HALLE, Germany — It is Friday morning at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, and time to try to find the right words after a horrendous few days. Kathrin Kramer and her small group of undergrads are sitting in a circle in a seminar room, processing their thoughts. The 31-year-old pedagogy lecturer has been busy organizing an exchange program, with a new group of students and lecturers expected to arrive on Sunday. They will be coming from Israel.
“I just feel super-insecure about how we have to communicate about it. Maybe they do want to talk about it instantly, maybe they don’t,” Kramer tells her students.
“It” is the terror attack that hit this Germany backwater on Wednesday, Yom Kippur, when a far-right extremist targeted the city’s Humboldt Street synagogue, hoping to kill all of the worshippers inside. After failing to gain entry through the locked wooden door that saved the 80 people inside, he proceeded to shoot and kill a passerby and a customer in a nearby kebab shop. He was later apprehended by the police.
As some of the students nod their heads, others just stare at the floor. All of them visited Israel in March and, on the very day they arrived, rockets were fired at Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip.
“Remember how shocked we were, while they were making jokes?” asks one student, Ulrike Ahlberg, recounting the WhatsApp chat she has recently had with an Israeli student called Amit. “You know, Amit actually apologized that we have to go through this now too,” says the 23-year-old.
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While it had been pretty quiet already, complete silence falls over the seminar room now.
One Israeli already in Halle on the day of the attack was Zohar Lioz Aviv. The 35-year-old musician moved here from Tel Aviv in 2017, after falling in love with a German student on another exchange program from the university. As he walks through the city’s historical center, he reflects on the deadly attack.
“I don’t feel affected. I’m not religious and I don’t even look like how a neo-Nazi probably imagines a Jew,” says Lioz Aviv, walking to work through the city’s historical center. “My father’s family is from Yemen, you know. I’m not white. So I am a Jew but I look like an Arab, like an Ausländer.”
“Ausländer” can simply mean “alien” or “foreigner,” but the word is also widely used as a racial slur. “Ausländer raus!” (“Get out, foreigner!”) is one of the most popular slogans among German neo-Nazis. And Lioz Aviv says it is not uncommon to hear people in Halle use the term.
“I really like Halle. The alternative scene here is amazing, and I would say it’s more tolerant than Tel Aviv,” he says. “But it’s like an urban bubble in a small-town environment. Though the city has more than 230,000 residents, some people look; they stare at you. For example, when I visit Berlin and come back, taking the tram to my apartment there is always this moment when I realize it: While I was nothing special in Berlin, here I am. After moving here, I noticed that I feel my color.”
East is east?
In some of the first international media reports circulated after Wednesday’s attack, Halle was referred to as an “East German” city. And while it is true that Halle is a city in the east of Germany (about 45 kilometers, or 28 miles, west of Leipzig), it is also not far from the center of the country. In other words, it is not only its geographical location that makes Halle East German. It is its history and its present; it’s the data about its residents’ average incomes, ages, education and nationalities.
Even 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the area of the former German Democratic Republic — which existed from 1949 to 1990 —looks, feels and is different than the former West Germany. For example, while the tradition of forming movements to protect democratic values has long existed in the West, the East in general, and Halle in particular, still has some lessons to learn about it.
It is now two years since a far-right youth group called Generation Identity established its German headquarters in Halle. At the time, the media described the movement as a modern version of a very old idea: to bring down liberalism and “re-migrate” immigrants who haven’t assimilated into German culture.
The pan-European group has not really succeeded in gaining ground — in Halle, at least. Only 10 to 15 people are still active, local observers say. However, it is worth noting that in the Mansfeld-Südharz district (just west of Halle) where the shooter lived, the far-right Alternative for Germany party attracted nearly 25 percent of the vote in the last federal election in 2017, almost double its national average.
The Generation Identity office is located in the heart of Halle’s academic district, close to the main college campus. This neighborhood houses quite a few of the city’s 20,000 students, but nowadays the office looks like a dilapidated space. After the group moved in, protesters threw dozens of black, brown and red paint bombs against the formerly brightly plastered Art Nouveau building, and it appears that no one is inside when Haaretz visits.
