On October 9th, 2019, an armed assailant attacked a synagogue in Halle and the nearby kebab shop Kiez-Döner, murdering two people and injuring several others. On July 21st, the trial against him begins in the city of Magdeburg. Naomi Henkel-Guembel was in the synagogue during the attack. She was born and raised in Germany and emigrated to Israel after finishing school. Today, she lives between Tel Aviv and Berlin – and is active in the development and strengthening of Jewish communities as well as society as a whole in both countries. She was visiting Halle as part of the group Base Berlin.
The following conversation is part of an interview series with some of the co-plaintiffs in the trial. Rachel Spicker spoke with them about their experience of the attack, why they have decided to become a co-plaintiff, and what they expect from the trial.
Belltower.News: What was your experience of the attack?
Naomi Henkel-Guembel: At first, I didn’t really understand what had happened. After I heard the first bang, I was joking that at least I’m awake now. We had been fasting since the night before and had been standing for a long time during the prayers. The standing, the concentration on prayer, the focus on oneself – it’s all very exhausting. Then I heard a second bang and saw flashes and smoke through the windows. Initially, I thought some teenagers were throwing firecrackers. I was immediately aware that antisemitism was the motive behind it, but I wouldn’t have thought that someone would throw explosive devices at the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery next to it. I remember that everyone remained quite calm and nobody had a panic attack or anything like that. We took cover and then ran into the apartment above the synagogue, while other people locked and barricaded all entrances to the synagogue. One person started to take off sheets and duvet covers and knot an emergency ladder together. Another religiously observant person switched on her telephone to find out what exactly was going on – with a sense of intuition that our lives were in danger, as not everyone in our group was at the synagogue. Although for me this was a sign of the seriousness of the situation, I was surprisingly calm and wanted to keep the day as traditional as usual – something that troubled me in retrospect. My incorrect assessment of the situation and this uncertainty, this loss of control, were particularly difficult. We didn’t know if there were several attackers, who had been shot in front of the synagogue, whether that person was still alive, or whether we could help. We couldn’t go outside. That was rather distressing.
Only little by little did I realise what was happening to us. This may sound ridiculous, but I thought that maybe it would be reported in the local news. For example, when they report on a bank robbery in progress. The significance of what was happening and the fact that it would leave a mark on German history only became clear to me much later.
I found it difficult to cope in the days after the attack. When we were ready to take the train back to Berlin, we went to the ticket counter and explained that we had missed our original train. The employee asked why. We looked at each other and remained silent for a moment. Then, we briefly told her what had happened. The employee replied that anyone could claim that and asked for proof. How can we prove that we survived an antisemitic and racist terrorist attack? I looked at my arm and saw the wristband that we were given in hospital following the attack. After this unpleasant conversation, as we walked towards the platform, we saw a neo-Nazi in typical far-right clothing, with the usual tattoos. That was our farewell from Halle.
How do you feel about the attack today?
As time moved on, I tried to work through this loss of control, which I felt so clearly on the day of the attack. I don’t want this experience to determine my everyday life and I’m able to do that more and more. In many ways, I feel stronger than before Halle. I owe a large part of this to the support of the Jewish community in Berlin and my friends, who have shown a lot of solidarity. But, of course, some events also set me back. The attack in Hanau on February 19th, in which nine people were killed with a racist motive, has deeply shaken me and made me angry. At the same time, it brought back memories of October 9th in Halle. Over time and through the coronavirus pandemic, I have realised that there are not only people there for me, but also people who count on me, for whom I have a responsibility. What happened to us and what happened in Hanau has shown me I have two options: I can either be passive or active. I can actively help shape this process of coming to terms with the situation, shape how our society is developing.
Why did you decide to become a co-plaintiff?
As a co-plaintiff, I have the opportunity to report on what I’ve experienced and how I’ve experienced it. But I also want to actively shape the narrative surrounding this event, to know what circumstances led to this attack, to help bring more facts to light. I feel that the public is already finished with the discussion of this attack. Once again, the media is reporting about a “lone wolf” who filmed his attack – as if it were closed case already and we can put this attack behind us.
But I can’t draw a line under it and I still have many questions. Can we really speak of a “lone wolf” when he’s a part of online communities, refers to other shooters and wants to inspire copycat killings? How is it possible that neither his family, nor his online friends nor the authorities were aware of his online and offline activities? How did the authorities conclude that police protection in front of the synagogue wasn’t necessary? And what mistakes were made during the police operation on the day? Why does the press keep reporting about a wooden door made of good German oak that saved us, instead of reporting that Jewish communities have had to and still have to come up with their own security concept for decades, often with very little money available? We should thank the Jewish community in Halle for their security concept and thank the person who finally locked the door.
Moreover, the trial also makes me think about my own family history. I grew up in Germany as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. For a long time, I felt out of place. In conversations with my relatives who left Germany, the question kept coming up of how we could decide to stay in Germany. I couldn’t even really understand myself. After I finished school, I left for Israel. That was a very deliberate choice. One of the reasons for my decision were experiences of antisemitism. Because of my studies, I’ve recently been spending more time in Germany again. And then Halle happened. After the attack, I struggled for a long time with the question of whether it wasn’t a mistake to try to live in Germany. In the meantime, I feel more responsible for standing up against the right – in both Germany and Israel, which I both consider home, even if it is difficult and painful at times.
What do you expect from the trial?
I hope that I’ll be able to understand how and why this attack happened, as well as which perspectives and possibilities can prevent such events in the future. I want to build bridges instead of walls. I also hope that through the trial, German mainstream society can better understand the lives and realities of us minorities – and I hope that we can build and intensify our solidarity and alliances with one another. The political and social developments in recent years, along with the increase in right-wing violence and terror, show that this is more important than ever.
Further information on the trial: Together with NSU-Watch, the VBRG is documenting the trial in German, English and Russian. On the blog halle-prozess-report.de, you can find information, reports and perspectives on the trial from co-plaintiffs and their lawyers, with support from activists and supporters.
At the beginning of the trial, a group of co-plaintiffs published a joint declaration in which they have called on media representatives not to mention the attacker’s name to deny him a platform. We have respected this wish in this interview.