(This article appeared first in the Israeli media. Since I promised the people I interviewed that their full name will appear only in the Hebrew version, I will not use their full name here)
I left Berlin around five o’clock in the morning, after watching an NBA basketball game. I got into the huge car the rental company upgraded for me and pushed the gas pedal. 180 kilometres, 1.5 hours. I needed something to boost the caffeine in my body. My fingers went through my Spotify playlist. In a few hours Yum Kippur will begin, and in some miraculous way my fingers pressed the Leonard Cohen icon. It is not a Caffeine booster, but it is a reminder of time and place. „And everybody knows that the Plague is coming/Everybody knows that it’s moving fast“.
There is a police transit parking near the entrance to Halle, on the sidewalk right in front of Humboldt Strasse where the synagogue and the cemetery sit. It is still early and both officers are deep asleep. Between them there is a box with donuts evidence. they are in middle of a post-donuts-trauma.
„It is one car and two policemen more than last year“, claims in irony Max P. head of Halle Jewish community. it’s different this year: no young Americans to fill out the spaces in the small synagogue, due to a mix of Corona and post trauma, and the whole ceremony was moved to a neighborhood in the other edge of town, heavy populated by Muslims, into a room that carries nothing of the spiritual energy usually existed in synagogues during Yom Kippur. Outside there were two police cars and seven alerted policemen. It you trust the police, nothing would happen here this year, but later you will see that no one really trust here the police.
After moving all necessary materials from the synagogue to the new place, Max and I drove to pick up the cantor from the train station. Throughout our drive the cantor’s phone was ringing to the tune of „Hava nagila“, he climbed the stage and began the service to an audience that was separated between males and females. Every time he turned a page, a guy next to him stood up and turned huge digits to indicate the right page. There was no holiness, no singing, just a tense expectation that everything will end in peace this time.
Max P. was hosting media crews the entire morning. „Germans remember us by the days they managed or failed to kill us“, told me bitterly one of the community members. „They remember 9th November very well, and all of a sudden everyone is aware of Yom Kippur“. Max P. is sick and tired of the media. Instead of taking care of the logistics and economics of the community, he is answering the same answer for the millionth time, and showing the camera around.
Max p. came to Halle from Kiev 30 years ago. Left his homeland to a place where he can express himself freely and live in freedom. In Kiev he couldn’t even apply for some jobs just because he was Jewish. His wife is not Jewish and he grew up in a non-religious house („my mother used to fast once a year, but I never understood why“). He has two daughters and he is a mathematician by profession. „Every time I am on a holiday, toward the end I always say that it’s time to go back home“, he says, „but it feels different this year. Germany is turning into the place I ran away from. There is no real freedom here. There is fear and hate. I try to convince myself that home is here, but what kind of a home is it when I have to fight with the authorities for money in order to secure our community after what happened, and then I also need to think: What kind of a home is it when you must live behind bars and heavy security?“
Like all survivors he tried to shake off the minutes of horror they experienced last year. He remembers watching Stephan B. on the short circuit monitor with some of the members thanking God for saving them, and some texting their families to say goodbye. He made himself as busy as he could get, but noticed that his heart sinks every time he hears helicopters sound above him, and he couldn’t really stand anymore the new year’s fire crackers. In July, when the trial started, Max P., just like the rest of the survivors, lost his defense systems after watching and hearing Stephan B. at the trial, not regretting what he was doing and using the trial as a platform to market himself and his hatred. Since then, Max the mathematician who understand everything logically, is talking once a week with a psychologist, trying to get subtitles to what his heart is trying to tell him, trying to understand something that have no logic or explanation.
Halle is a beautiful mixture of Gothic, renaissance and communism. I bet there is in Germany a whole section of city planners who just know how to rebuild the east, sealing off its physical and racial ugliness under facades of stores and cafes. The sidewalks are decorated with dozens of Stolper Steine. There were 1400 Jews in Halle before the war, just 90 remained. „It’s a beautiful city if someone is not trying to kill you“, told me one survivor when I interviewed her in Berlin. I asked her if she have any recommendation and she said: „well, try to avoid the synagogue on Yom Kippur“.
I sat in a cafe and asked a couple with their two kids if Halle is also a victim of the attack. „Why don’t you leave alone already“, the husband barked at me. Weird, that was the exact question I wanted to ask. A 20-year-old waitress handed me the bill and told me that she used to live in Tel Aviv for one year, volunteering to help autistic kids. „Halle is OK“, she told me, „the problem is with the villages around Halle“.
