World

Germany seeks to reassure Jewish community after synagogue attack

Top German officials were heading Thursday to the scene of an attack on a synagogue in the city of Halle, seeking to reassure an unsettled Jewish community after members saw a man trying to break into their house of worship on Judaism's holiest day.

'We won't give up on Jewish existence in Germany,' worshipper tells Israeli radio

A man wearing an Israeli flag lays flowers outside the synagogue in Halle, Germany, one day after the synagogue was attacked and two people were killed nearby. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Top German officials were heading Thursday to the scene of an attack on a synagogue in the city of Halle, seeking to reassure an unsettled Jewish community after members saw a man trying to break into their house of worship on Judaism's holiest day.

The attack, in which one person was killed outside the synagogue and another killed in a kebab shop, stoked renewed concern about rising far-right extremism and questions about the police response.

The head of Germany's Jewish community, Josef Schuster, called the absence of police guards outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur "scandalous" as members of the congregation described waiting behind locked doors for the police to arrive, which took more than 10 minutes.

Germany's chief federal prosecutor, Peter Frank, said the suspect wanted to carry out a "massacre" in a synagogue and had about four kilograms of explosives in his car. Frank added that many questions remain about the suspect now in custody, a German citizen identified as Stephan B.

Investigators still have to determine how he got hold of the material to build homemade weapons and explosives and whether anyone else knew of his plans.

Frank told reporters in Karlsruhe that "what we experienced yesterday was terror." He said that the suspect wanted to create a "worldwide effect" by livestreaming his attack and wanted to encourage others to imitate him.

Stephan B., who is suspected of two counts of murder and nine of attempted murder, tried and failed to force his way into the synagogue as around 80 people were inside, then shot and killed a woman in the street outside and a man at a nearby kebab shop. The attack, with the gunman ranting about Jews, was livestreamed on a popular gaming site.

The head of the city's Jewish community, Max Privorozki, was among those inside who watched the man trying to break in on monitors linked to a surveillance camera. "We saw everything, also how he shot and how he killed someone," he said.

"I thought this door wouldn't hold," Privorozki said outside the damaged door.

The damaged door of the synagogue in Halle. The head of Germany's Jewish community called the absence of police guards outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur 'scandalous.' (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

"That was a shock for us, that was Yom Kippur, all phones were switched off, we had to understand what was going on first — then switch on my phone and then call the police," he said. "It was really panic but I have to say after that, when the police came, we continued with the worship service, that lasted another three hours, the synagogue worship service."

The worshippers were brought out on buses several hours later. A video posted by a reporter for Israeli public broadcaster Kan showed people on a bus dancing, embracing and singing.

A worshipper who was at the synagogue, identified only as Christina, told Israel's Kan Reshet Bet radio that "it's not easy being openly Jewish in Germany," but "the main message is we can't give up. We won't give up on Jewish existence in Germany."

Rising concern of anti-Semitism in country

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, Schuster and regional officials visited the scene on Thursday.

"Today is a day of shame and disgrace," Steinmeier said outside the synagogue. "I'm very sure the overwhelming majority of this society in Germany wants Jewish life to be part of this country ... We must stand together long term against violence like we experienced here yesterday. We must protect Jewish life."

Ahead of the visit, Schuster was sharply critical Wednesday night of the lack of a police presence outside. "I am convinced that if there had been police protection there, in all probability the assailant would not have been able to attack a second site," he said.

Watch footage of a gunman opening fire in Halle:

Amateur video showed a man in combat clothing firing shots from behind a car parked in the street in Halle, Germany. 0:41

Christoph Bernstiel, a local councillor who also represents Halle in the national parliament, told n-tv television that there will be a careful examination of how long the response took, "but at this point it would be too early to draw premature conclusions." Police union head Oliver Malchow said the response time showed "how thin police coverage is" and added that the wait "was especially long for the people who were in the synagogue."

Synagogues are often protected by police in Germany and have been for many years amid concerns over far-right and Islamic extremism. There has been rising concern lately about both anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism.

Germany's domestic intelligence agency has said that the number of anti-Semitic acts of violence rose to 48 last year from 21 the previous year. It also said that the number of far-right extremists rose by 100 to 24,100 people last year, with more than half of them considered potentially violent.

In June, Walter Luebcke, a regional politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, was fatally shot at his home. Luebcke was known for supporting the welcoming refugee policy that Merkel adopted during an influx of migrants in 2015. The suspect is a far-right extremist with a string of convictions for violent anti-migrant crimes.

The video streamed on Twitch, which apparently was filmed with a head-mounted camera, showed the perpetrator driving up to the synagogue in a car packed with ammunition and what appeared to be home-made explosives.

He tried two doors and placed a device at the bottom of a gate, then fired at a woman trying to walk past his parked car. The assailant then fired rounds into the synagogue's door, which didn't open. He drove a short distance to park opposite the kebab shop. He fired at what appeared to be an employee, while customers scrambled away.