Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

Jew-Demonizing Sculpture Links Anti-Semitism Across the Centuries

Germany May Have Repudiated Nazism But Courts Won’t Ban the ‘Judensau’


In the latest chapter of a long-running controversy, a German government commissioner demanded a church in Wittenberg, Germany remove an ancient anti-Semitic sculpture known as Judensau (Jewish pig) from the church’s exterior wall.

The 13th century abomination on the town church depicts a caricature of a rabbi and two Jewish men –identified by the pointed hats Jews were forced to wear in medieval times—engaged in obscene activity with a pig.

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

These images that ridicule Judaism, paint Jews as dirty and subhuman and encourage anti-Semitic violence, have been displayed 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, and some illustrations show Jews feeding from these creatures.

Today, medieval sculptures that demonize Jews still adorn about thirty churches across Germany, and another handful can still be found in Austria and France, recalling an age when they were shockingly the norm.

Many of the sculptures were originally on the inside of churches and were referenced in priestly sermons, as worshippers were exhorted not follow the example of the “degenerate” Jews. Eventually, the works began to be placed on church facades, in public places and on wealthy private homes, an NPR article explained.

For hundreds of years, a large painting of Jews with a pig decorated the bridge tower in Frankfurt, where it had become a tourist attraction until the city tore it down in 1801.

The sculptures and paintings were the equivalent of modern day propaganda or social media hate messages going viral. Their visual power was leveraged by Christian clergy and ordinary rabble rousers to promote physical assaults, plunder and degradation of Jews.

The resistance of church and municipal authorities to removing them today is viewed by some as a contemporary reflection of an ancient anti-Semitism still deeply rooted in European and specifically German culture.


Locked Into European DNA

“Jew hatred is part of the DNA of European culture,” says Sigmount Konigsberg, the Berlin Jewish community’s commissioner on anti-Semitism, quoted by NPR. “What you see of anti-Semitism today is the old anti-Judaism wrapped in modern form.”

“This Judensau sculpture illustrates the continuity of anti-Semitism,” agreed Steffen Klavers at the Jewish Forum Against Anti-Semitism in Munich. “The stereotypes haven’t changed much. The effects are not only visible on the walls of this church but also on the streets of Germany.”

In August 2018, after Muslim immigrants were arrested for stabbing a German man, thousands of neo-Nazis from around the country descended on the Saxony-Anhalt city of Chemnitz and rioted for a week, the Smithsonian reported. Following a pattern in European history where hatred of foreigners typically morphs into an assault on Jews, the mob attacked a Jewish restaurant owner.

Dozens of assailants threw rocks, bottles and a metal pipe at his business, shouting, “Get out of Germany, you Judensau!”

On Oct. 9, 2019, a man from the same region of East Germany posted an anti-Semitic tirade online and then attacked a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle on Yom Kippur, killing two and wounding several others.

Another case of extreme anti-Semitic violence in Germany was a shooting last November at a rabbi’s residence at the Old Synagogue of Essen. Bullet holes were discovered in the residence’s windows.

These incidents were alarmingly not rare, fringe occurrences. A German watchdog organization on antisemitism documented 2,480 anti-Semitic incidents nationwide in 2022.

“That is nearly seven incidents per day, a 26% increase over the 2020 statistics. Antisemitism in Germany remains at a high level,” Germany’s Federal Association of Research and Information Centers on Antisemitism (RIAS) wrote in a statement accompanying its annual report published in June.


Massive Influx of Immigrants Driving German Anti-Semitism

“There is considerable anti-Semitic agitation in far-right circles in Germany, and you have individual neo-Nazis who might carry out an attack on a synagogue or beat up a rabbi on the street,” Ariel Muzicant, the president of the European Jewish Congress, told The Times of Israel. “But the driving force of lethal anti-Semitism, which is endangering Jewish lives, in Europe today, is extremist Muslims.”

Radicalized Muslims are responsible for at least 50% of physical assaults on Jews in Western Europe today, Muzicant said, adding that Iranian propaganda is “a serious factor, inciting attackers to act.”

The massive influx of immigrants from Muslim countries as well as from Ukraine has catalyzed far-right political parties in Germany who promise to crack down on immigration, impose law and order, and prevent “foreigners” –presumably including Jews—from “overpopulating” the country.

