The Survivors Speak of Long-Term Consequences

Like the day before, survivors of the attack testified and gave moving statements.

The ninth day of the trial against the alleged assassin of Halle took place on September 2, 2020. Like the day before, survivors of the attack testified and gave moving statements. Three people who were in the synagogue at the time of the crime were questioned, as well as two people who witnessed the assassin on the street. On several occasions, joint plaintiffs called on society to “finally take antisemitism seriously”. The synagogue’s lack of police security and the way the police dealt with the Jewish victims directly after the attack were also once again criticized. Almost all witnesses reported serious long-term consequences of the attack, shock and trauma – but also on the methods they found for dealing with these.

The first witness was Vladislav R., the security guard of the synagogue in Halle. He explained that he had seen a man in military clothes holding a gun on the monitor, showing the pictures of the surveillance camera. In order to avoid triggering panic, he went to the community leader and quietly told him what he had seen. They then called the police and helped the people to the second floor rooms for safety. They locked the doors and barricaded them with chairs while they waited for the police to arrive. He reported that he was not afraid for himself at that moment, but for the other people in the synagogue, among whom was his mother.

The next witness of the day was Mrs. Agatha M., who came to Halle with the group that Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz and Rabbi Rebecca Blady had organized. Already on the way to the synagogue, the witness said she was surprised because there was no police present there. She described her experiences on the day of the attack, and reported on the panic and stress atmosphere in the synagogue. She was quite irritated by the following evacuation process. The survivors received signs with their names and numbers. She felt like a person at war because “as a person she was marked with a number”. In the hospital these numbers were read and scanned. This was very important to her, the witness explained, because she was “reminded of the time during the Second World War.”

Agatha M. however, reported that they were very warmly received in the hospital and could pray, sing and dance together. The fact that they were there as a group and all together gave her a lot of strength. She said that before the trip she knew very few people from the group, but today they are all her friends. She directed the word directly in the direction of the joint plaintiffs: “Thanks to you, I felt stronger then, and I feel stronger now.”

At the end of her statement, Agatha M. addressed the social context of the crime. She asked herself again and again why did such a tragedy occur. “May society see that antisemitism still exists! […] Had my family not suffered enough during the war? Do I really have to emphasize here that I am alive thanks to the generation of my grandparents who had to suffer through various camps? She said she wanted to be the first generation to live in freedom. “My heart overflows with sadness when I realize that antisemitism is still present. […] Today it is necessary to say: ‘Stop! It is enough!’.”

The third witness was also in the synagogue during the attack. Christina F. reported, about the moment when it became clear that the whole situation was serious. A friend suddenly jumped up and ran to the back of the synagogue. She thought, “he won’t die alone here,” ran after him and then barricaded the door together with him. When the all-clear was given, she felt it was very important to continue praying while they waited for evacuation. That gave her a lot of strength. 

Christina F. sharply criticized the police’s subsequent handling of the traumatized victims. She was surprised that the group had to wait in a bus without any security glass or anything like that. They still had no idea what actually happened. There was no communication or information from the police.

Later in the hospital, the police behaved insensitively during their questioning. A police officer appeared – who could not be recognized as such because he was in plain clothes – and only said to her “Well, do you want to now? She was extremely frightened and asked him to tell her who he was and what he wanted from her. Thereupon the official was very annoyed; he did not identify himself to her. Leaving the hospital cafeteria with a stranger was “incredibly frightening”. The conversation then began unpleasantly. When asked about her identity card, she explained that she did not have one with her because she was not allowed to carry anything with her on Yom Kippur. He replied “That’s funny”, which she countered with “That’s not funny, that’s Judaism.” 

She described her impression that he was annoyed with her and was not interested in what she had to say. Rather, she had the impression that she was a burden to him and that he did not give her a sense of security. During her questioning, the witness cited other interactions with the police that she found very unpleasant – for example, that the rabbi family was not provided with accommodation. She also ended her statement with a remark about the social and political context of the crime: “I am emotionally exhausted, above all because I am incredibly afraid that once again our voices will not be heard.” The witness felt as if she was not being taken seriously in Germany, due to lack of action on the parts of politicians and society, which to her words did not recognize that antisemitism is a problem. She even saw this issue in the ongoing trial, in which the joint plaintiffs did not receive enough financial support and the court unreflectively repeated the offensive language of the perpetrator.

After the assault, life is no longer the same as before for the survivors. The witnesses heard today drew various conclusions from the experience. Agatha M. stressed that the attack will not be a hindrance to her dream of finishing her studies in Germany and living here. The attack will certainly not prevent her from going to the synagogue nor deviate her from her faith. “I would say that this experience has strengthened me in my faith. I am convinced that God will not forget Israel, his people. Christina F. went back to the synagogue on the following Friday (Shabbat) after the attack. In the synagogue in Paris, her current place of residence, she found comfort and support. She could no longer imagine living in Germany after the experiences of last October. This was partly due to the attack, but also due to the insensitive manner in which the police dealt with the survivors. She said she had no confidence in German authorities and lived here in fear. She added: “No one can live like this. I cannot imagine a future in Germany.”

Subsequently, the witness Mandy R. was questioned, who happened to run into the attacker on the street. She saw the assassin shoot Jana L. Luckily, she was able to flee and hide herself. When she tried to call the police, the line was busy, she said. Finally, her husband picked her up. After her testimony, the accused spoke and wanted to apologize to Mandy R. – on the first day of the trial he repeatedly stated that he did not want to hurt “any whites”. Mandy R. clearly stated in return: “Freedom is the highest asset of a person. I am free, and I hope that this person will never again spend a day in freedom.”

The last to testify was Stanislav G. He passed by the synagogue in his car on the day in question. While driving, he noticed an armed man in uniform. He said that he first wondered whether a film is being shot. But when he saw Mrs. L. lying on the ground, he stopped to offer her help. When the attacker noticed him and pointed the gun at him, he fled in his car. At this point, no shot could be fired from the gun, as it was jammed. After the witness’s testimony, attorney Hermann said to him: “We have heard many terrible things here today. I highly appreciate the fact that you had the courage to help a person in this situation.”

Even though the witnesses who testified today all survived the attack and remained physically unharmed, they all carry traces of the attack with them. Almost all of them reported massive psychological distress and symptoms of trauma. One witness reported having sleep problems and frequent headaches. His 83-year-old mother too coped poorly with the experience. Three witnesses stated that they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of them said that for a long time, it was difficult to admit that this attack actually happened. She said, “the trauma is severe. She suffered greatly from the aftermath of the traumatic experience and was unable to return to her daily activities or lead a normal life for a long time.

The witnesses also spoke about ways they found to deal with the experience. Friends, family, a rabbi, a pastor, the community and the other people affected, were all great support for the survivors. Psychotherapeutic treatment, medical help or sports also help some of them.