Wolfgang Denkwitz had brought a white rose. Shortly before midday on Thursday the retired truck driver added his personal symbol of condolence to the sea of lilies, roses and carnations that lay at the door of the synagogue in the eastern German city of Halle.
Twenty-four hours earlier, the same door had saved the lives of around 70 worshippers gathered inside, by withstanding the assault of a gunman who had travelled to the university town in the state of Saxony-Anhalt with the aim of killing as many Jews as possible.
The gunman had deliberately chosen to carry out what Germany’s general prosecutor has described as an “act of terror” on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar, knowing the number of believers in the building would be higher than normal.
Frustrated by his failure to break down the synagogue’s door, the man had gone on a rampage in the surrounding streets, killing two people and severely injuring two others.
“How can people be so damaged?” said Denkwitz as he walked away from the building. “I don’t need to have a cuddle with everyone, but surely there can be a basic understanding that allows us all to get along? I don’t want our society to lose that,” said the 65-year-old from Halle, who said he was a practising Catholic.
A town of around 241,000 inhabitants, Halle usually defies the stereotype of the former lands of socialist East Germany as a fertile ground for the rise of the new far right.
The Paulus quarter, where Wednesday’s attack took place, is a leafy, period district popular with students and university lecturers: there are French bistros, vegan ice cream bars and pavements daubed in Extinction Rebellion graffiti. The street names around the synagogue are named after leading thinkers of the German enlightenment: Goethe, Schiller and Humboldt.
“Halle is a cosmopolitan and open place with a strong tradition of civic engagement,” said Karamba Diaby, the city’s MP and currently the only delegate in the Bundestag with African roots.
For the killer, whom German media have identified as 27-year-old Stephan Balliet from the small town of Eisleben, these qualities are likely to have marked out the Paulus district as a target.
In a mission statement uploaded to Kohlchan – the German message board equivalent of 4chan – where it was later found by researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Extremism at King’s College in London, Balliet said he also considered attacking a mosque or an “antifa cultural centre” in the city.
In footage he broadcast from a camera on his helmet to the livestreaming platform Twitch, the attacker starts by painting a conspiracy theory connecting feminists, immigrants and “the Jew”.
A terror attack of such overtly antisemitic nature has reopened old wounds in German history – especially in Halle. The city’s Jewish community, once one of the largest in central Germany, has reduced to some 700 members in the decades since its original synagogue was set on fire during Reichskristallnacht in 1938.
Anastassia Pletoukhina was one of the worshippers inside the synagogue, who had just started their prayers when they heard a bang outside the building at around noon. “At first, I thought someone had lit a firework,” she told the Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper. Then the security officer told her group that a man in combat gear was firing bullets at the entrance door.
“We were completely shocked and out of sorts, basically unable to react,” Pletoukhina said. Eventually the group barricaded themselves behind chairs and a table in the synagogue’s kitchen and waited.
According to witnesses inside the building, it took police 20 minutes to arrive on the scene – a wait which the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany has described as scandalous.
“When I heard the first bang, I immediately thought something was up at the synagogue,” said Sabine Wolf, who has lived in the apartment block opposite for 12 years. “I always worried it would be a matter of time until something like this happens.” No police were guarding the synagogue in spite of Yom Kippur; the man tasked with securing the entrance was a volunteer.
Footage of the attack shows Balliet growing increasingly agitated by his failure to force a way into the place of worship in spite of the arsenal of handmade firearms and explosives he had amassed in his car.
In apparent frustration, he turned his machine gun on a woman passing by on foot, shooting her in the back. The 40-year-old female died at the scene.
Declaring himself a “loser”, the attacker then jumped into his car and drove down a few side streets until stopping, seemingly spontaneously, outside the Kiez Döner kebab shop on Ludwig-Wucherer-Straße.
Rifat Tekin, who has worked at the takeaway restaurant for two years, was cutting meat off the rotating grill for five customers waiting inside when he noticed the man in military gear walking across the road.
Balliet threw a stun grenade at the front of the restaurant and then entered the building, only to find his gun jamming as he tried to fire. Tekin cowered behind the counter and then ran across to the other side of the street; other customers hid in the toilet at the back of the shop.
The attacker eventually managed to fire a shot at a man in a worker’s overall hiding behind a refrigerator. After getting a new gun from his car, he fired three more shots at the man.
The gunman was detained later in the afternoon, after his vehicle collided with another car on the B91 motorway south of Halle.
Outside the kebab shop on a sunny Thursday morning, the severity of the assault on Halle’s social fabric was beginning to sink in. “He must have taken something,” said Tekin of the attacker, standing outside his shop, his hands shaking. “A normal human being can’t do what he did.”