Thursday, May 16, 2024

From Judensau to Genocide

A German appeals court has rejected a bid to remove from the ledge of a famous cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany, a grotesque sculpture which was carved into its exterior wall in the 1300s, a vulgar remnant of centuries of anti-Semitism known as Judensau, part of which dates back to medieval ages.

Two hundred years after it was installed, Martin Luther, one of the most vicious anti-Semitic priests in history, preached at the Wittenberg church and wrote approvingly of the sculpture on the church façade.

He or his followers arranged for a caption taken from the title of one of his incendiary writings to be erected over the carving: Rabini Schem Hamforas, an illiterate distortion of a Jewish term.

The sculpture with its caption remains there to this day; a repugnant testament to the long-running, murderous anti-Jewish tradition Luther launched in Germany that has spanned so many centuries, culminating in the horrors of genocide.

Luther, whose writings about his “nightly visitations from the devil” led psychiatric experts to believe he suffered from psychosis (The Medical Times and Gazette; M. Dommet Stone, 1867), took religious bigotry to unprecedented levels.

In a major treatise, “Against the Jews and Their Lies,” he called for Jewish synagogues, schools and homes to be torched and their prayer books destroyed. He urged laws to be enacted forbidding rabbis to teach “on pain of loss of life and limb.”

Luther ranted that Jews are children of the devil and guilty of horrific crimes against innocent Christians. They should be shown no mercy nor afforded any legal protection, but sentenced to forced labor or permanently expelled. He advocated their murder and the plunder of their possessions.

Shortly before his death in 1546, he preached a sermon that included a “final warning” against the Jews, including fantastic allegations that Jews possess a “secret art” of being able “to administer poison that could kill someone in an hour, a month, a year, ten or twenty years.”

Luther unleashed his ranting in lurid language that would make the average person on the street cringe. Leading anti-Semites of our day appear benign by comparison. Despite the tendency in some quarters to attribute the spewing forth of obscenity to the style of the period, historians assert that Luther’s rabid language reflected his mentality and intent.

The murderous implications of his anti-Semitism would unfold slowly over the centuries.

Direct Line from Luther To Hitler

Luther’s demonization of Jews was so virulent that some historians trace a direct path, called in German, “Sonderweg,” from Luther to the horrors of the Nazi era. (Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer, 1960)

Four centuries before Hitler’s gas chambers were erected, historians say, German culture and philosophy was seeded with the “DNA” of Luther’s anti-Semitic venom.

The degree to which the Nazis openly embraced Luther’s writings, echoing his phraseology such as “the Jews are our misfortune” and other “Lutherisms,” adds weight to this assertion.

Luther’s pamphlet, “Against the Jews and Their Lies,” was displayed during Nuremberg rallies, and its libels were recycled by the notorious Julius Streicher, editor of the regime’s newspaper, Der Stürmer.

After the war, on trial for his life in the 1946 Nuremburg Trials, Streicher protested that he had not acted out of criminal intent, citing Luther’s writings in his defense. Like Luther, he argued, he had sought not to do harm but to “educate.”

Streicher argued that if he had to stand trial for crimes against humanity, it followed that the great Luther, were he alive, would fare no better. “Martin Luther would very probably sit in my place in the defendants’ dock today for his book, ‘Against the Jews and Their Lies,’ Streicher protested.

Later that year, the tribunal convicted Streicher of crimes against humanity, and he was hanged.

Luther the Hero?

In one of the great ironies of history, Luther, his malevolent side all but forgotten, has been enshrined as a heroic figure in many parts of the world. He is hailed as the great leader of “the Reformation” who spearheaded the 16th century revolt against the Catholic church and helped launch the Protestant movement.

Luther took aim at the church’s practice of “indulgences,” through which Catholic clergy charged Christians a tax to “buy” themselves and their loved ones a ticket out of the “flames of purgatory” and into “heaven,” whatever these terms meant to the masses of that age.

“Indulgence” payments were an important source of revenue for the Catholic church. But the discovery that these funds were being funneled into the completion of a magnificent cathedral in Rome as opposed to being distributed to charity galvanized Luther to attack the church practice as corrupt.

His essays railing against church exploitation of the masses and direct challenges to the Pope’s authority found a receptive audience, especially among the German nobility. These wealthy landowners resented the Catholic church’s encroachment on territory they felt belonged to Germany’s aristocracy.

With the advent of the printing press, Luther’s writings were swiftly copied and printed. Within two weeks, they had spread throughout Germany, and within two months throughout Europe. In the following years, the Protestant movement took on powerful momentum, splintering the Catholic church and leading to bloody warfare between rivaling Christian factions across Northern Europe.

With the weakening of the Catholic church came a host of other political and social changes many of which Luther never intended and even denounced, but for which history has ironically given him credit. These include the peasants’ revolt against the nobility, increased individual liberty and a burgeoning pursuit of secular knowledge.

Luther was in no way a pioneer of modern times, but a thoroughly medieval man, an intolerant religious bigot who could not abide anyone deviating from his version of the truth. Scholars say he would have been appalled by the secular freedoms of Western societies today.

