BERLIN — American Rebecca Blady was hoping to spend a day in retreat from the outside world, turning to fasting and worship at Yom Kippur in the eastern German city Halle.
She and her husband Jeremy, two Jewish orthodox community leaders who recently moved to Germany, had eagerly agreed to celebrate in the “shul” or synagogue there, which rarely has enough worshipers to fill its space on high holidays.
They ended up being survivors and witnesses of a day of extraordinary violence.
With the pair came around 20 young practicing Jews from the US, Germany and Israel to “bring some extra energy to the prayers,” said Blady, the executive director of Hillel Germany, adding that she also brought with her sacred objects and photocopies of religious texts and songs.
To reach the temple, she had to make her way through the spartan blocks of flats characteristic of the city in the former communist East.
“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.”
Some of the congregation ran to the display screens connected to the outdoor security cameras. After a few moments of silence, the sounds of blasts came again.
“Go somewhere away from the windows, where you can be safe, because they’re shooting at us!” the watchers said.
Over anxious minutes — police say between around 12:03 and 12:11 p.m., when the first officers arrived — the man outside tried to force the door with explosives and a shotgun. He was later identified as a 27-year-old German neo-Nazi, Stephan Balliet, who filmed his attempt to storm the synagogue — opening the video with an anti-Semitic diatribe.
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 due to the holy day, leaving them to wait silently while imagining the worst.
“It was a very scary thing… just a chilling experience,” Blady said.
But after 20 minutes, the group were reached by police, who decided to lock down the synagogue, keeping the worshipers inside under police protection.
Outside lay the body of a female passer-by shot by the attacker. The man then moved on to a nearby kebab shop and killed another man. The victims’ identities have not yet been released.
Blady said she decided to keep her group’s mind off the threatening circumstances with prayer, keeping them going for two full hours.
Only at 5 p.m. were the congregants evacuated to a nearby hospital.
There they conducted the day’s final neilah prayer together “with extra fervor and heard the sound of the shofar,” a religious instrument made from a ram’s horn, as well as breaking their fast, Blady said.
After that, they were brought to safety in a hotel under police watch.
“God counted us all there, one by one, as deserving of life,” Blady said.
“This kind of news, it’s not new and it’s not unique to Germany any more… it can happen now, anywhere in the world.”