Connotations to the Shoa

Four witnesses who were in the synagogue at the time of the attack testified.

On September 8, 2020, the 10th day of the trial against the alleged attacker of Halle: Four witnesses who were in the synagogue at the time of the attack testified. In their statements, the witnesses described the profound experience and its consequences. They’ve described how they feel in Germany today, what frightens them, and what gives them hope for the future. Once again, criticism was raised about how German politics and society deal with the problem of antisemitism.

The first witness was Rabbi Rebecca B., who travelled to Halle with her family for Yom Kippur last year. In an impressive statement, she emphasized the need for consideration of the significance of transgenerational trauma in order to understand the consequences of the attack for the descendants of Shoah survivors. In order for the court to understand what she went through on October 9, it was important to her to share more about her grandparents’ history: “My testimony today is about the reactivation of a deep family trauma.” Before her testimony, the witness had talked to her grandmother on the phone, so that she could tell her about her memories from the Shoa. The latter had survived Auschwitz, forced labor and Bergen-Belsen. Rebecca, for example, quoted her grandmother Olga, who had been separated from her own mother at the gates of Auschwitz by Dr. Mengele: “I was 16 years old and I was holding on to my mother. Dr. Mengele said that I needed to go to another line along with my sisters. My mother had a piece of bread under her arm and before we parted, she said ‘I want you to have this piece of bread.’ I remember Dr. Mengele hitting her over the head when she gave it to me and she fell on the floor. I wanted to turn back to help my mother, but they didn’t let me. And all these years I was feeling guilty that I couldn’t save my mother. These feelings remained with me for years and years, but I never saw my mother again. According to the witness, her grandmother encouraged her to share her story and never be afraid. “My grandmother never had the opportunity to testify before a German or even an international court. And today I have this chance.” She says that such details about the history of her grandmother are important to acknowledge, in order to understand her current and personal reaction to trauma.

Rebecca B. went on to tell what happened to her and her family on October 9, 2019. Her young daughter was picked up from the synagogue by her babysitter shortly before the attack, so that she and her husband, Rabbi Jeremy B., could concentrate on Yom Kippur. When the attacker tried to enter the synagogue, she tried to call the babysitter but could not reach her immediately. She recalled the overwhelming panic she felt. The reunion with her daughter became complicated and delayed by the police measures, she said. “What I wanted was for someone to see that the synagogue had become a safe haven and to let my daughter in.” However, she was unable to clarify this to anyone and was thus separated from her 15-month-old daughter on this day without knowing when they will be reunited. “I have a normal mothers’ fear of being separated from my children. But I also have another thing, which is the trauma that I inherited from my grandma of being separated from her mother at the gates of Auschwitz.” Hence, the whole situation caused by the accused and maintained by the police became extremely traumatic. The issue of transgenerational transmission of trauma is not limited to this case. The memories and traumas of survivors are still manifested today in the experiences of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. “I need this court to know that even though the Shoa is over its effects have not passed. It’s not just a fact of history, it is something that continues to be present with us today.”

“When I think of Germany at night, I’m robbed of sleep.” With this quote from Heinrich Heine, the second witness of the day, Naomi H., began her testimony. She first explained that she decided against testifying in German. “Testifying in English helps me to detach from the pain that my family has experienced throughout generations.” She came from a family that was rooted in Germany for centuries and decided to rebuild their lives here even after National Socialism and the Shoa. She says she grew up with the knowledge of her family’s history, but also with confidence in the German people, who learned their lesson from the past. But this trust was increasingly diminishing. After some unpleasant experiences, she finally decided to move the center of her life to Israel. However, she spends some of her time in Germany for her studies – rabbinic studies. The idea of contributing to the recovery of Jewish life in Germany had been on her mind already before the attack. “The course we are currently taking is deeply troublesome”. She criticizes the media narrative of the “good door” that supposedly saved them all. “It was not the door that saved us. The accused threw potentially deadly bombs at the wall – it seems to her that this fact is ignored and instead the story of the “good door” made of “good German oak” is used. “This need to find the one good german, who managed to save the life of jews – it does not belong here. Instead I would like to see the German governmental structures and the German society at large really rethinking what they are doing to protect their minorities and the most vulnerable members of their society.” The witness also sharply criticized the Federal Criminal Police Office’s (BKA) investigations. The investigators did not look at image boards, did not attempt the defendant’s online games, they did not investigate the parallels between this attack and other attacks, for example in Christchurch, El Paso or Munich, nor did they investigate the narratives that formed the foundation for the attack.