The sense of irony surrounding his “hero” status shifts into near-comedy, therefore, as one contemplates the hype that swept through Germany as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approached in 2017.

The German Cultural Council created nationwide tourist attractions for the expected flood of celebrants, advertised in a special publication called Martin Luther Superstar.

German Leaders Visit Wittenberg

In honor of the 500th anniversary event, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose father was a Lutheran pastor, and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier attended several ceremonies in Wittenber, starting with a service at the church where Luther is said to have first displayed his famous list of criticisms in 1517.

Merkel commented that it was essential that Luther’s anti-Semitism never be erased from his theological legacy. “That is, for me, the comprehensive historical reckoning that we need,” she said.

The center of Wittenberg had been transformed to recreate the medieval era in which Luther lived, with performances taking place throughout the day, to audiences of thousands.

There were no ceremonial events scheduled at the church where the Judensau sculpture is carved into the wall, and where Luther is known to have preached. But as crowds made their way through the town, they could not have missed it.

The Wittenberg church sculpture is not unique. Throughout history, thousands of Judensau and illustrations of blood libel have adorned churches, in paintings, stained glass windows, wood carvings and in medieval manuscripts all over Europe.

These abhorrent images that ridicule Jews and Judaism and encourage anti-Semitic violence have been on display since the early Middle Ages.

Some of the most repellent examples appear in German paintings and sculptures. Many German woodcuts, for example, depict horned Jews associating with devils and pigs.

That clergymen actually paid for this “artwork” and chose these revolting images to grace their houses of worship defies comprehension.

Medieval Messages That Went Viral

During the Middle Ages, when the masses were mostly illiterate, such incendiary depictions of Jews were the equivalent of today’s social media hate messages going viral. Their visual power even surpassed that of the written word, and was leveraged by Christian clergy and ordinary rabble rousers to promote physical assaults, plunder and degradation of Jews.

The Wittenberg sculpture is one of about 200 productions on the Jew-pig theme crafted between the 13th and 18th centuries. During the early 1980s, when the church was renovated, the sculpture was not only left intact but restored.

This was a shocking rebuff to petitions that it be removed as a gesture of goodwill to Jews.

In 1988, a memorial was built on the grounds of the church in honor of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Three years ago, the municipality added a plaque in German and English explaining the historical context of the sculpture and Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic beliefs.

As public concerns mount over the increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Germany and across Europe, many deem the removal of these toxic images a necessary step in curbing this poison. Their continued presence is seen as a dangerous symbol of intolerance, amounting to anti-Semitic incitement.

A number of these carving and paintings have in fact been removed from church facades in recent times; but many still grace cathedrals across Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

Should Symbols of Past Evil Be Erased?

Should relics of past violence and hatred of Jews be removed altogether, or should they remain and be memorialized as witnesses to history?

Some feel that removing these relics offers the various churches they adorn too easy a path toward historical amnesia, and the whitewashing of its past evils. Removing the loathsome pig sculptures and other hateful relics, critics say, would effectively erase remembrance of the hostility and persecutions the Catholic church and its clergy perpetrated against Jews.

This is the backdrop to an ongoing legal battle in Germany to have the Judensau carving taken down from the wall of the Wittenberg church.

On and off for the past few decades, there have been attempts to persuade authorities to remove it, citing today’s political climate. The church’s own congregation and the city council, however, want the sculpture maintained.

They note that the Holocaust plaque in the pavement next to the church points to the terrible legacy of virulent anti-Jewish sentiment, making the ensemble a vital historical relic.

Germany’s courts agree. A few weeks ago, Michael Dullman, a 77-year old member of Berlin’s Jewish community who has been campaigning for the carving’s removal, had his appeal rejected by a regional court. It was the second court round he lost. The court ruled that Dullmann may still take the case to Germany’s highest court in Karlsruhe.

Dullman, “originally a student of Protestant theology who converted to Judaism in the 1970s,” according to an AP article, became involved in the issue in 2017.

He says he joined vigils in Wittenberg protesting the sculpture as defamatory; when it became clear that the church wasn’t prepared to take it down, he sued the local parish. In 2018, when the suit was rejected, he appealed.

“For as long as the sculpture remains in place, the church is guilty of promulgating anti-Semitism,” Dullman said ahead of the ruling.

In striking down the appeal, Judge Volker Buchloh found that that the sculpture is not of a “slanderous character,” and that it does not violate Dullmann’s rights. While the sculpture would be offensive if viewed in isolation, he said, “in the context in which it has been placed by the church, it has lost its insulting character.”

Shame and Pain

The church’s pastor, Johannes Block, told the German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, that having the sculpture on the facade of the church filled him “with shame and pain.”

“We are trying to deal with this difficult inheritance responsibly,” he told the paper. The parish wanted to leave the carving in place as a reminder of the anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages, and of the anti-Semitic features of Luther’s theology, he explained.

“We are convinced that history means not forgetting the dark side of the past but confronting it,” said the church’s pastor, Johannes Block.

