A number of vigils were held Thursday across Germany as the country faced up to the aftermath of an attempted attack on a synagogue during Judaism’s holiest day of the year that left the Jewish community shaken.
Two people were shot dead in the eastern German city of Halle on Wednesday, with a Jewish house of worship the prime target on Yom Kippur. The suspect, 27-year-old German Stephan Balliet, who prosecutors said intended to carry out a massacre at the synagogue, filmed the assault and live-streamed it.
The local Jewish community leader, Max Privorozki, said that anti-Semitism had become such a danger in Germany that he was now no longer sure the country could be “our home.”
The victims, reportedly a German man and woman, appeared to be chosen at random when the assailant failed to gain access to the synagogue he had besieged with gunfire and homemade explosives, as the frightened congregation barricaded itself inside. The gunmen later wounded two other people in a shooting in a nearby town before he was arrested.
In Halle, mourners placed flowers and lit candles outside the synagogue on Thursday and a vigil was held at the city’s Pauluskirche church.
Outside the Turkish restaurant where one of the victims was killed, scarves of local soccer teams were hung on a tree in a show of support.
A vigil was also held outside Munich’s Ohel Jakob synagogue, while makeshift memorials popped up in other German cities such as Dusseldorf and Stuttgart.
German President German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, joined by Israeli ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff and local officials, visited the Halle synagogue Thursday and laid flowers before meeting Jewish community representatives inside.
Chancellor Angela Merkel attended a vigil in Berlin late Wednesday, and spoke about the incident on Thursday, vowing in a phone calls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fight anti-Semitism and step up security outside Jewish houses of worship.
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency says the number of anti-Semitic acts of violence rose to 48 last year from 21 in 2017. It also said the number of far-right extremists rose by 100 to 24,100 people last year, with more than half of them considered potentially violent.
Despite the outpouring of support, Privorozki told Israel’s Channel 12 news on Thursday “anti-Semitism is now” such a factor in Germany, that “for four years perhaps… I’m not sure that it’s our home.”
Unlike synagogues in many other German cities, the one in Halle didn’t have police officers outside for Yom Kippur, an omission strongly criticized by Jewish leaders.
“There were no security guards… What prevented [a massacre] was the simple act of one of the members of the community who decided to lock the door. That’s what prevented an attack here on the scale of Christchurch,” Israel Ben-Ami Welt of the European Jewish Congress told Israel’s Channel 13.
Rabbi Rebecca Blady, one of some 20 Americans attending the services as part of a Hillel outreach effort, described the service being interrupted by the gunman as he tried to force his way in.
“We had incredible prayers, full of beautiful songs and even dance, until we suddenly heard a loud bang outside,” Blady said.
“It sounded like it could have been a gunshot, maybe an explosion. We really had no idea.”
Over anxious minutes — police say between around 12:03 and 12:11 pm, when the first officers arrived — the man outside tried to force the door with explosives and a shotgun.
The roughly 50 people gathered inside fled upstairs where it seemed safer, or into a back room of the building.
Most didn’t even have phones on them to contact the outside world, leaving them to wait silently while imagining the worst.
“It was a very scary thing… just a chilling experience,” Blady said.
The synagogue in Halle and other Jewish houses of worship in the region will now get full police protection. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who visited the synagogue Thursday, promised wider security improvements for Jewish facilities and said the German government also was examining how to better combat hate speech online.
Numerous Jewish groups issued statements condemning the attack, while B’nai Brith International called on social media companies to be more vigilant in policing their platforms after the gunman livestreamed the attack.
“We also call on Twitch, the platform the shooter used to upload his video of the massacre, to more closely monitor the content that it allows to be live-streamed,” it said in a statement. “Social media platforms must be held responsible for the hate they allow on their platforms.”
Germany’s population of some 83 million includes about 200,000 Jews. Before the Nazis came to power, Germany had a Jewish population of about 500,000. Many of the Jews living in the country now are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were taken in after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
“We are happy about every synagogue, every Jewish community and all Jewish life in our country,” Merkel said at a labor union conference in Nuremberg. “This means first and foremost … that the representatives of the state must use all the means of the state of law to act against hatred, violence and inhumanity. And there is no tolerance for that.”