Before Mascha Schmerling went to bed on Wednesday evening, she was met with mixed emotions: shock, anger, sadness and a feeling of powerlessness.
A Russian-born Jew living in Hamburg, Schmerling was shaken up by the shooting which occurred outside a synagogue in Halle (Saale) on Wednesday, in which a right-wing extremist killed two people on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
“But I woke up in the morning with a Trotzgefühl,” or a feeling of defiance, she told The Local.
Schmerling is part of Germany’s 225,000-strong Jewish community, a large number who emigrated from the former Soviet Union following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Yet after the incident on Wednesday, many found themselves questioning how safe they are in Germany, which has long prided itself on a revival of Jewish life following the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered.
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They questioned how the multifaceted Jewish community can be better protected, as politicians on Thursday vowed to step up the fight against right-wing terror.
“What happened on Wednesday is definitely a shock and tragedy, but a lot of Jews aren't surprised,” said Schmerling. “What's tragic is that this community wasn't protected.”
Security was increased at synagogues around the country, such as Berlin's Neue Synagogue, following the attack. Photo: DPA
The deadly anti-Semitic attack on Yom Kippur was a “disgrace” for Germany, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Thursday, vowing to beef up security to fight far-right violence.
“This brutal crime yesterday was a disgrace for our entire country,” he told reporters. “We will on the federal level massively increase security” to tackle “right-wing terror”.
As rain poured down outside a synagogue on Berlin’s Brunnenstraße on Thursday afternoon, just a few metres from where east and west Berlin were once divided, two armed security lined the premises.
Red flowers and candles – a sign of solidarity for the city a little more than an hour from the German capital – were set outside.
Across the street, customers browsed a kosher supermarket. “To be honest, I’m shocked,” Katja, 21, told The Local. Born in northwest Germany to Russian-Jewish parents, the now-university student said that she was “used to” security outside of synagogues and Jewish community centres, as is prescribed by law in Germany. “That’s how it’s always been,” she said.
While Katja did not hide her religion growing up, she did not try to put it out in the open either. “I would tell people I had dietary restrictions,” she said, “rather than saying I was keeping kosher.”
Yet the Halle shooting has prompted many to question how open Jews can be in Germany. “I had friends who were in the synagogue in Halle,” said Katja, as her voice became parsed and she shifted her gaze downwards.
But then her tone changed.
One of her friends made a Facebook post following the incident, said Katja, in which she along with other members of the Jewish community sung in Hebrew, “Am Israel Chai”, meaning “The Jewish people live on.”
According to the Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, anti-Semitism is more prevalent in east Germany as the history of the Holocaust was not taught as widely as it was in west Germany following the end of World War II.
In general, Anti-Semitic crimes rose by 20 percent in Germany last year, according to Interior Ministry data, which blamed nine out of 10 cases on the extreme right.
While education can’t solve everything – especially with virulent content on social media – general awareness of Jews in Germany will go a long way in stymying the rise of anti-Semitism, said Katja.
Trying to promote a better understanding of day-to-day Jewish life in Germany, Schmerling had co-founded the non-profit “Rent a Jew” in 2014 in order to give Germans – most of whom she says have never met a Jewish person – a chance to see ordinary Jewish life through a one-on-one encounter.
“It's important for non-Jews to get a feeling of current Jewish life in Germany,” said Schmerling. ”We want that they speak with us and not about us.”
A school visit organized by 'Rent a Jew' in which school children meet a Jewish volunteer and learn about traditional Jewish objects and food. Photo courtesy of Mascha Schmerling.
This past summer she met with Max Privorski, chairman of Halle's Jewish Community who sheltered 80 congregation members in the synagogue as the shooter rampaged outside, in order to figure out how to partner with community members.
“We try to do more work in eastern Germany,” she said. “There's not that much Jewish life and the rural infrastructure makes it difficult to get to places at times there, and it's important we show more of a presence.”
A number of ‘Rent a Jew’ sessions started in Saxony-Anhalt, the state where Halle is located in 2019, and she had planned to partner with Privorski at Halle’s Jewish Culture Days, coming up at the end of October.
‘Proactive rather than reactive’
Ricardo, an Israeli Jew who has lived in Munich for 15 years, told The Local that the attack only increased his feelings of insecurities about being openly Jewish, or speaking Hebrew on the street with his wife.
He called on the German government to take a “proactive rather than reactive” approach to combatting anti-Semitism, namely taking measures against those known to have right-wing tendencies before they are able to take action.
There are currently 12,700 right-wing extremists known to the German government and prepared to use violence, according to data released earlier this year by German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.
“In my youth, there was a threat of anti-Semitism from left-wing and Islamic terrorism,” said Munich resident Daniel Targownik, 53, the son of a Polish Holocaust survivor and his Israeli wife. “Going to the synagogue always meant that there was extra control. As a Jew that’s not new to me.”
Yet the right-wing threat is a new phenomenon, and especially dangerous given Germany’s history, said Targownik.
While Targownik’s parents told him not to be open about his Judaism, he told his three daughters that they should not hide it. They proudly donned sweaters from Jewish youth groups, but now “my youngest was crying after the news,” he said. “She’s happy to study abroad soon.”
'It doesn't change my feeling about staying here'
Like a growing number of Jews with German grandparents or parents who had their German citizenship revoked, American Donna Swarthout was naturalized as a German a few years ago. She then moved to Berlin with her family – and says she’s here to stay.
Swarthout in her adopted home of Berlin. Photo: Eva C. Schweitzer
“I was very upset and disturbed by this news but I still do feel safe living in Berlin,” Swarthout told The Local. “It doesn't change my feeling about staying here.”
Yet Wednesday’s attack marks “an act of terrorism” that goes beyond anti-Semitism, said Swarthout, the author of “A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany,” published earlier this year.
Swarthout called on the German government to also provide extra protection for Germany’s Muslim community, refugee centres and other places under threat from the far-right.
She added, however, that “I would like to see us move beyond requests for more security to more programmes for a tolerant and just society”.
As Schmerling's organization posted on Facebook on Wednesday, “Anyone who believes that this is ‘only’ about Jews has not understood that our democracy is in danger. A society that tolerates Jewish hatred also tolerates other forms of misanthropy, no matter what religious or social group.”