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A Medieval Trace of German Anti-Judaism

Mathis Winkler, DW-WORLD.DEApril 1, 2005

Defamatory sculptures depicting Jews and a pig can be found at many German medieval churches. Cathedral officials in a Bavarian town have now put up an explanatory plaque -- but not to everyone's satisfaction.

The weathered sculpture on Regensburg's cathedral

Most visitors to Regensburg's cathedral are unlikely to notice the weathered stone sculpture that's attached to the building's facade. But the 650-year-old so-called "Judensau," or "Jewish sow," is a reminder of Germany's long history of persecuting Jews. Similar sculptures can be found in churches throughout the country and Europe and were meant to ridicule Jewish people by depicting them sucking on a sow's teats.

While some churches have long put up plaques to explain the sculpture's history, Regensburg's Catholic Church leaders reached a different agreement with the city's Jewish community: Cathedral guides would point out the sculpture to groups and explain its origin.

Artist stirs up debate

Regensburg Altstadt mit Dom Sankt Peter
Regensburg's cathedral sits near the Danube riverImage: dpa

Both sides said they were comfortable with this arrangement. But feeling that a more permanent explanation was called for, Wolfram Kastner, a Munich artist, staged protests against the sculpture in front of the cathedral.

"For centuries, these depictions have caused murder, robberies and degradation," Kastner told reporters, adding that the term "Judensau" is used by neo-Nazis to this day.

Church officials were less than pleased with Kastner's actions.

"It's sad that someone is trying to disturb the peaceful coexistence of religions in Regensburg," said Philip Hockerts, a spokesman for the city's Catholic diocese.

A need for historical context

Juden in Deutschland Schüler Regensburg
A young member of Regensburg's Jewish community, which has grown tremendously since the fall of Communism and the arrival of Jews from eastern EuropeImage: AP

But together with members of the Regensburg's Jewish community, church officials came up with a text for an explanatory plaque that was unveiled next to a cathedral entrance this week.

"This sculpture needs to be seen in its historical context and its anti-Jewish message is disconcerting to viewers today," the German-only plaque reads. "Nowadays, the relationship between Christians and Jews is one of tolerance and respect."

While church officials said at the unveiling that asking for forgiveness was the right thing to do, Kastner said this wasn't enough.

"The plaque is lacking all the content that's necessary," he said, adding that he's considering futher protests unless the wording is changed. "This is nothing but smooth-talking."

A warning reminder

Regensburg's Jewish leaders said the text represented a compromise.

Juden in Deutschland Grabsteine in Regensburg
A German worker removes a tombstone during restoration efforts in Regensburg's old Jewish cemeteryImage: AP

"It would be nice if it were a little clearer," said Hans Rosengold, the spokesman for the city's 900-member Jewish community.

But he agreed with Hockerts that Regensburg's Christians and Jews were getting along just fine.

"I think that people should notice that this city is already doing a lot," he said, adding that a memorial by renowned artist Dani Karavan on the ground where Regensburg's medieval synagogue stood will be finished in June.

Besides, Rosengold said that tourist guides' remarks were much more important than a plaque on the wall. Removing the sculpture altogether -- as suggested by some -- was never an option for Rosengold, either.

"Why hide it? Then it would be as if nothing had ever happened," he said. "This way, there's at least a chance to say: 'Look at this. That's the way it was.'"