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Jewish Students Aid Owners of Kebab Shop Hit in Synagogue Attack

BERLIN — When a heavily armed, far-right extremist tried to storm a synagogue in eastern Germany a year ago, the failed attack revived the worst fears of anti-Semitism. But for clumsily built explosives and a locked door, the congregation inside narrowly escaped a massacre.

The thwarted gunman then trained his weapons on other targets of his hatred in the city of Halle, killing a young man having lunch at a nearby kebab shop, where he presumed he would find Muslims.

Since then, that kebab shop and the Turkish brothers who own it have fallen on hard times. But their plight recently drew the attention of several young Jews who also survived the Oct. 9 attack, and they decided to try to help, launching a GoFundMe campaign that immediately surpassed their expectations.

“We wanted to do something that would draw attention” to the owners’ struggles, “but would also provide concrete financial support,” said Ruben Gerczikow, vice president of the Jewish Student Union in Germany, which opened the drive last week.

“We were surprised by the positive reaction,” Mr. Gerczikow said. “We never dreamed that we could raise so much so quickly.” They passed their goal of collecting 5,000 euros, or $5,940, within days, and decided to extend the campaign until Yom Kippur, which falls on Sept. 28 this year.

That show of solidarity provides a hopeful counterpoint to a building trend of hate crimes in Germany, even as a far-right political fringe does its best to revive old demons. The fund-raiser has quietly demonstrated that many Germans still prize the country’s widening diversity and the postwar ethos of generosity that has long been part of Germany’s broader atonement for the Nazi crimes of last century.

This week Chancellor Angela Merkel decried the rise in anti-Semitism in Germany, warning in a speech to the Central Council of Jews that it is a reality “that many Jews don’t feel safe and respected in our country.”

“Racism and anti-Semitism never disappeared, but for some time now they have become more visible and uninhibited,” the chancellor said.

In particular, she cited the attack in Halle — the most severe of 2,032 anti-Semitic crimes recorded in Germany last year — as an example of “how quickly words can become deeds.”

The man arrested in the attack, Stephan Balliet, 28, is now facing trial and has spoken openly in court about his hatred not only of Jews but also of Muslims and other foreigners, and of being influenced by a far-right extremist attack against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that killed 51 people.

He said he regretted that the two people he fatally shot, a 40-year-old woman outside the synagogue and a 20-year-old man in the kebab shop, were white Germans, not members of any ethnic minority. He also shot and wounded two other others.

With their funding drive, the organizers hope to raise awareness of the threat that white supremacists pose to all minorities, Mr. Gerczikow said.

“We, the Jewish Student Union in Germany believe in a multicultural society in this country,” they wrote on the campaign page. “We believe in a peaceful coexistence, regardless of religion, nationality or skin color. We believe in solidarity.”

The Halle attack was just one in a recent string against minorities in Germany that has worried the authorities as they belatedly grapple with far-right networks and sympathies in Germany that have been given new energy by more esoteric movements like QAnon.

In little more than a year, in addition to the attack in Halle, far-right extremists have also assassinated a politician near the central city of Kassel and shot dead nine people of immigrant descent in the western city of Hanau.

A month after the Halle attack, the original owner of the kebab shop gave it to Ismet and Rifat Tekin, brothers who had worked for him. At a public ceremony he described it as a gesture of support for the men, who were working at the shop the day of the attack. The event drew widespread support from the community and beyond, with regional politicians pledging that they would not let the place founder.

“It is very important that the kebab shop reopens, because it is part of Halle,” Reiner Haseloff, governor of Saxony Anhalt state said at the reopening. “It is part of the cultural identity.”

But the months since have been marked by hardship and pain for the brothers and their business as the stigma of the attack lingered over the shop.

“Since it happened, everything is difficult and these difficulties make it even harder for us to process what happened on that day,” Ismet Tekin, a Turkish citizen who has lived in Germany for 12 years, said in an interview with Radio Corax before the trial began in July. “It is not something simple that we can just say, ‘It’s over.’”

Then, in March, the measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus forced residents to remain largely at home and reduced all restaurants to offering only pickup or delivery service, forcing the brothers to close their doors for weeks. After they reopened, many customers stayed away.

Running the business also left them little time to process the trauma of the attack. In particular, Rifat Tekin, who witnessed the fatal shooting inside the shop, has suffered psychologically, said Onur Ozata, an attorney who is representing Ismet Tekin in court.

Ismet desperately wanted to take part in the trial as a co-plaintiff, but because he was outside of the shop when the gunman entered, the court initially did immediately recognize him as a victim of the attack. Only days before the trial opened on July 21 did the court reverse that decision, allowing him to take part. He has not missed a session, Mr. Ozata said.

“It is very important for him to be there every day,” Mr. Ozata said. “He wants to understand who the attacker is and how he could have done something like this.”

Mr. Balliet is charged with two counts of murder and 68 counts of attempted murder and other crimes. If convicted of murder, he faces life in prison.

The other co-plaintiffs, some of whom belong to the union of Jewish students, helped provide the brothers with the support, even before they launched the funding campaign, Mr. Ozata said. “They are a very tight-knit group. ”

Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz, who was in the synagogue at the time of the attack and is also a co-plaintiff, appealed over Twitter for his friends to support the kebab shop, calling Ismet Tekin him “an incredibly decent human being in a world gone mad.”

“For me, it was important to support this campaign because, as a survivor of the Halle attack, I am aware of the severe emotional toll of this experience,” Rabbi Borovitz said in an interview.

“I can’t imagine what it must be like to go back to that shop every day,” he said.

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