BERLIN — The police locked down the center of the eastern German city of Halle on Wednesday, warning citizens to stay at home while they searched for attackers who fatally shot at least two people in broad daylight and apparently tried to breach a synagogue during services for Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism.
At least two, possibly three, gunmen opened fire near the synagogue, federal prosecutors said. Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, deplored what was feared to have been a premeditated attack, saying, “We all must act against anti-Semitism in our country.”
Recent weeks have been punctuated by a number of small attacks on Jews in Germany, where anti-Semitism is an especially sensitive legacy of the Nazi era. Earlier this year, Germany’s top security official condemned a jump in the anti-Semitic attacks, ranging from vandalism to targeting individuals wearing visible emblems of their faith. After Wednesday’s shooting, police reinforcements were sent to synagogues across the country.
Police officials in Halle said the assailants had fled the scene in a vehicle. Video footage shown by local broadcaster MDR showed a gunman dressed in black and wearing a helmet, exiting the driver’s side of a compact car and opening fire in several directions.
One suspect was arrested shortly after the shooting started, but the police cordoned off the area around the synagogue and blocked major arteries in the city as they hunted for the others.
Federal police officials said they had increased patrols at the country’s eastern borders with Poland and Czech Republic, as well as regional airports and train stations as the search continued on Wednesday evening.
The identities of the victims were not immediately clear. Local media reported one victim, a man, had been killed in a kebab shop near the synagogue and that a woman had been fatally shot in the street.
Germany’s federal prosecutor took over the investigation “on suspicion of murder under special circumstance,” said Dirk Hackler, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, but declined to give further details.
The last time the federal prosecutor made such a move was after the slaying of Walter Lübcke, a pro-refugee district representative and member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party who was slain in June.
A witness to the shooting in Halle told MDR that he had seen a gunman dressed in military gear and armed with several weapons firing at the synagogue. Other news outlets reported that a hand grenade had been thrown into a Jewish cemetery nearby.
Prayers for Yom Kippur began at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday and had been scheduled to continue until 8:30 p.m. It is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, and services brought many people to the temple.
Max Privorozki, a leader of the Jewish community in Halle, told Der Spiegel that it appeared that the gunman or gunmen had tried to enter the synagogue, where 70 to 80 people were attending services, but that police officers posted outside the building had resisted the attackers.
“The attacker fired several times at the door and threw petrol bombs, firecrackers or other explosives to try to force his way in,” Mr. Privorozki was quoted by Der Spiegel as saying. “But the door stayed shut, God protected us.”
The police told MDR that more shots had been fired later in Landsberg, a suburb of Halle, though those reports could not be independently confirmed. The mayor of Halle convened a crisis team and urged residents to remain in their homes until further notice.
Immediately after the shooting in Halle, television footage showed police officers wearing helmets and carrying automatic weapons as they patrolled streets around the synagogue that had been sealed off with red-and-white tape. Other officers used a ladder to climb over a high brick wall surrounding the cemetery.
One attacker was thought to have fled in a taxi, Der Spiegel reported, and a suspect was apprehended on the highway outside Halle.
Anti-Semitic crime and hate crimes targeting foreigners have both increased almost 20 percent in Germany over the past year, according to official figures published in May. The data included a wide range of offenses, including assault, insults, graffiti, hateful postings online and the use of Nazi symbols.
All Jewish institutions in Germany, including synagogues, schools and other cultural centers, are guarded around the clock by local police. In Berlin, which has the country’s largest Jewish population, the police have also provided security to cafes, restaurants and shops that are owned and frequented by Jews.
Earlier this year, the country’s top official for efforts against anti-Semitism warned that Jews should not wear their skullcaps everywhere in public.
Halle, a city of 230,000 that is 100 miles southwest of Berlin, is best known as the birthplace of the composer George Frideric Handel. The largest city in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, it boasts Gothic and Renaissance architecture, but today is a regional seat of trade and commerce.
As news of Wednesday’s shooting spread, condemnation and concern flowed in from across Europe. In Brussels, the president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, expressed his condolences and called for a moment of silence for the victims. The Anti-Defamation League in New York called the attack “heartbreaking” and “devastating,” and thanked those in law enforcement for keeping “our houses of worship and communal institutions safe and secure on this day and every day, in the U.S. and around the world.”
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, said in a statement that he regarded the events in Halle as “yet another tragic demonstration of anti-Semitism — perpetrated on the holy day of Yom Kippur — which needs to be fought with the utmost determination.”