The populist AfD (Alternative for Germany) party has seen a recent surge in popularity running on such a platform. It has proposed closing the European Union’s external borders and doing away with the asylum system. In June, the party won a district council election for the first time in Sonneberg, a rural area in eastern Germany.

Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called the regional election in Sonneberg “a watershed moment that this country’s democratic political forces cannot simply accept,” according to the Times of Israel.

The International Auschwitz Committee commemoration group called the election “a sad day for the Sonneberg district, for Germany, and for democracy.”

The council and many other German Jews explain that their rejection of AfD is due to multiple anti-Semitism scandals within the party, and because of remarks by prominent AfD members that were seen to glorify Germany’s Nazi past, the Times of Israel article said.

According to the report, Alexander Gurland, the party’s honorary chairman, said in 2017 that Germans “don’t have to be held accountable anymore for those 12 years [of the Nazi regime].” He added: “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.”

As far-right nationalism has been on the rise throughout the country, but especially in Saxony-Anhalt, where Wittenberg is located, “the debate over the anti-Jewish sculpture, seen as a symbol of racial and religious intolerance, has become newly urgent,” the Smithsonian said.


Government Commissioner: ‘The Anti-Semitic Judensau Must Go’

The order to remove the sculpture the Wittenberg Town Church came as Wittenberg is being considered as the location for a new German-Israeli youth exchange initiative. The town has hosted a coordination office for youth exchanges between the two countries since 2001, with the current plan aimed at expanding and building up the organization’s activities.

Felix Klein, Commissioner for Jewish Life and the Fight against Antisemitism in Germany, said that the image’s presence made the city unwelcoming for Jews, rendering it impossible to proceed with the cultural program.

“A city in which hostility to Jews is so openly displayed with the Judensau on the church cannot be a place of welcome for Jewish Israelis,” said Klein in a statement. “For Wittenberg to become the base of the German-Israeli Youth Exchange, the anti-Semitic Jew-sow must be removed.”

Wittenberg acquired its distinction as the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation in Germany led by arch anti-Semite Martin Luther. The revolt he ignited against the Catholic church succeeded, over ensuing centuries, in greatly weakening the church’s power while consolidating the Protestant branch of Christianity.

The Judensau was built into the southeast corner of the church in about 1290. The Latin-Hebrew inscription—an ignorant corruption and mockery of the Divine Name—was added in the 16th century, lifted from one of Luther’s rantings which castigated Jews as the “Devil’s people.” [See Sidebar


Conciliatory Gestures  

The first heated debates over the Wittenberg sculpture took place in 1988, around the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The municipal authorities, in a gesture of conciliation, unveiled a small memorial to victims of the Holocaust, set into the ground below the sculpture, according to the Sunday Times of Great Britain.

An information panel describes the Judensau’s place in the history of German anti-Semitism, including medieval pogroms that crisscrossed the region, the expulsion of the Jews from the surrounding state of Saxony in 1536, Luther’s vitriolic denunciations of the Jews, and the Holocaust.

Recently, the municipality amended the panel by adding that it distanced itself from “anti-Semitism and the hatred of Jews.” It also said it planned to provide more information inside the church about the history of hatred against Jews in Christian lands.

These gestures, however, failed to eliminate opposition to the continued presence of the medieval relic and its hateful message on a house of worship.

Then, in 1996, Unesco granted Wittenberg “cultural heritage” status as the birthplace of Martin Luther. That added fresh fuel to the debate, sparking even more insistent calls by some people for the statue to be removed, as the anticipated increase in the city’s popularity would also expose the sculpture to fresh scrutiny.

The local church leadership and the town refused to take it down. They cited several flimsy arguments – that the sculpture “belonged to history;” that it would be hard to chisel it out without ruining the church’s structure; and that the foulness of the imagery had been clearly offset by two plaques condemning anti-Semitism.

An active campaign to remove the Wittenberg sculpture began in 2017, during celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, with an online petition and protests held in front of the church.

Activists include members of a nun’s sisterhood who stood in Wittenberg’s main square with Pastor Thomas Piehler of the Andreas Church in Leipzig. Together, they hosted silent vigils calling for the Judensau sculpture to come down.

“Praise of G-d and Jew-hate do not belong together,” Piehler told the media. He and the nuns held banners that read (in German), “Luther used the Judensau for his anti-Semitism,” and “Let’s call it Luthersau. Then would you take it down?”


