A year on, the impact of the Halle shootings remains intense

Valentin Lutset, who survived the attack, describes Yom Kippur as a second birthday


For Valentin Lutset, Yom Kippur will forever be a second birthday. That is because he lived through the October 9, 2019 terror attack on the Halle synagogue in the former East German state of Saxony-Anhalt.

“I see life differently,” said Lutset, 31, whose wife Anastassia Pleto also survived the attack. “I see the moment between life and death and that is what Yom Kippur is about.”

On that day, Stephan Balliet tried to shoot his way inside the synagogue. He failed but killed two passers by — Jana L and Kevin S — before being apprehended. 

At his trial, currently under way in Magdeburg, Balliet testified that he had wanted to kill Jews on their holy day because they “are the main cause of white genocide and want to create a new world order.”

Nearly one year later, Germany is still taking stock of the attack. Jewish leaders, politicians and police — and those who directly survived — have asked themselves: Where did this come from, and where do we go from here?

One answer is practical. Earlier this month, the Interior Ministry announced it would provide 22 million euro to the Central Council of Jews in Germany to upgrade security of Jewish institutions nationwide. This follows news that the number of antisemitic crimes in Germany rose by 13% from 2018 to 2019 to a total of some 2,000 incidents (most of which are verbal assaults and graffiti).

But security is just one part of the solution. Better education and communication are also key, observers say. “There is a lack of knowledge about Jewish life, Jewish traditions, but also regarding current forms of antisemitism,” said Alexander

Rasumny, a researcher and spokesperson for the Berlin-based Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism (RIAS). “We need to help the police, and help society as a whole to get a more precise picture of what is going on.”

And while statistics attribute the vast majority of antisemitic crimes to right-wing extremists, “this is not just a phenomenon of the margins,” Rasumny said. “In the middle of society there is a strong potential for antiaemitism as well.”

While the problem “does not stop at Germany’s border,” it has a specific weight here because few families have reckoned with their own family’s part in the Holocaust, Rasumny said. “In many cases it is something that was never talked about, so the family does not even know their beloved grandfather was a war criminal.”

After Halle, “Germany is learning the wrong lesson once again,” he said, “trying to label what happened in Halle as the actions of a madman, a loner, isolated from society.”

Even if it turns out the perpetrator in Halle had no literal accomplices, “he was not alone,” said Sigmount Koenigsberg, Berlin Jewish Community commissioner on antisemitism. “Antisemitism and racism and xenophobia aren’t any surprise.”

“One day after the shooting, [Balliet’s] mother told Der Spiegel magazine, ‘He doesn’t have anything against Jews, just against people who have all the money.’ And she was a teacher of ethics” in a high school, exclaimed Koenigsberg. “So if this is normal, I beg your pardon! He was not alone.”

For those who walked out of the synagogue that day, the lessons are myriad. Rabbi Rebecca Blady is focusing on resilience, inspired by her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. “Part of what it means to be Jewish in Germany is to have this kind of intergenerational trauma get picked up in a significant way,” said Blady, executive director of Hillel Germany and co-founder of Base Berlin.

In her testimony in the trial, Blady recalled how she and her husband, Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz, were trapped inside the synagogue while their young child was outside with her nanny.  They had no “awareness of when we would be united,” said Blady, who also told the court how her grandmother and great aunts had been separated from their mother upon arrival in Auschwitz in 1944.

The intergenerational trauma “gets picked up in a significant way, it revives when one experiences something like this,” said Blady, who has organised a “Ceremony of Resilience” during Succot in a Berlin beer garden: “A space where [we] can focus on what it means to build a strong community together, even in light of ongoing challenges of what it means to be a Jew in Germany.”

“And we will also acknowledge that there is still a threat, and that there are other minority communities at risk — that people have lost their lives, and that is the biggest tragedy of all.” 

“When I think about the trial, the last person I am thinking about is the terrorist,” said Pletoukhina, 34 , director of Jewish Agency activities in Berlin. “He will be in jail forever and I don’t need to change him. 

“But I want this this event to change our way of thinking and the way we face our failures as a society.”

While the attack was unfolding, she “felt like there were two of me: Me as a person and Me as someone trained to deal with crises.”

“I consider myself to be a leader but at some point I got very afraid, especially because I knew Valentin was downstairs. And if something serious happened then he would be the first in the line.”

Valentin Lutset was in fact helping barricade the synagogue’s rear doors. He “felt that nothing would happen… A year after, I am really trembling much more than last year,” he said.

And trembling – as the angels do in the Unetanneh Tokef prayer – is very much a part of the Day of Atonement, he notes.

To those who ask about his experience today, Lutset says, “This is how you should feel on Yom Kippur, without being a part of a terror attack: You should feel that God is deciding about you and you are in front of a court… It can happen to any of us. This is my life. And now, Yom Kippur for me is a birthday.”

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