One of these villages is Benndorf, about 35 kilometres from Halle. This is where Stephan B. grew up and where he returned to after his failed attempt to join the army or study. Here he lived with his mother, in an eight QM room, bed, chair, desk and a computer that allowed him to dive into another universe, filled with comics with swastikas, with hatred toward the other. Here he was socially acceptable without needing to talk to no one, just avatars. Many claim that he killed the first woman outside the synagogue just because she talked to him, shot her just like you solve problems in video games. I waited outside his house until I heard a voice or someone moving inside and then I knocked on the door. And then my phone rang.
M.S was on the line. She is a 30-year-old from Maryland. Moved to Berlin just a few months before the attack, joined Base Berlin, a group that was initiated by a couple, both Rabbis, trying to integrate Jews from all backgrounds that live in Berlin in order to conserve, duplicate and rebuild Jewish life and culture in Germany. Twenty of them went to Halle last Yom Kippur in order to strengthen the local community.
M.S left the synagogue just a few minuted before Stephan B. tried to break in. After his failure he drove his car, trying to find a place where he can kill immigrants. On his way to Kiez Doener, he passed her again on the street. She met him for the first time only when she testified in court. When she said that she works for a Jewish organization, Stephan B. was cackling. When she testified that her grandparents are Holocaust survivors, he started laughing hysterically. How can there be survivors, if there was no Holocaust?
„It’s a strange feeling“, says M.S, „Yom Kippur was the day I most waited for in the calender year. Holy day, filled with meaning, and now I just want it to be over. I have so many questions for God, but I have no time or mental resources to ask them. What does it mean that he saved me? How do you run away from the guilt of knowing that someone else stopped the bullets intended to you? Once. my relationship with God was very clear, now it’s all complicated“.
I told her where I am. She asked that I do something. I took out the blue kippah with the star of David and Hebrew letters decoration that my mother had sent me and put it on my head. No one was answering my knocks on the door. I prayed three times: But the more they afflicted him, the more he would multiply and the more he would spread about” (Exodus 1:12), and left.
I drove to Kiez Doener, the place where Stephan B. killed his second victim. „Germans are very comfortable with Jewish victims. There were also Turkish and German victims, but all you hear about is the synagogue. It’s like Jewish victims have better PR“, told me the survivor from Berlin. I.T, 36, is the current owner of the restaurant. Got it from the previous owner as a gift. He arrived from Turkey to Halle 12 years ago in order to pursue better living and future and to raise his kids in democracy, just like Max. Since the attack he went through difficulties. People stopped coming: first it was too close to the attack, then it was cold and then Corona. His younger brother who witnessed the entire attack got depressed. The authorities who promised that the place will be forever part of Halle’s landscape failed to put any action behind their promises.
One day during the trial, I.T. went for a walk and a cigarettes with one of the survivors. They were both talking about the babies they were about to have. I.T. told the Jewish survivor about his problems. Let me see what I can do, told him the survivor. So, the Jewish student body initiated a fund and within days the target sum of 5000 Euros was raised, and the funds just kept coming. A German guy wake up one morning in order to kill Jews and immigrants, kills two Germans, and builds a bridge between Muslims and Jews.
The community members were leaving the space at the end of the Yom Kippur service. The security guys were smoking a cigarette (the only thing between them and security is the fact that „security“ is written at the back of their vests, told me Max). All of them were looking at the police force outside with suspicious eyes. Apparently, a few months back a call was placed to the local police station complaining about a placement of a paper swastika on the door of the Jewish community center in Halle. A car with two policemen was dispatched to check the incident. One policeman stepped out to check. He returned and announced to his friend and the station that he couldn’t see anything. But the video camera that was taping the entire time, showed the policeman arriving, destroying the evidence and then going back to his car.
„If all ends without anything“, told me Nathan, a young member of the community, „they will complain that nothing happened, that they invested in more security and nothing happened. It’s almost as you feel you want something to happen. It used to be the holiest day for us here. Now? Now we need to look behind our back, ask who is this person and what is he doing here, look for escape routes. And all the time know that Stephan B. was grown into this, that there are hundreds of Stephan B. out there to get me, and that the police has nothing to do against this lone wolves, that when the circumstance will be right, they will come out“.
On my way home I drove passed the synagogue where the attack took place. There were two cars and four policemen outside. The facility was quite and deserted, like a father whom his kids left for betraying them. The Policemen were very alert, guarding a a volcano that just erupted lately and its lava is still boiling.