Neo-Nazi leader turned Jew, Yonatan Langer, shows that change is possible.
When communism fell and the Iron Curtain came down, Germany was reunited, but a nation was torn apart: “East Germany was repressed and economically suffering, but at least it was organised,” says former East Berlin resident Yonatan Langer. “Suddenly the population was overwhelmed with a sense of confusion, anger and freedom that many people simply didn’t know what to do with.” The 37 year-old kippah-wearing former neo-Nazi, who previously went by the name of Lotz, enjoyed what began as a surprisingly normal upbringing in abnormal times. Born into a
middle-class family in the small Bavarian village of Erlabrunn, his mother worked as a hotel clerk, and his father, once a professional athlete in the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, was an official at the
East German Sports Ministry: “My family, like many others at the time, were adjusting to these radical changes. After the wall came down my father lost his job, and went from store to store selling clothing, while my mum went to work in a distribution centre.”
Yonatan and his brother attended a sporting institution where they dedicated upwards of 40 hours a week working towards a professional career as gymnasts, keeping them at arm’s length from the discontent that raged on the streets. As state factory workers, policemen and soldiers lost their jobs, a new capitalist multiculturalism was being introduced to previously isolated communities: “Areas in West Berlin with significant Arab and Turkish populations were new for many of us, and people tried to protect their areas. They didn’t want to be open-minded, and they didn’t know how to handle the situation, and that resulted in the formation of many right-wing extremist groups.”
At the age of 12, Yonatan shifted his sporting focus from gymnastics to karate, through which he enjoyed international success. Despite his parents’ best efforts to shelter him, weeks spent away at training camps left him open to the emerging counterculture: “I was hanging out with people almost twice my age, and one evening, one of the guys brought a black market neo-Nazi tape. The lyrics addressed the growing idea that politicians and foreigners were bringing our country down, and that resonated with us. The songs said things that nobody dared to say, and the cassettes were not easy to get, which made them even more attractive to a rebellious teen.”
At 14 years-old, Yonatan climbed the ranks of this clandestine sect of the national neo-Nazi movement. As one of the leaders, he began forging connections with other neo-Nazi groups, going to parties and becoming known in the scene. With the mindset that a German government in bed with the US was selling out his country, Yonatan grew ever more isolated from an increasingly unrecognisable Berlin: “We were avoiding foreign restaurants and popular movies simply because they were produced by Jews. I refused to even drink Coca-Cola.”
Although Yonatan maintains he did not commit serious violent crimes, he and his group held the belief that the only way to solve the problem was to rebuild the age of the 1930s: “The German soldiers of the Second World War were our heroes – the Holocaust was the ideal solution. We had street fights, intimidated people, forced foreigners on the subway to leave their seats, just to demonstrate our perceived superiority. We hid our views from our schools and families, because we were thinking long term. We were waiting for the right moment to start a revolution. “The moment someone pressed the play button on that tape, was the point things could have been prevented. Our coaches could have stepped in, but this mentality that our lives were going downhill because of foreigners was pervasive – even the police were not interfering with us. Life is simply unfair, but blaming it on others changes nothing.”
Yonatan maintains this institutionalised racism is still fermenting below the radar across all walks of life: “You can find it in any city in Germany, France, or England if you look hard enough. These people are part of football clubs, security, normal life – and it somehow comes as a surprise when they are revealed in our neighbourhoods.”
Yonatan believes it is our responsibility to reach out to radicals, encouraging them to change their mindsets and question their beliefs: “We were in a loop of hatred. We never learned from the situation, we never evaluated, we never changed. A normal person would not think of becoming hateful or aggressive, but others will lash out as it’s the only way they know to help them feel in control.” As a culture of no-platforming fuels a renewed far-right counterculture two decades on, Yonatan believes the freedom for us to challenge extreme voices in the public eye gives us an opportunity to expose these ideas for what they are: “We Neo-Nazi leader turned Jew Yonatan Langer shows that change is possible.
