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German synagogue attack: Memories are still fresh

July 21, 2020

When he went to Halle a day after the attack in October 2019, our reporter witnessed shock and solidarity. Now he returns to a city that seems tired and desperate as the suspected perpetrator heads to trial.

The door of the Halle synagogue
Image: DW/B. Knight

Halle synagogue attack trial

Humboldtstrasse in Halle is almost completely different now from how it was eight months ago. With a couple of small exceptions, that is.

When I was there last it was October 10, 2019, a day after an attacker fired several shots into the outer door of the city's synagogue,the leafy street was filled by a large but almost silent crowd.

Read more: Locals joining Jewish community for vigil in Halle— Ben Knight reporting

Now all that reminds me of the horrible atmosphere of that day is the police van, parked discreetly and permanently at the next corner, and the dozen or so bullet holes puncturing the wood around the lock in the door that faces the street.

The strength of that door may have saved the lives of the 52 people gathered inside to celebrate Yom Kippur. It also led to the miserable irony of the attack: Even though the alleged attacker targeted minority communities — a synagogue and a Turkish fast food restaurant — the two people he did kill with his misfiring homemade gun were non-Jewish Germans. They were 40-year-old Jana L., a passer-by walking along Humboldtstrasse on her way home, and 20-year-old Kevin S., a construction worker who had dropped into the Kiez Döner kebab shop on his lunch break.

Read more: How can Germany better protect its synagogues?

There were hundreds of people milling around the street outside the synagogue the next day: Local residents, reporters, police officers, a handful of politicians. The atmosphere was heavy with a combination of shock and silent weariness at having to gather in the wake of yet another far-right attack in Germany. The journalists like me all looked a bit blank. Reporting the aftermath of horrible events is probably the worst part of this job. What is there to say? What do you ask people? The feelings are so obvious you're weighed down by how redundant and intrusive any questions are. 

Ismet Tekin
The takeaway place where football fan Kevin S. was shot and killed has been decorated in his honorImage: DW/B. Knight

Two crime scenes

Eight months later and Humboldtstrasse is quiet again. The synagogue and its adjoining cemetery are still behind a high brick wall, only really visible from the opposite sidewalk. Around 500 meters (550 yards) away, at the other end of Schillerstrasse, the Kiez Döner kebab shop has a wall filled with little angel ornaments, flowers, and signed shirts of a local football team, Hallescher FC, and remembrance messages for Kevin S., the football fan who was killed inside.

Locals don't really know what to make of the attack now. One man, who had come out to pay his respects at the time, told me that he always thought it was "very sad" that the synagogue was walled off from the street the way it was.

Read more: Thousands rally against far-right, anti-Semitism

Halle synagogue
Halle's synagogue building is surrounded by a high wallImage: DW/B. Knight

What might have made him even sadder, and what I didn't know at the time, was the reason why the synagogue was locked away behind a high cemetery wall in the first place: It was never meant to be a synagogue at all. The building was built as a bet tahara, a kind of funeral chapel, in 1894. After Halle's main synagogue in the old city center was burnt down during the nationwide Nazi pogroms of November 1938, the city's Jewish community moved into this more secluded, and safer, location.

Now the small Jewish community has decided to keep the synagogue even further out of the public eye. Reporters and TV crews are not allowed inside, and Max Privorozki, the Kyiv-born leader of the official community organization, only does interviews in his office across town. He explains to me how the police are constantly kept informed of new arrangements in the community, even when a language teacher cancels a lesson, via an automated system whose details he declines to explain.

He is grateful for the new police concern, but the subtext is: Such measures might have been in place earlier. In the days after the attack, many wondered aloud why there was no police presence outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur — the holiest day of the Jewish calendar — as there is in larger German cities like Berlin.

The growing threat of anti-Semitism was obvious to the few hundred Jewish people who live in Halle. "What I've noticed is a qualitative change in the anti-Semitic incidents, and that has nothing to do with the attack," Privorozki told DW. "In the last few years it has become safer to show yourself to be anti-Semitic. It's not embarrassing anymore."

Read more: Opinion — Germany must do more to fight anti-Semitism

Max Privorozki giving interviews outside the synagogue
Max Privorozki says people who experienced the Halle attack just don't want to talk about it anymoreImage: Reuters/F. Bensch

The memories from that day are still raw. "People like me, who experienced the attack, won't talk about it," he added. "Maybe only those people who were in the synagogue at the time can understand that, or those who have survived another terrorist attack. It's something you need to process for yourself, either with psychological help or without, but it's something private." He generally feels fine now — "I'm lucky, I have a lot of work to do, so I don't have time to think about other things" — though he has noticed a new anxiety rising in him when he hears helicopters buzzing in the sky or fireworks on New Year's Eve.

Germany: Living with anti-Semitism

Escaping death

Ismet Tekin, who escaped the attack by a few seconds, doesn't talk about that day either. He was approaching the kebab shop to begin his shift when the attacker came out and fired at him, having already shot and injured Kevin S. inside. Now Tekin and his brother are the shop's new proprietors after the previous owner handed it over to them in the wake of the attack.

"Living through this day was horrific, like nothing you can imagine or want to see happen, or want to wish on anyone," he told DW.

This year's pandemic, and the inevitable financial disaster it brought to small food businesses, has not made things easier for Tekin, and he has noticed little evidence of the help promised by the local government in the wake of the attack. But the series of crises has left the 36-year-old with a humanist take on it all. "Human beings are worth more than anything else," he says. "The coronavirus showed that. It turned every city into a horror film — empty, silent. Humans can build cities, but cities can't make humans."

To the point: Halle terror attack: How deadly is Germany's far right?

What now?

But now what? In Halle, as in Chemnitz and Hanau and all the other cities that have seen violent far-right attacks in recent years, this question lingers in the aftermath. How should a decent society respond to the signs of an increasingly violent extremist right-wing culture?

Torsten Hahnel has a close knowledge of Halle's far-right, having struggled against it for more than three decades. The co-founder of the anti-racism organization Miteinander ("Together") has watched the scene develop from a skinhead neo-Nazi sub-culture in the 90s, once dubbed "the baseball-bat years," when street violence and even killings happened with little media attention, to what it is now: A semi-tolerated presence, both in the shape of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and the weekly, sometimes daily, demos organized by local far-right extremist Sven Liebich. According to the state domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, there are some 1,230 active far-right extremists in the state of Saxony-Anhalt.

Read more: German synagogue attacker's extremist circles

Torsten Hahnel
Torsten Hahnel heads an anti-racism organization in Halle and would like to see more support for his causeImage: DW/B. Knight

Hahnel remembers the shock that set in across the city for the first few days after the October attack. He was "positively surprised" by the initial reaction from the people: A human chain formed to symbolically protect the synagogue, the spontaneous gathering of thousands of people in the main market square, where candles and wreaths were laid down. "The feeling in the town had completely changed," he said. "Then came the question: What now? And that's not easy to answer, because I'm not sure how a city should change after an attack like that."

Because for all the shock and solidarity, he says the people of Halle have now settled back into a weary tolerance of the far-right. The weekly demonstrations, often explicitly anti-Semitic, still go on, and though they are small, they simply blend into the high street. Each week, Hahnel notices that no one expresses much outrage except a few Antifa activists.

"In the days afterward I really believed: Maybe there will be something sustainable, something appropriate to this madness – there would be a new kind of organization, more people acting, more people supporting us. But that hasn't happened," he said.

"I don't mean that as a reproach," the Halle native adds quickly. "It's just an observation."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight