Wittenberg church to face German Supreme Court over ‘Jew sow’
German cultural heritage will face the Federal Supreme Court after the Jewish community in Bonn said it felt "attacked" by the "Jew's sow" on the Wittenberg Church.
Published: June 7, 2022, 1:29 pm
The small sculpture in question has traditionally been part of the exterior decoration of churches in the Middle Ages, but the Jewish community has demanded the removal of the sculpture.
The facade of the church has a Judensau, or Jew’s pig, dating from 1305. It portrays a rabbi who looks under the sow’s tail at its anus, and other Jews drinking from its teats. An inscription reads “Rabini Shem hamphoras,” which alludes to “shem ha-meforasch” [a secret name of God, allegedly Shemhamphorasch]. The sculpture is one of the last remaining examples in Germany.
In 1988, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Kristallnacht, debate sprung up about the monument, which resulted in the addition of a sculpture recognizing that during the Holocaust six million Jews were murdered “under the sign of the cross”.
In his text Vom Schem Hamphoras (1543), Luther commented on the Judensau sculpture at Wittenberg, echoing the antisemitism of the image and locating the Talmud in the sow’s bowels:
“Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary, which is certainly where they get their Shemhamphoras.”
The Supreme court must now decide whether the “defamatory sculpture” constitutes an offence.
The plaintiff is Michael Dietrich Düllmann, a member of the Jewish community in Bonn. He is an elderly German who converted to Judaism in the 1970s. He has already gone through two instances, but at 78, he is not backing down.
Düllmann wants to remove the relief from the façade of the main church of the Reformation and have it moved to the Luther House Museum in Wittenberg together with a historical-critical classification. After all, this is where Martin Luther wrote his anti-Jewish writings, argued Düllmann.
The Wittenberg “Jew sow” has been controversial for some time. For this reason, it has been expanded into a “Place of Remembrance” since 1988, and a memorial plaque embedded in the ground refers to the victims of National Socialism. In addition, there is an explanatory panel on the relief as well as a cedar from Israel as a “sign of reconciliation”.
But this is not enough for the convert. Plaintiff Düllmann keeps citing new complaints and has also been able to win over other allies in the fight against the unloved pictorial work, such as Friedrich Kramer, Bishop of Central Germany, Klaus Holz, Secretary General of the Protestant Academy, Felix Klein, the Federal Government’s anti-Semitism commissioner.
However, Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, does not want to join the call for the sculpture’s removal.
Düllmann is unperturbed by this obstacle. He said he eventually wanted to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
The fight is about to become interesting since the Wittenberg City Church is a World Heritage Site and a listed building. Whether the sensitivities of Bonn’s religious community will outweigh these, remains to be seen. At least, no such fervour was noted in removing recent Nazi-related insignia in full display in Germany in relation to the war in Ukraine.
In 2020, a regional court ruled that the artwork could not be touched. The Naumburg court argued that the sculpture was part of the ancient building, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and thus could not be disturbed.
The Wittenberg church was the first church to ever hold a mass in German instead of Latin. Martin Luther, the ex-Catholic monk responsible for the Protestant Reformation, lived in Wittenberg and preached at the church.
Most Lutheran churches in Germany have similar reliefs. An estimated 30 churches remain, including the Cologne Cathedral, as well as in Eberswalde and Magdeburg.
According to the convert, the Wittenberg relief “is a terrible falsification of Judaism […] a defamation and insult to the Jewish people and it has had a terrible effect to this day”.
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