Antisemitism in German Folklore: Part 1 – Host Desecration

This is part of an ongoing series examining antisemitism in German folklore and folk tales (Part 1, Part 2).

I’ve discussed antisemitism in German folklore before. Due to current geopolitical events, I’ve decided to return to this discussion and expand on it. I am neither wise nor well-informed enough to help with improving the situation in the Middle East, but I can shine a spotlight on the history of anti-Jewish bigotry here in Germany.

And, in my opinion, this is sorely needed. Too many people in Germany wish to dismiss the Holocaust as a “singular aberration” that has no relevance to modern-day Germans and thus should be glossed over in favor of an “Ende der Schuldkultur” (“end of a culture of guilt”). Others even claim that antisemitism in today’s Germany is mostly “imported” – i.e. the primary fault of Muslim immigrants. Both of these are blatant lies. There are ample historical records showing the long history of the often murderous anti-Jewish bigotry common in Germany. Furthermore, I want to show that this was also true of folklore – which is not necessarily linked to historical events, but nevertheless illustrates the beliefs of people from centuries past.

Thus, I plan to write an entire series of extra posts with sample folk tales showing assorted forms of anti-Jewish bigotry. The first topic is host desecration – the defilement of blessed altar bread used in the rite of Eucharist and which symbolically represents the body of Christ that is shared by the congregation. This narrative trope shows up frequently in unrelated tales about black magic, including the Freischütz legends I’ve translated where defilement of altar bread allows someone to become a master marksman. But folk tales portrayed Jews as particularly motivated in defiling it.

The Sacrilegious Jew at Würzburg

A long time ago – as it was related to us by old people – it was custom that a priest would openly carry the holy host when they brought it to the dying as nourishment for their final fight. The sacristan would also walk in front of the priest while ringing a bell. Once, there was a Jew who became enraged because he had to bare his head before the passing priest. He cursed and spat before the host when it was carried past him. But behold, the saliva got stuck in his beard! No matter how often he spat, he was unable to spit over his beard and on the ground, and each time he tried to do so, the saliva got stuck in his beard. It was alleged that this was also the case with all of his descendants, and this remains true even today.

Source: Zeitschrift für deutsche Mythologie und Sittenkunde. Dritter Band, 1853. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung. p. 67.

Commentary: The implication here is that Jews have an almost “innate” hatred for the sacred trappings of Christianity, something which is even more explicit in other tales – though a more “charitable” interpretation is that the Jew was upset that he was forced pay his respect to the trappings of a religion that was not his own.

From the Christian perspective, this was sacrilege – and as usual, divine punishment followed immediately. Here it takes the form of a curse that he passed down to his descendants, similar to how all Jews were seen as “cursed” for the participation of their ancestors in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (the Romans seem to have escaped any curse for their part in Jesus’ death in Christian narratives, presumably because scapegoating the Romans would have been less politically convenient for the Christians).

Content warning: Torture and a particularly cruel form of execution.

The Jews of Glatz

In the year 1492, the Jews in Glatz1 secretly bribed an old woman from that town with money and good words so that she would take the blessed host when she participated in the rite of communion and surreptitiously hide it and bring it to them. In this manner, perhaps they might be able to use it later for their magics and trickery. When the old woman went to the table of the Lord, she kept the blessed bread in her mouth and dropped it into a sleeve. Then she went outside and wanted to sell it to the Jews. But when she came to the Böhmische Gasse street, she dropped it to the ground. Then a maid picked it up and reported this to the city council. A distinguished councilor of the city of Glogau2 soon punished the guilty woman with imprisonment. She confessed to this evil deed without delay, and then she was torn apart with tongs and burnt. Soon after, all Jews were driven out of Glatz as well. And in the same year of 1492, a large stone pillar was erected at the very spot where this incident had occurred. This was intended for the eternal condemnation and mockery of the Jews, as well as testimony and memorial for this incident. Later on, this pillar was moved and put into the wall supporting the attic of the nearest house, as it was obstructing traffic. There it was walled in, and even today its relief figures can be recognized. Since that time, and until the city of Glatz was conquered in 1622,3 it was not permitted to the Jews to be present there.

Something similar occurred around the same time as this incident in the Mark Brandenburg, which also led to the Jews being driven out of the territory. A tinkerer from Bernau named Paul Fromm had stolen a gilded monstrance with two blessed hosts out of a church. One of them he consumed himself, and the other he sold to a Jew named Salomo in Spandau for nine Groschen. This incident became known, the Jew went to prison, and there confessed everything desired of him under torture. He said that he had bought the holy bread, divided it into three parts under horrible blasphemies, and sent one part to Stendal, and another one to Brandenburg. The third part, which he kept, could not be destroyed either by water or by fire. Then he had wanted to bake it within a cake made out of wheat flour, but to his astonishment the dough became as red as blood. And in the oven, it gave off a marvelous, glaring shine, and within the shine a “clean, small child” was visible. Then he hung up the miracle cake within the synagogue, where it was indeed found later. After this, the Elector-Prince (Joachim I)4 had all the Jews in the Mark imprisoned. And under the most cruel pains of torture, they were forced to confess to the most preposterous and unbelievable crimes, which, of course, they had never committed. Then 38 of the Jews had to die. The executioner and his helpers erected a strange construction, “the height of three men, consisting of a wooden lattice, which was surrounded by straw and pitch”. On these, he affixed the unfortunate ones with iron collars according to his desires, by stacking them next to each other and above one another, so that some of them stood on their feet and some of them stood on their heads. Paul Fromm was tied to a stake by himself and was burned as well. Two Jews, who had let themselves be baptized out of fear, received death by sword as a milder punishment.5 All other Jews had to leave the land.