Critics of that position note that the adjacent Holocaust memorial, installed under Communism, lacks sufficient information and context to enlighten visitors about what the Judensau represents, and should be expanded.

To call attention to their cause, activists have held rallies on Wittenberg’s main square and read out anti-Semitic texts penned by Luther. The protest followed silent weekly gatherings at the same site in Wittenberg over the past year in which participants held up posters protesting the sculpture.

Other activists include members of a nun’s Sisterhood who have stood in Wittenberg’s main square with Pastor Thomas Piehler of Leipzig. Together, they have hosted silent vigils calling for the Judensau relic to come down.

“Praise of G-d and Jew-hate do not belong together,” Piehler told the media.


Glorifying Bad People

Anti-Semitic iconography connected with Martin Luther is not limited to Europe. It has also surfaced in exhibitions at U.S. museums, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s 2016 exhibition “Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation.”

Yet there are striking differences between the American exhibitions and their European counterparts.

In Minneapolis, Luther’s “Treatise on Usury” included a caricature on the title page of a Jewish man in exceptionally lavish attire. “Pay or give interest, for I crave profit,” a German inscription states.

Luther may or may not have been responsible for the pejorative illustration, but “it hints at his animosity towards the Jews,” the Minneapolis exhibition-catalog notes.

Another object in the exhibition, a green earthenware fragment found in the garden of Luther’s house, shows a hooded Jewish man with ugly features and a stereotypical hooked nose.

“This hideous face was meant to vilify a Jewish witness to the Crucifixion,” an accompanying commentary informs the viewer. “It can be seen in the context of the emergence of viciously anti-Semitic caricatures and tropes, which haunt us to this day.”

What a sharp contrast in tone, intent and presentation between these U.S. displays and their European equivalents!

Honoring An 11th Century Savage

Compare the above examples to a prominent sample of anti-Jewish art in Brussels that comes without a word of historical context. This artwork does not mock or humiliate Jews in the spirit of pig-sculptures; it rather exalts a mass murderer of Jews.

In the Royal Square in Brussels, a statue glorifying an 11th Century French nobleman on horseback wearing a crown and carrying a flag and a shield, is identified as Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the leaders of the First Crusade.

Godfrey perpetrated a disaster of epic proportions on the Jews of the Rhineland and Eretz Yisroel.

In 1096, in a period of four weeks, bands of Crusaders under Godfrey and other leaders struck the Jewish communities of Speyer, Worms, Mainz, and Cologne. The Jews were offered the option of conversion to Christianity or death; the vast majority chose the path of kiddush Hashem.

Estimates of the toll taken on the Jewish communities range from 3,000 to 10,000 deaths.

The Crusaders marched on to Eretz Yisroel, reaching Jerusalem in 1099. Having arrived, they herded all the Jews of Jerusalem into the central shul and set it ablaze. Some who had escaped had climbed to the roof of Al-Aksa mosque on the Har Habayis. Most were caught and killed.

According to historians, Godfrey of Bouillon penned a message to the Pope: “If you want to know what has been done with the enemy in Jerusalem…our people had [Jewish] blood up to the knees of their horses.”

To erect a statue honoring the leader of “ISIS-type” marauders who mercilessly slaughtered entire communities of innocent Jewish men, women and children?

Many would say this statue glorifying the Crusades represents the worst in European history before the Nazi era.


From Luther to Hitler

Scholars say that Luther’s violent rhetoric took standard Christian antagonism to Judaism to an entirely new level. He caused a “hysterical and demonizing mentality” about Jews to enter German consciousness that reached its apotheosis in the Nazi era.

Historian Lucy Davidowitz in “The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945,” writes that both Luther and Hitler were obsessed by the “demonologized universe” supposedly inhabited by Jews. She writes that the similarities between Luther’s anti-Jewish writings and those of the Nazis are no coincidence, that the line of “anti-Semitic descent” from Luther to Hitler is “easy to draw.”

Luther’s sentiments were glorified within the Nazi party. Hitler’s Education Minister, Bernhard Rust was quoted as saying that “Since Martin Luther closed his eyes, no such son of our people has appeared again. It has been decided that we shall be the first to witness his reappearance.”

According to Daniel Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners), Bishop Martin Sasse, a leading Protestant churchman, published a pamphlet of Luther’s writings after Kristallnacht. In the introduction, he applauded the burning of the synagogues and the coincidence of the event falling out on Luther’s birthday.

“On November 10, 1938, on Luther’s birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany!” Bishop Sasse wrote, in a chilling reference to Luther’s call four centuries earlier for precisely this type of assault against the Jews.

The pamphlet contained reprints of Luther’s notorious essay, “Against the Jews and Their Lies,” urging the destruction of Jewish property and the expulsion of all Jews.

Sasse goes on to exhort the German people to heed the words “of the greatest anti-Semite of his time who warned his people against the Jews,” adding that the current persecutions were fulfilling Luther’s goals.



The Holy Count

    This week, in Parshas Emor, we encounter the mitzvah of counting seven weeks between when the Korban Omer is brought on the second

Read More »


Subscribe to stay updated