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Survivor Of Tree Of Life Synagogue Shooting Reflects On The Last Year

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Almost one year ago, on October 27, Barry Werber was hiding in a storage room at the Tree of Life synagogue as he listened to gunfire on the other side of the door. He said he was on the phone with 911 operators but was unable to breathe, much less speak to them. When it was all over, 11 congregants were dead. Police say the shooter was a man who had expressed anti-Semitic views before entering the synagogue. Barry Werber joins us now to reflect on that day last year.

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.

BARRY WERBER: It is my obligation - not so much my pleasure but my obligation.

CHANG: The anniversary of the shooting is this upcoming Sunday, and I was hoping - can you talk a little bit about what it's been like to try to move through this past year?

WERBER: I can say that it has been bittersweet - the bitterness in not seeing the members of our congregation that we always saw on a weekly basis but especially this holy season. And I happen to be a member of the choir at our synagogue. And not only to be in a different building with different surroundings but to look across the altar where the rabbi stands and not see two of the three faces that I would normally see there was very, very unholiday (ph) to me. It was a very emotional time for me. It's going to be hard to go through the coming years without them.

CHANG: I understand that earlier this May, you decided that it was time to walk over and enter the Tree of Life synagogue again. What made you want to go back and be up close to that place?

WERBER: Well, I had been given kind of a gentle push by a gentleman named Dan Leger, who had been injured in the original shooting. And he had been asked a similar question as to how he can go on, how he can go forward and if he could ever go back into the building, and his answer was, I can't allow the shooter to control my life going forward.

CHANG: Yeah.

WERBER: That struck a note with me. So with my psychologist and with my faithful wife and with the security person who happens to be a vice president of Tree of Life building, I walked into the building.

CHANG: And what was that like for you to walk in for the first time since last October?

WERBER: I paused going down the steps because that's where I was brought face-to-face with the reality of the shooting to begin with. One of the young men who was killed - actually, his body was on those steps. And I was taken by the arm by the security guard. He said, you can take the elevator down. I said, no. If I don't go down the steps, I'll never get - I'll never accomplish what I want to do.

CHANG: Right.

WERBER: So I went down the steps. I walked into our room. It was in quite a bit of disarray - chairs and tables and things knocked around.

CHANG: Still left that way.

WERBER: And it was eerie. I will admit that. And I had a picture of Richard Gottfried in my hand that I had taken at happier times when we were entering the building.

CHANG: This is a friend of yours?

WERBER: He was a friend of everybody's. But I had a picture in a piece of plastic, and I put it on the pulpit where the rabbi normally stands, where he used to stand as well to support the rabbi. I said a brief prayer, looked around the room and then walked into the store room where I had been on that fateful day. And it was very, very unreal to be in that room when there was light now.

CHANG: And yet you were still standing there, and I'm curious. Did you accomplish what you wanted to accomplish - that assurance to yourself that the shooter no longer controlled you?

WERBER: Yes, definitely. I can go into that building anytime I want. I don't know about going into that building, per se, as a house of worship, but I do know that as far as he is concerned, the shooter has no more control over me.

CHANG: You lost some dear friends that day. I was wondering if you could take a moment and tell me a little bit about them. Who were they?

WERBER: Oh, it would take me days to tell you about them. Mel Wax - what a delight. The man was probably in his late 80s, close to 90. Mel came always dressed to the nines - jacket, tie, some nice-looking pants. Where I always used to go - unless it was a special service, I used to go very casual. I said to him that from that moment on, when I come to services, it will be with a jacket and a tie and a good pair of slacks. That way, I can emulate him.

CHANG: And have you fulfilled that promise?

WERBER: Oh, yes. I said I made a promise, and I've kept that promise.

CHANG: I saw that your congregation made these shirts with the slogan, words matter; never forget. Can you tell me what those words mean to you?

WERBER: They mean a lot. I keep on thinking of all the people that are connected to this whole situation, whether they be Jewish or non-Jewish, that are not aware of how words can cause chaos. The Internet, the radio, the TV - the means of communications we have today are much broader than they were back in the days of Adolf Hitler, but Adolf Hitler was able to use words that stirred his people into hating our people. Words have caused chaos against the Jews and against other minorities...

CHANG: Yes.

WERBER: ...For centuries. So words matter, and if you speak those words long enough and hard enough, certain portions of the population are going to believe them. Just let me say this. There are more good people in this country than there are bad. There are more good feelings in this world than there are bad. But unless we express them, then the bad will take over.

CHANG: Barry Werber is a survivor of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting.

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today. I wish you all the best.

WERBER: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.