Highest German Court Rejects Motion to Remove Judensau

In 2018, Michael Dullmann, the son of a Nazi solder, who converted to Judaism in the 1970s, embarked on a lengthy legal campaign to force church authorities to remove the sculpture, saying it mocked Jews and promulgated anti-Semitism.

At every stage of the litigation that culminated in last year’s ruling by Germany’s highest court of appeals, judges sided with the local church leadership over Dullman.

Judge Volker Bloch of Germany’s Federal Court of Justice agreed that the carving was a “massively defamatory statement about the Jewish people and their faith” and an “expression of antisemitism and hatred.”

He nevertheless ruled that it could remain, arguing that the historical context added to the church façade through the plaques and memorial had “neutralized” its insulting and harmful nature.

“We will appeal to the Constitutional Court, and then, if necessary, to the EU court for human rights in Strasbourg,” Dullmann told NPR. “The fight is far from over.”

The protests and publicity of the trials have shined a harsh spotlight on the sculpture, forcing church and public officials to take a position on whether to remove or retain it.

Felix Klein, Germany’s federal anti-Semitism commissioner, said last November that the sculpture “belongs in a museum” and should be taken down from the church, reported NPR.

The region’s Lutheran bishop, Friedrich Kramer, also advocates its removal. “I find it unbearable,” he said in a radio interview last June, “that in a central place for us Protestants, there is a lie on the wall that continues to preach.”

Some argue that it’s better to leave the monstrosity in place as a reminder of the history of Christian anti-Semitism. Mr. Christian Staffa, the Lutheran Church’s commissioner for the fight against anti-Semitism, believes the blitz of international attention might be beneficial.

“If you bring the statue down –it’s installed about 20 feet up the church wall– and put it closer to people,” says Staffa, “they would get to know for the first time how ugly it is, how really evil.”


Bizarre Attachment to the Judensau

Beginning in 1945 after Germany’s defeat, the Allies began a program of de-Nazification that called for the arrest and trial of Nazi war criminals, banning Nazis from the post-war German government, removing Nazi names from streets and outlawing Nazi ideology and political parties.

The repudiation of Nazism continues in German courts today. As recently as 2020, a 93-year-old former officer at Stutthof concentration camp was tried in Germany and found guilty of 5,230 counts of accessory to murder.

Today, raising one’s arm in a Nazi salute is illegal in Germany. It is also against the law to call someone a Judensau. Yet, bizarrely, despite years of petitions and calls for their removal, the Judensau “artworks” remain in a number of German cathedrals. Germany apparently lacks the political will to repudiate these abhorrent sculptures.

As public concerns mount over the increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Germany and neighboring countries, however, many public officials 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.




Lethal Legacy

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

He or his followers arranged for a mocking caption taken from the title of one of his hate-filled diatribes—Rabini Schem Hamforas– to be erected over the revolting sculpture.

The sculpture with its malignant caption remains there to this day, testament to the relentless hostility to Jews stoked by Luther that has spanned so many centuries, culminating in the horrors of genocide.

The Jew-hating priest, 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), 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 obscene language that would make leading anti-Semites of our day appear benign by comparison. He also harshly attacked the Catholic church, although he stopped short of calling for actual violence against it.

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.

The toxic fallout of Luther’s anti-Semitism would slowly infect society over the centuries, climaxing in Nazi Germany’s destruction of European Jewry with the complicity of millions raised on virulent Jew-hatred.


Twisted Minds in a Demonized Universe

Historian Paul Rose writes that Luther introduced a “hysterical and demonizing mentality” about Jews into German consciousness, and that Luther’s violent rhetoric took Christian hostility to Jews to unprecedented levels.

Historian Lucy Davidowitz in “The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945,” writes that both Luther and Hitler were obsessed by the “demonized universe” supposedly inhabited by Jews.

The author writes that the similarities between Luther’s anti-Jewish writings and those of the Nazis are no coincidence as Luther’s sentiments were glorified within the Nazi party.

Bishop Martin Sasse, a leading Protestant churchman, published a pamphlet of Luther’s writings after Kristallnacht.  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.

In the introduction, Bishop Sasse hailed the burning of the synagogues and the fact that it coincided with Luther’s birthday.

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

The pamphlet with its vicious calls for violence against the Jews 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.”

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

Given Luther’s religious bigotry and its bloody legacy, it is one of the great ironies of history that this depraved rabble rouser has been enshrined as a heroic figure in many parts of the world, his evil, malevolent side all but forgotten.




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