Vienna Jewish community on lockdown after attack near synagogue kills at least 4
Members of the Viennese Jewish community were told to stay indoors until at least midnight on Tuesday after a shooting spree that began near the Austrian capital’s main synagogue that killed a least four people and injured 15.
The authorities said the gunman was a sympathizer of the Islamic State and had been slain by the police, who were still searching for possible accomplices, with some 1,000 officers fanning out across the city,
The first shots were fired at about 8 p.m. on Monday in Seitenstettengasse, where Vienna’s main, centrally-located synagogue is located. Austria’s Interior Minister, Karl Nehammer, described is as an “evident terror attack” but did not say whether the synagogue was the main target or antisemitism the prime motive.
Witnesses said they heard between 100 and 200 shots. Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister, who was in the area, said in an interview with the state broadcaster, Orf, on Tuesday morning that he first assumed the gunfire was fireworks, but then saw an armed man shooting at people in pubs and bars near the synagogue. Hofmeister, Vienna’s chief rabbi, said the attacker raced down the street from its northern end, on Judengasse, and that panic broke out as the shooting began.
“It was an attack on our peace, on our peaceful coexistence,” he said, describing Vienna as a “very secure” city and the attack as “inhumane.”
About 8,000 Jews live in Vienna. The attack evoked memories within the community of the Shabbat morning in 1981 when Palestinian terrorists from the Abu Nidal organization killed two people and injured 18 others, including three children, in an attack on the same synagogue, known as the Stadttempel.
Austrian police confirmed on Tuesday than the assailant was armed with an automatic weapon, and was wearing a belt that looked like an explosive device but turned out to be fake. Video footage from the area showed the gunman shooting civilians at a bar across the street from the synagogue, according to the Austrian investigative weekly Falter, whose offices are nearby.
The gunman was killed in an exchange of fire with the police.
While the attack began near the synagogue, the police said, it did not end there. Shots were eventually fired at six locations throughout Vienna’s First District. Two women and two men were killed in the spree along with the gunman, and seven of the injured were being treated in hospitals. The victims were not publicly identified, but news reports suggested that those killed included an older man and woman and a younger woman who worked in one of the bars.
The attack near the Stadttempel and the Jewish community’s offices in Seitenstettengasse triggered a substantial and sweeping police operation, leading to the closure of streets in and around the synagogue. It is an area of the city near the Danube Canal with many popular bars and hangouts, and is usually busy in the early evening. Monday was unusually mild for early November, and with Austria set to enter a second lockdown on Tuesday due to the coronavirus pandemic, many people were out.
A spokesperson for Austria’s interior ministry confirmed that one police officer had been shot and injured during the operation. The Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, told the nation early Tuesday that the officer was no longer in life-threatening condition.
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Neither the law enforcement authorities nor leaders of the Jewish community said Tuesday morning whether the synagogue was the specific target of the terror attack or if it was a broader assault on the neighborhood. The president of Vienna’s Jewish community, Oskar Deutsch, said in an interview with the Austrian daily Kurier that he had been unable to confirm whether the shots fired were directed at the synagogue
Members of the Jewish community in Vienna received an email at 8:26 p.m. on Monday from the IKG (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde), warning them to stay at home and off the streets, and saying that special police units had been stationed at the synagogue. The email said the authorities were working in cooperation with the synagogue’s own security.
In another email, sent at 11:42 p.m. on Monday, Deutsch said that all synagogues, Jewish schools and IKG institutions would remain closed on Tuesday. Kosher restaurants and supermarkets were also advised to stay shut, and community members cautioned to remain indoors while the police investigation continued.
“Whether the Stadttempel was one of the goals is not yet clear,” Deutsch said of the attack on Twitter. “What can be said is that the synagogue in Seitenstettengasse and our office building at the same address were closed at the time the first shot was fired.
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“The shooting did occur in the immediate vicinity of the synagogue,” he added. “All members of the Jewish community are asked not to walk the streets and to instead stay at home until we have been given the all-clear from the police who remain in close contact with the IKG’s security services.”
Deutsch also appealed to people not to spread unsubstantiated rumors about the attack.
The Bukharian Jewish community in Vienna also advised its members not to wear “Jewish symbols” for the time being.
Liam Hoare, a freelance journalist, reported for the Forward from Vienna. Talya Zax contributed reporting from New York.