Ezra Waxman likes being Jewish in Europe. There is an opportunity, he says, to lay the roots of a new, living Jewish culture. Originally from Boston, he moved to Berlin two months ago, for a postdoc position in mathematics at the Technical University of Dresden. He’d been invited, along with a dozen or so other young Jewish expats, to spend Yom Kippur in Halle, a small city about a hundred miles from the capital. Halle’s prewar Jewish population was around thirteen hundred; by 1944, around ninety remained. Today, most of the Jewish community in Halle came to Germany from the collapsing Soviet Union, as part of a refugee program called Kontingentflüchtlingsgesetz. Waxman, who is thirty-one, earnest, and gently provocative, had been excited to share with them the singing and dancing that he’d grown up with in the U.S. “Even just knowing the songs helps create a choir and gives a lot more power to the service,” Waxman said. “It raises the bar of the religious experience.”
This past Wednesday, fifty or so older, Russian-speaking Jews and ten young Americans, a few Germans, a Pole, an Austrian, and a Brit had gathered in the synagogue, rebuilt after the war in the pseudo-Moorish style, its sceptre-like domes rising from behind a brick wall, the men in the front of the mid-century sanctuary and the women in the back. During the Torah reading, there was a loud boom, like a big metal object falling over. The synagogue had requested a police presence during the holiday, but the German government had turned them down. Instead, the security system had been somewhat cobbled together. A member of the community, who wore a jacket that said “Security” and sat at a small desk near the entrance to the sanctuary, had been designated the security guard by the leadership of the synagogue. The cantor paused the service, and people crowded around a security-camera monitor. A man dressed in black was on the sidewalk outside the wooden door, which had been locked during the services as a security measure. He was surrounded by smoke; less than a minute later, there was another boom, and then a sound that Waxman immediately recognized as gunfire.
The weapons allegedly used by the twenty-seven-year-old Stephan Balliet, from the town of Benndorf, about twenty-five miles from Halle, were hand-fashioned from wood, piping, steel, and plastic. In an online post prepared in advance, obviously expecting someone to go looking for it, he included photos of his handiwork, which he had modelled after open sources on the Internet. Last Wednesday, they malfunctioned accordingly, as he tried, and failed, to push open the door to the synagogue’s grounds, and then tried, still unsuccessfully, to shoot it open. It seems clear that if Balliet had been able to purchase weapons—if the scenario had happened in America—there would have been a massacre. (“God bless the Germans with their gun-control laws,” Waxman said.) Balliet, who was taken to an undisclosed hospital after suffering injuries during a shootout with police, live-streamed his rampage, apparently imitating the terrorist who broadcast on Facebook Live the murder of fifty-one people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Nine minutes into Balliet’s video, a woman passing by in the street shouts at him, and he guns her down. Finding himself still unable to gain entry to the synagogue, swearing and frustrated, he drives down to the end of the street and enters into a Turkish döner shop, where he kills one more person.
When news of the attack began to circulate later that day, one could not help but think of everything else that was happening in Germany at the time. Less than a week earlier, a man with a knife had overcome the barrier outside Berlin’s Neue Synagogue, which had miraculously survived the nineteen-forties, before being stopped by armed security guards. (He was later released, in accordance with German law, and charged only with disturbing the peace.) In Dresden, at the moment, one of the largest right-wing-terror trials in Germany in decades is taking place—the defendants are eight members of a neo-Nazi group that calls itself Revolution Chemnitz, who were intercepted last year and arrested for allegedly planning to attack immigrants, political opponents, and journalists. Germany’s Interior Minister has said that, in 2018, the police uncovered a thousand and ninety-one weapons related to far-right terrorism, compared with six hundred and seventy-six in 2017. On Thursday, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German President, joined the head of the Jewish community in Halle, Max Privorozki, to pay tribute to the victims. Afterward, Steinmeier spoke briefly with journalists and residents who had gathered outside, announcing that the German government would be very clear about its responsibility to protect Jewish life in Germany. (After the attack, however, Waxman told me that he and the other members of the group spent the night in Halle without any visible security presence.)
