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March 26, 2021 11:27 am
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Mobilized by Yom Kippur Shooting Outrage, German Teenagers in City of Halle Tackle Antisemitism Past and Present

avatar by Ben Cohen

A solidarity vigil outside the synagogue in Halle, Germany, targeted by a neo-Nazi extremist on Yom Kippur, Oct. 9, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke.

Eighteen months on from the attempted Yom Kippur massacre at a synagogue in the German city of Halle that claimed the lives of two victims, a group of local teenagers is using the harrowing experience as the basis for a new campaign against racism and antisemitism.

Calling themselves the “New Contemporary Witnesses,” the purpose of the group is to research and commemorate Jewish families deported from Halle and its environs by the Nazi regime, as well as combating modern manifestations of racism.

Among the members of the group is 18-year-old Max Hirsch — whose best friend, Kevin Schwarze, was murdered during the Oct. 9, 2019 murder spree carried out in Halle by a neo-Nazi gunman.

The gunman, Stephan Balliet, chose the occasion of Yom Kippur — the holiest day in the Jewish calendar — to attack the synagogue in Halle. As more than 50 worshipers were huddled inside the sanctuary, a heavily-armed Balliet tried repeatedly but failed to blast his way through the building’s security doors. He then shot dead Jana Lange, a 40-year-old female passerby who remonstrated with him, before speeding away in his car to the Muslim-owned Kiez-Döner restaurant. It was there that Balliet shot Kevin Schwarze, a 20-year-old painter’s apprentice who was visiting the restaurant on his lunch break, on the racist assumption that Schwarze was a Muslim. Following a harrowing four-month trial in 2020, Balliet was sentenced to life imprisonment last December.

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For Max Hirsch, the murder of his best friend was a brutal introduction to an issue that he previously hadn’t given much thought: antisemitism. Interviewed this week by the German regional broadcaster MDR about his involvement with “New Contemporary Witnesses” as he stood outside the Kiez-Döner restaurant, Hirsch explained that Schwarze, with whom he played soccer, “was like a brother to me.”

“He was in there, whimpering for his life,” Hirsch recalled, pointing to the restaurant. In the immediate aftermath of the killing, Hirsch, angry and distraught, said he wanted to seek out Balliet to confront him with what “this shit was about.” Two days later, he joined the “New Contemporary Witnesses,” determined to make his own contribution to the fight against racism and antisemitism.

Nico Schuchardt, one of the founders of the group, observed that Hirsch’s involvement had helped him to heal the wounds caused by Schwarze’s murder.

“Max was really in mourning at the time,” he told MDR. “I talked to him a lot and it was clear to me that we as a group really needed to take him in.”

The group has grown to 36 members from different schools around Halle, and spends much of its time researching atrocities that were carried out in the region by the Nazi regime. Among their projects has been the rediscovery of a killing center operated by the Nazis in Bernburg, about 25 miles from Halle, where more than 14,000 mentally ill patients were gassed.

The group avoids dryly describing historical facts, instead creating YouTube videos in which members record their own feelings as they encounter and try to makes sense of hatreds both past and present. “It must be said that the feelings on visiting a site are completely different from those I have when I read a history book,” Schuchardt remarked, as he talked about the group’s visit to the Auschwitz extermination camp. “Often, completely crazy things go through your head.”

Yet such emotions were important, Schuchardt added, if only to keep the challenges of racism and antisemitism firmly in the public square, in contrast to “those who would prefer to draw a line under them.”

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