Not all of the city’s far-right extremists are lying low, though: In mid-afternoon, a middle-aged man with tousled hair and stubble beard parks his van in the middle of the main square, gets onto the roof and turns on his microphone.
Sven Liebich used to play a leading role in the local neo-Nazi scene, but now acts independently: Once a week, he registers his demonstration at the municipality (demonstrations are seen as the people’s right as long as they follow the formal procedure of registering first). Though usually only a handful of people show up to support him, he is allowed to stand here and broadcast his extremist views, even on a day of mourning such as this.
And it is why more and more people — first tens, then hundreds — struggle to control their anger at his hate speech.
“You are not mourning the actual victims, because they were German. Instead you mourn the ones who were not even affected,” he says, over and over. “Shut up you horrible neo-Nazi! Shut up and leave!” yells a middle-aged woman, visibly shaking with rage. “What kind of human are you? You’re just a racist!” shouts a tall, broad-shouldered man as he wipes tears from his eyes.
“Stop it! Stop it!” screams another woman, also middle aged, also shaking. Her name is Conny and she says she knew one of the victims, 40-year-old Jana Lange. “I cannot understand how someone can abuse the victims and even cheer on the hate,” Conny tells Haaretz. “I mean, it could have happened to any one of us; we are all affected.”
Liebich’s demonstration is finally ended by the police after about 30 minutes. The moment he climbs down from his van, the central square falls silent.
As the sun gets lower in the fall sky, a strange reality dawns for anti-extremist group Halle Against the Far Right. The movement had planned a protest march from the city center to the synagogue in the late afternoon. But those plans were scuppered at the last moment after it was pointed out to them that “many members of the Jewish community will be in the synagogue” on Friday night.
“We weren’t aware of the fact that there’s Shabbat on Fridays in the Jewish religion,” one of the march participants told Haaretz later. Instead, he and hundreds of others decided to go to the synagogue when its Shabbat service started, lighting candles outside and showing support for the Jewish community.
The view from the gallery
And so, a little more than 48 hours after the terror attack, the Jewish community of Halle returns to its synagogue. Senior local political figures like Saxony-Anhalt head Reiner Haseloff attend the service, as well as non-Jewish locals. Max Privorozki, the head of this Orthodox community, supervises events, making sure every man gets a kippa and every woman a place in the gallery.
From up there, it easy to spot who is Jewish and who is a guest: While some men are lost in prayer, others are trying to work out the correct way to open the Jewish prayer book (hint: not from the left).
“Interesting view,” says an elderly lady, wearing a black coat and gracious smile. “I usually sit downstairs with my husband; he is almost 90.” Jutta Schwab is the wife of Max Schwab, a Holocaust survivor and the local Jewish community’s oldest member. The Schwabs were not at the synagogue when the attack took place on Wednesday afternoon, but are here now with one of their three sons, Tobias.
“I am not Jewish, and we were not sure what was better for our children,” explains Jutta. “No religion was accepted in the GDR, but we were worrying more about how it would be to grow up as Jews than getting them baptized,” she recounts, taking the kiddush wine after prayers.
She continues: “Tobias is actually the only one who feels connected to Judaism. As a boy, he had a bad experience in school when a classmate told him that someone like him should be gassed. I can only assume that’s the reason,” she adds, as her son comes up the stairs.
Tobias Schwab is a politician for the local Christian Democratic Union and was one of the community members who reminded the protesters about Shabbat. “You know how it works. Having good intentions and doing the right thing are sometimes two totally different things,” he says, smiling politely. “But I guess this night can be some kind of beginning. It’s only if people are aware of Jewish life that they can truly be aware of anti-Semitism. It’s all about the education,” he adds.
Later that evening, Kramer, the pedagogy lecturer, sits in her kitchen and refills her glass with white wine. In fewer than 48 hours, the Israeli group will arrive.
“I never considered Halle an unsafe place,” she reflects. “Now we have to figure out how to create this feeling of being safe here again.”
Steffi Hentschke is a German freelance journalist, working for Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.