A year after the Halle terror attack, Jews who were there are still looking for answers


BERLIN (JTA) — The protective locked door had kept out the shooter.

One year ago, that was the bright spot in the aftermath of the attempted synagogue shooting on Yom Kippur in Halle, a sleepy city of 240,000 located about 100 miles southwest of Berlin. 

It was the most frightening terrorist attack targeting Jews on German soil in recent memory, and many saw it as symbolic of rising anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism across the country. But there was also a somewhat encouraging result: The synagogue’s security system had done its job. 

The attacker, a neo-Nazi sympathizer named Stephan Balliet, tried to enter the building, but the main door had withstood his guns and homemade explosives. He instead shot and killed a passerby before firing into a nearby Turkish kebab shop, killing a customer. No one inside the synagogue was physically injured — some even kept the Yom Kippur service going through all the turmoil unfolding outside. 

However, in the months that followed, a fuller and more disturbing narrative about the attack surfaced.

Local police admitted that they had no idea about the Yom Kippur holiday, which brought a larger than normal number of Jews together. About 20 young Jews had also traveled down from Berlin to observe the holiday in Halle on a trip organized by the Base Berlin/Hillel Deutschland, a pluralistic Jewish home in the city that hosts events and learning sessions. 

According to Max Privorozki, the chairman of the Jewish Community of Halle organization, it took the police 10 minutes to arrive at the synagogue after he called to report the attack. He has become the public spokesman for Halle Jews, a community made up mostly of Russian immigrants who are wary of speaking to the media and Holocaust survivors. 

“In my opinion, they were too slow,” Privorozki said of the police. “I think when there’s a report coming from a synagogue of an attack, then they need to be there immediately with all their power.”

Police captured the gunman after a 50-mile chase.

Visitors at the synagogue in Halle the day after a gunman targeted the house of worship in eastern Germany, Oct. 10, 2019. (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

When Christina Feist, one of the visitors from Berlin, arrived in front of the Halle synagogue, she said she immediately noticed a lack of security compared to other Jewish institutions in Europe. The 30-year-old Vienna native had come to Berlin for a doctoral program that required her to split time between the German capital and Paris.

“Wherever shul is is where the police are,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised in my naive conception that hey, maybe Halle is the place where you do not need police to be in front of shul because there is no anti-Semitism.”

Inside, Feist asked the synagogue’s cantor about the situation. She recalls the cantor telling her that the synagogue had made requests for security but nothing had happened to that point.

The police have claimed that the congregation did not request any security for Yom Kippur. Privorozki has disputed that charge, claiming that the State Association of Jewish Communities in Saxony-Anhalt sends the city an updated Jewish calendar every year along with an explanation of the most important holidays. 

In February, the state of Saxony-Anhalt launched an investigation into the police response.

Christina Feist was surprised by the lack of security presence at the Halle synagogue before the attack. (Ina Breust)

A cultural chasm

In general, survivors have also complained of a general lack of compassion they say police showed them, allegedly treating them as suspects instead of victims. For example, the police are alleged to have made it difficult for the survivors to retrieve their kosher food after the attack to break the Yom Kippur fast. Later at the hospital, the survivors continued their service, only to allegedly be interrupted by police.

“In the middle of the prayer, the police came and said they had to debrief us immediately,” recounted Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz, one of the Base Hillel trip’s organizers. “I resisted and said that they would have to wait 20 minutes until we finish before we can talk. They were angry and frustrated, saying that the debrief was more important than our prayer. The only reason they didn’t manage to break up the prayer was that one of the hospital’s managing directors told them to stop intervening and let us finish.”

Privorozki argues that the causes of this schism between local Jews and police “lies much deeper” than the police response to the attack. He says there is a broader lack of education concerning Jewish culture in Germany, and a stark divide between Jews and non-Jewish Germans throughout the country.

“What the police don’t know isn’t their fault, Privorozki said, “but rather the fault of whoever is responsible for giving them all the information they need to do their job well.”

It’s something that Jewish institutions are working to address. The Central Council of Jews in Germany, the country’s umbrella Jewish organization, launched a program earlier this year called “Meet a Jew,” designed to increase contact between Jews and non-Jews.

Max Privorozki is the spokesman for Halle’s Jewish community. (Courtesy of Ella Privorozki)

“We realized a lot of people in Germany don’t know Jewish people in person,” project coordinator Mascha Schmerling said. “The knowledge that they have about Jews comes from history books, from school, or it’s connected to the Shoah or current anti-Semitism or sometimes through the policies of Israel.”