“We need to bring them out of the darkness into the light. When a person gets shut down, there’s no way this transparency can happen. For example, if a company is failing, putting the numbers on the table for everyone to see is the best thing that could possibly happen. “Right now, we are hating the haters. Their actions shouldn’t be tolerated, but we have a responsibility to them. We wouldn’t call an apple that is not ripe a bad fruit. Most people don’t know how to direct their fear when they come up against a challenging situation and react negatively – we just need to teach this person to put their energy into a good cause, because there is so much they can offer.”
The change of heart for Yonatan came in his mid-20s. Following nine months of conscripted service in the German army, his university studies placed him into direct contact with the foreigners he’d spent his teenage years despising: “I never expected my foreign classmates to be nice to me, and here I was, finding myself relating to them. This kickstarted a process of soul searching, and one night, I dreamt the word ‘Kabbalah’ appeared on my dorm wall. I didn’t even know what Kabbalah was, so when I looked it up the next morning and realised it was a Jewish school of mysticism, my heart sank.”
Yonatan subsequently enrolled on an introductory course at the Kabbalah Centre Berlin, learning from the son of a Holocaust survivor to come to terms not just with the ‘other’ but himself: “It was a painful process to learn from a Jewish man, but I knew I had to right my wrongdoings. He helped me understand how I could regain control of my life and become a better person. He even welcomed me into his home for Shabbat. The first time I went, I wore a Kippur – which was super weird – everyone there was staring at me wondering how I was going to react.
“The very next week I went to a neo-Nazi party. My friends would have kicked my head in if they knew I’d been meeting with Jews. But immediately, I just thought, what am I doing here? I felt I simply didn’t fit in. So I returned to my mentor’s house, sang songs, ate kosher food and held a siddur in my hand. All of this gave me the strength to change my ways.”
As one of the neo-Nazi group leaders, when word broke of Yonatan fraternising with the enemy, he was forced to leave his world behind. Taking a job at the Kabbalah Centre London, he was put in charge of organising simchas and holy day events, while living in a Jewish home and keeping kosher. It was one thing living among Jews and another to become one of them, but it was here in London, Yonatan undertook his conversion in earnest, bris included: “Everyone around me said I didn’t have to convert, but I was surrounded by all this positive energy, I wanted more in my life and my conversion helped me find this deeper connection.”
In 2019, Yonatan received an offer to relocate to Israel that cemented his astonishing conversion: “For a German former neo-Nazi to make Aaliyah, it was mind blowing. The founder of the Kabbalah Centre International, Karen Berg, sadly passed away last year, but she knew me well and supported my journey. She invited me to Tel Aviv to learn the process of inscribing the Megillah. Writing about the sons of Hammam who hanged like the Nazi leaders tried at Nuremberg for their war crimes, it was an incredible full circle.”
Yonatan has been mired in the Aaliyah process for two-and-a-half years. Faced with the inevitable security hurdles, he is still stacking the immigration authorities’ desks with documents and character witnesses to prove his conversion is genuine: “I’m not allowed to work yet, but I’m volunteering and looking forward to getting my citizenship soon so I can work and start a family. I understood this would be a very lonely path, but I have friends, a community, and a purpose here. It’s a special connection, and I feel truly at home.
“Coming to Israel was a surprise to me – I was excited, but I was also nervous because of my past. Families here lost many people to the actions of the Germans in the Second World War, so I wasn’t sure how people would react.”
Before his arrival, one of Israel’s leading news channels ran a documentary special on the evening news charting Yonatan’s journey: “As soon as it came out, people started writing to me and expressed their love, gratitude and support, inviting me into their homes and telling me I’m welcome here. People still recognise me on the street and give me hugs, appreciating my journey.” As Yonatan awaits his citizenship outcome, he continues to share his story across the world, attending invitations to speak at key Jewish events from the chief Polish memorial event on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, to symposiums with European politicians: “When I speak about what I went through, I hope that people can relate my experiences to the challenges in their own lives. If we ignore things, there’s no real chance of change. It’s a big step to be honest, and if someone is willing to work on themselves, we should give them a second chance and the support they need.
“People have good and bad parts and neglecting the person as a whole would not only be unfair to them, but also to us. By discounting them, we risk the danger of making them feel more and more isolated – we shouldn’t respond to hatred with hatred.”