See also Wedekind, “Gesch. der Neumark Brandenburg” p. 202.6

Source: Wedekind, E. L. Geschichte der Grafschaft Glatz. 1857, p. 196f.

Commentary: As with Freischütz legends – and numerous tales of witchcraft unrelated to Jews – in the first fragment the host is allegedly intended for “magic”, although we do not get any further information on what this magic was supposed to actually do. In the second, Salomo is portrayed as deeply hating the blessed bread (and thus, Jesus Christ himself), first attempting to “torture” it and then trying to “bake it into cake” – which culminates with a vision of the Baby Jesus within the oven.

The whole scene would be utterly farcical – in line with the most preposterous of modern Internet conspiracy fantasies – if the consequence of these allegations had not been so horrifying. In both tales, the “confessions” of the alleged perpetrator were exacted under torture, and thus are worthless – something that the author of this text thankfully recognizes. The result: The death of many accused (using an especially heinous method of execution in the second fragment), and exile for all surviving Jews in the vicinity. Sadly, this was a fairly common pattern for pogroms – first a mass hysteria arises due to some ludicrous and fictional “crimes”, and then all Jews in the region were blamed and either killed or exiled.

Of the Miracle Blood at Beelitz

In the year 1207 after the birth of Christ, the Miracle Blood at Beelitz appeared, and this has been confirmed in the same year on the 11th of September.7 The origin of the Miracle Blood is thus: Numerous Jews made a deal with a maid that she would go to the Eucharist and receive her God in the mouth. But then, behind the altar, she should drop it out of the mouth into her apron and bring it to them. Then they would pay her an indicated amount of money. Afterwards, in order to dishonor the Lord Christ, they tortured it, hewed it apart, and stabbed it. Then it immediately started to bleed. Then the Jews became afraid that this deed would come to light and thus cause them harm. They therefore brought it back to the maid and asked her to take it back, and gave her a lot of money so that she would hide it in the attic of the house.8

Then the city guards saw many lights and small candles there in every night. They reported this to the owner of the house, who, after the house was searched and the blessed hosts had been found, discovered the perpetrator as well. She, as well as the Jews which she subsequently named, were immediately imprisoned by the authorities. Then they were all burned at the stake on a hill before the Müllenthor gate, which is still called the “Judenberg” (“Jews’ Hill”) to this day.9 The hosts were then brought into the church in a grand procession with much pomp, great wailing, praying, and lamentations, and kept in a special place. The papist priests soon made an idol out of this, and called it the Miracle Blood, and fashioned special dispensations and letters of indulgences around it.

Source: Angelus, A. Annales Marchiae Brandenburgicae. 1558, p. 101.

Commentary: Again, the Jews are portrayed as having an overwhelming hatred for the symbolical “Body of Christ”, risking torture and death for the opportunity to harm it. And the author Andreas Angelus (a Protestant chronicler) seems more interested in mocking the Catholics for this veneration of the “Holy Blood” than questioning the alleged motivations of the Jews in this story.

Furthermore, it is likely that this tale – already fictitious – is a later-day revision of the “original” origin story for the pilgrimage church. “Miracle Blood” churches associated with bleeding altar bread were popular pilgrimage sites in earlier centuries, and this particular site dates back to 1235 (not 1207), when a host allegedly began to bleed during a Feast of Corpus Christi procession. As it happens, this was earlier than the first known persecutions of Jews for alleged host desecration (which occurred in 1290 in France). Additionally, the first discovered publication of this particular tale only dates back to 1521. Furthermore, there appears to be no evidence that Jews actually lived in Beelitz during these centuries.

But absent an actual persecution, we are still left with a slander. Even though the “origin” of this pilgrimage site had nothing to do with Jews, the revisionist tale which accused Jews of sacrilegious acts against blessed altar bread was widely published, repeated – and believed by the Christians.

  1. Now Kłodzko in the Lower Silesian Voivodeship of Poland. ↩︎
  2. Now Głogów, likewise in the Lower Silesian Voivodeship of Poland. ↩︎
  3. Glatz, which was a predominantly Protestant town at the time, had supported the short-lived reign of the likewise Protestant Frederick V of the Palatinate (also known as “The Winter King”). In retaliation, the victorious Imperial forces occupied the town in 1622 and removed many of the privileges the townsmen had – which apparently included their ban on Jews living in the city. ↩︎
  4. Joachim I Nestor, Elector of Brandenburg was born in 1484 and reigned from 1499 to 1535. He was a member of the Hohenzollern dynasty – the lineage who became German Emperors during the Second German Empire, and whose descendants are now suing the German state for reparations because some of their properties were confiscated after WWII for being Nazi collaborators. ↩︎
  5. As death by a sword was a less painful form of execution, it was seen as more lenient. ↩︎
  6. The relevant passage can be found here, although it starts on p. 302 instead of 202. ↩︎
  7. That is, confirmed by church authorities who were supposed to “vet” each miracle whether it was genuine. ↩︎
  8. Presumably the house in which the maid lived and worked. ↩︎
  9. I was not able to identify this particular hill. However, the “Mühlenstraße” (“Mills’ Road”) exits the old town of Beelitz to the southwest, so it is likely that the “Müllenthor” (“Mills’ Gate”) was in the southwest of Beelitz as well. ↩︎