“To most Germans, jewish life in Germany seems to be something that died out, that is part of the past.” Naomi H. said that she is committed to a Jewish life, which is in dialogue with its surroundings, but that objectively there is a lack of a sense of security. She wants to feel comfortable at home and in the synagogue: “I would like to ask everyone present in this room: if you would know that you need to equip your home with bulletproof doors and windows, how comfortable would you feel living in this place that you currently call your home.” In spite of everything, the witness expressed her will to continue to work for a better future and a better society based on respect and mutual appreciation. “I’d like to continue my family’s legacy and build bridges where others build walls.”

The third witness to appear was Alexander R., who has been a member of the Jewish community in Halle for 20 years. His role there is to support the Hazzan on the Bima in reading the Torah. His 21-year-old daughter was with him in the synagogue on October 9. When the attacker tried to enter the synagogue, he saw the armed and uniformed man on the surveillance monitor. Like other witnesses before him, Alexander R. stated that the synagogue visitors had received no information from the police for a long time after the attack. When asked about the lack of police protection at the synagogue, the witness said that the police were certain that nothing would happen and said that the situation is under control. However, he said that in Halle, as in other synagogues he knew, there should have been police on site for protection, especially during holy days.

The last witness on that day was Max Privorozki, the head of the Jewish community in Halle. He was first asked about the security strategy at the time. The witness stated that he had been in contact with the police once or twice a year in this regard. The police regularly examined the overall security status and decided on measures accordingly – the members of the Jewish community were not involved in this process, they were merely informed. After the attack on Breitscheidplatz, fear prevailed in the community, so the witness said he explicitly asked the police for their support, which he was denied. People got used to the fact that things worked like this in Halle and since then they have been taking care of their own security arrangements themselves. Following the attack, there are now more security measures and police protection in front of the synagogue, which makes some people nervous, “but that’s our life.”

Max Privorozki then described the events of October 9 from his perspective. When he realized that the synagogue was under attack, he called the police with trembling hands. Even if it was only 10 minutes, the time of waiting after the call felt like an eternity. After he called the police, he next informed the Central Council of Jews in Germany so that the information could be made known to all Jewish organizations as quickly as possible. There was no way of knowing whether this was perhaps an organized action taking place in several cities.

On the day of the attack, he was in constant contact with politicians and the media. He said that at that point, he did not yet find the time to process what happened. It was only later, that he began to feel the psychological consequences of the attack, for example, when he found it very difficult to cope with the loud sounds of firecrackers On new year’s eve. Privorozki explained how important it was for him to hear the manifold expressions of solidarity that reached the community after the attack from Jews and non-Jews. He felt much more at home in Germany since October 9, because he saw that the absolute majority of people – no matter how different – were united against hate, against murder, and against Nazis. This is the difference between 2019 and 1938, as this synagogue was already attacked once before by the Nazis. He sincerely hopes that the Jewish community, democracy and the freedom of our society will continue surviving events like these.

At the end of his testimony, Privorozki explained his motivation to participate in the trial as a joint plaintiff. He had two reasons for this. One of the reasons was that he hoped that the role of the accused’s parents in the process would be made clearer. He himself was the father of two daughters. He believes that the parents probably did not know much about the concrete plan and timing of the crime. “But I am absolutely convinced that it is not possible that the parents had no idea that their son was preparing something”. The accused lived at home and was financially dependent on his parents – he asked how such an operation could be planned without the parents wondering. The second motivation for the joint plaintiff was that he wanted to understand what caused the mind of the attacker to shift from being a “normal” antisemite to a murderer. “How could someone murder another person just because he is different from them?”

Towards the end of the trial day, some pictures from the apartments of the accused’s father and mother were inspected. Among them were photos from his metal workshop at the father’s place, where the accused claimed to have experimented with the weapons. The trial will continue on September 9, 2020.