Hetty Berg, the new director of the Jewish Museum of Berlin, has also told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she would like the museum to do more to connect with local non-Jewish communities.

But the claims of cultural insensitivity have persisted throughout the trial of the shooter, which is taking place in Magdeburg, a city between Halle and Berlin. Survivors of the attack have been making the trip from both cities to give their testimony in support of the 43 co-plaintiffs.

Trauma in public

Last year’s Yom Kippur was supposed to be a unique experience shared by different communities. Privorozki said that he and the rest of the mostly older Halle community — about 530 members, compared to 740 in 2005 — were excited to hear about the bus of young visitors. 

“The idea was to support the local community and bring new energy into shul,” Feist said. “They welcomed us and it was really nice.”

After the attack, locals were reserved in sharing their experiences. Some of the visitors, however, have spoken and written about their experiences openly

And Privorozki has been public about his grievances with the press, saying the experience has been “ganz negative” or “completely negative,” with few exceptions.

At the Halle attack trial, accused gunman Stephan Balliet sits next to his defense lawyers in court in Magdeburg, Germany, Sept. 15, 2020. (Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“I can understand that there was an attack, it’s a rare event, it’s out of the ordinary,” he said. “But it seems, regardless of the country, the media didn’t understand that we were in a very challenging situation.” 

Above all, Privorozki is tired of answering what he calls “the most unpleasant question,” the question he’s asked the most by the media — to recount his experience on the day of the attack.

“You need to understand, I don’t want to relive that day,” he said. “I’d really like to never speak about it because when I speak about it, the events are once again woken up in my head. I’ve experienced something in my life that I’ve never experienced before and hope to never experience again.”

That said, Privorozki has resigned himself to the fact that it’s his obligation to tell the story on behalf of a community that for personal reasons has refused to speak to the press.

“I’m the chairman of the community and have certain obligations regardless of whether or not I like it,” he said.

Following the attack, Feist felt herself tensing up whenever she visited Berlin. In the months after, she felt panicked and triggered in crowded spaces or whenever she heard a loud bang. She signed up for boxing lessons to deal with the trauma, but it became clear quickly that she needed therapy as well. 

Mollie Sharfman, another visitor from Berlin, walked out after the morning Yom Kippur service for a quick break, expecting she’d be right back, and missed the attack. Still, she is acutely aware of the fact that had she left a few minutes later, she could have encountered the gunman in the street. She displayed similar traumatized symptoms and began therapy, too. 

“The most helpful therapy was EMDR Trauma Therapy [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing],” Sharfman said. “It helped me see past the current situation and see a bright future again.”

Mollie Sharfman, standing outside the Halle synagogue, had left the building before the attacker showed up. (Amie Leibowitz)

Moving on, this year and beyond

Due to the ongoing pandemic, Privorozki explained that this year’s services will not take place in the synagogue but in a larger rented hall so that more members can attend while adhering to social distancing guidelines. 

Base Berlin, the organizers of the bus trip to Halle last year, will mark the anniversary with a Festival of Resilience in Berlin, in a beer garden and park, where the community will reflect on the healing process throughout the year since the attack. It will also “underline the importance of developing and expanding support based on education and culture,” according to an online description.

For Privorozki, the most important thing to reflect on is the fact that two people lost their lives. It’s impossible for him to put that aside, but as things stand, he’s actually optimistic about the future of Jewish life in Germany.

“The reaction from regular people in and outside of the city leaves me more optimistic than before the attack,” he said.

Privorozki expected to hear from presidents and politicians, but he never expected such an outpouring of support from the non-Jewish community. He referred to the 400 children from schools in Halle who visited the synagogue to show their support and to the 2,000 people who made a chain next to the synagogue two days after the attack, on Shabbat, “to show that they are with us.” 

“Our synagogue was attacked twice,” he said. “Once on Nov. 9, 1938 — Kristallnacht — and last year on Yom Kippur. The difference is the reaction from people. Back then, people either welcomed it or took part in it. Now people are on our side.”

Feist spends most of her time now in Paris and only returns to Germany to witness the testimony at the trial in Magdeburg. She has testified herself and said it was an important step in the process of coping with her trauma. But she has plans to observe Yom Kippur again with the community in Halle.

“It was the first thing I decided last year after Yom Kippur,” she said. “I took a good year to figure out if I really want to do this and I stand by it.”

Feist said she will return to Halle to stand with the community, but she also views it as an opportunity “to go full circle” with her experience, to help herself heal. 

“There’s no place on Earth, no building, nothing that’s a piece of me except for that shul,” she said. “I am fiercely protective over it and the entire community. I really want to be there.”

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