of the group was to become leaders and to spread their ideology.
“So I listened to their music and did the things they did,” he said. “But what I wasn’t able to differentiate was between friendship and ideology.”
Langer served in the German army and went to university, earning a degree in business administration. “I was the leader of the group, I was educated and I was a professional,” he said.
But while he was there he began to have questions about his ideology. “Were we supposed to wipe out all nations that weren’t German? What then? Only Germans would exist?” he pondered.
Then, something very unexpected happened. As he began to search, he found help from a Jewish group.
“The strongest message I took from this experience was that these people, these Jews weren’t rejecting me because of who I was,” he said. “Instead they accepted me, they welcomed me and they taught me.”
Langer left his neo-Nazi friends, converted to Judaism and now lives in Tel Aviv. He visited Auschwitz, the most notorious World War II Nazi death camp for the first time as part of the delegation.
“To be honest it’s hard to describe the feelings here in Auschwitz. It’s overwhelming. I can’t believe it happened here to people and to how many people it happened here,” Langer told CBN News.
“And only being here makes you really realize what people went through. We’re here in winter now and it’s cold and we have clothes and we also ate in the morning. And people didn’t have this situation when they came here and the choice. We came by choice and the people didn’t’ come by choice,” said Langer on a January day with near freezing temperatures.
“They went through hell here. It’s unbelievable what people did to other people here in this camp and it’s not the only camp. So it’s eye opening,” he said.
The EJA wants the parliamentarians that were part of the group Langer addressed to enact laws in their home countries to ban hate speech and the sale of Nazi memorabilia as well as increase Holocaust education.
Langer said education is good but even among the educated there can be hatred. People need to learn to take personal responsibility and face their anger and insecurity.
“Once we teach people how to take responsibility for their actions, how to be aware of their challenges in their life and to grow from them, we are healing the root of the problem and are making a lasting change,” he said.