When someone asked Privorozki how concerned he was about the rise of the extreme right in Germany, he responded that the problem wasn’t just in Germany. “All over the world there is anti-Semitism,” Privorozki said. “It’s very important that governments in all countries find out the special medicine to try to fight this problem.” (Privorozki later told me that he’d received an e-mail of condolence from the Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburgh, where eleven people were killed by a mass shooter almost exactly a year ago) Florian Hartleb, a lecturer of political science at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt and an expert on right-wing extremism, agreed with Privorozki’s appraisal. “I think it would be misleading to link this too much with the local situation,” Hartleb told me, noting that the terrorists’ words, like those of the Christchurch killer, were largely strung together from Internet-ready memes. “This was not an ideology sui generis,” Hartleb said. “He was socially isolated, there was clearly some personal frustration. He was living with his mother.” More specifically, Balliet’s actions bore signs of an 8-chan subculture that promotes what has been referred to as the “gamification” of terrorism. He was one of the so-called alienated children of our times, Hartleb said, who search for a new family in online culture. He was also unknown to police prior to the attack.
The sidewalks in Halle are scattered with Stolpersteine, the small cubic brass “stumbling stones” set into the pavement in front of the residences of the Jews who once lived there, which cite their dates of birth, dates of deportation, and, when known, the dates and locations of their deaths. By Friday, displays of grief and solidarity had flooded in from around the city. I watched automobile workers, firemen and firewomen, observant Christians, and many others in between come to lay flowers or say a prayer for the victims. “This is an exception,” Benjamin Leins, a church organist who lives across the street, told me. “We are not like this.” A nineteen-year-old nursing student named Samantha said that she might have expected something like this in a bigger city. “Berlin or Leipzig maybe,” she said. “But not in Halle.” And, in any case, she confessed, she tended to fear that the refugee population would be the target of such an attack.
During the attack, there had been much confusion inside the synagogue and many people present had fled to an upstairs apartment or into a small kitchen. Some time after the members made contact with the police, they heard sirens outside, but no one yet knew exactly what had happened. While on lockdown, they decided to continue the service. “As young people, we just channelled that energy toward what we were bringing to the community,” Waxman said. They picked up again with the singing, and even dancing, and an elderly Russian lady remarked that this was why the Jewish people would live forever. “I really don’t know why I stayed calm but I stayed calm,” Waxman said. “But this was not a normal day. Your mind-set is a different mind-set on Yom Kippur. That was definitely a big element in shaping the day and the experience for us. That would not have happened if it was any other day.”
Amidst the anxiety around revived anti-Semitism in Germany, the tributes for the attack’s two victims, passersby whom the gunman had turned on in his rage at his own failure, had remained somewhat muted. On Thursday evening, an enormous crowd gathered in the marketplace in the center of the old town, an odd mingling of Gothic and Communist architecture, people setting out bouquets of flowers and tiny plastic cups containing hundreds of twinkling lights. There were photos of Jana L. and Kevin S., as they’d been identified in the German press, forty and twenty years old respectively: the photos of Jana L. showed her at concerts, her arms around the German folk singers whom she adored; Kevin S. was terribly young, photographed in a dark jacket with dark sunglasses, earbuds in, looking coolly aloof at the camera. They were not part of the demographics that the murderer said he hated; he murdered them anyway. If their deaths could underscore the true nature of terrorism—its sheer, despicable emptiness—then may that be one more reason, as it is said in the Jewish tradition, that their memories be a blessing. Waxman told me that the visitors who’d come from Berlin planned, once the first phase of grieving passed, to reach out to the victims’ families. “These people took bullets that were intended for us,” Waxman recalled one of his friends saying. “Our fates are now tied.”