Antisemitism in German Folklore: Part 2 – Blood Libel

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

The theme for this post is “blood libel” – the slander that Jews abduct and ritually murder small (Christian) children. There is, of course, little as frightening to most parents as the possibility that their children get killed, which is why the notion that “THEY are coming for our children!” is an easy way of triggering both panic and hatred. This conspiracy fantasy persists in barely-altered form until the modern day, such as the “Satanic Panics” that started in the USA in the 1980s, or the more recent “Pizzagate” slander.

Drawing Blood with a Knife

It is told that a girl from Schlebusch,1 who once walked to Cologne and traveled across the Rhine at the cable ferry in Rheinmühlheim,2 cut herself into her fingernails.3 A Jew who had observed this stepped towards her, asked her to show him the knife, and offered a very noteworthy sum of money to her so that they quickly came to an agreement. The Jew paid her and she provided him with the knife.

She would pay dearly for this, for the Jew used the knife with which the girl had cut herself into the nails, and drained blood from her despite the distance – for according to folk beliefs, Jews need this blood for certain purposes. Once the girl had arrived home, she wasted away. And after she had died, she was found to be entirely without blood.

This legend appears to be old, and surely has been switched to Jews at a later date. It is likely that it derives from a rune spell from the heathen times of old, which could be used to injure enemies from afar and drain blood from them.

Source: Montanus, Waldbrühl W. v. Die Vorzeit der Länder Cleve-Mark Jülich-Berg und Westphalen. Erster Band. 1870, p. 174.

Commentary: Here we first encounter the notion that Jews “need blood” for some as yet unspecified purpose. And not just any blood – human blood, no less, and the Jew in this story is allegedly capable of drawing blood from afar through the link of the blood which the girl had already spilled. The Jew in this story is portrayed as thoroughly malicious, pretending to be interested in the girl’s knife while secretly lusting after her bodily fluids.

It is entirely possible that, as the collector of this tale speculates, the concept of this magic derives from pre-human origins. But folklore certainly had no problem adapting it into a new slander against Jews.

The Little Martyr Werner

The St. Werner Church, which lies at the bottom of the Castle Hill of Stahleck,4 is built above a vault where the Jews allegedly tortured and killed the boy Werner in the year 1287. The entire horrible incident is depicted on the mural of the main altar. Here, the judge can be seen entering from the left. A Jew with a horrible Jewish face offers a gold coin to him so that he might remain quiet, and the coin fulfills its hoped-for purpose. To the right, there is a Christian maid at a barred window who served in the house of the Jews, and who had called the judge. There is nothing else noteworthy about the painting other than that it shows the torture scene with the most horrible detail.

Some believe that this story was merely invented to justify the plundering and persecution of the Jews, which was widespread in the Rhine region at the time, but this is scarcely credible. The Jews, who are superstitious by nature, wanted to conduct some kind of unholy rite with the blood of the poor boy, as well as blessed altar bread which he had previously received at the Eucharist and which they had taken from him. They fled up the Rhine with the corpse, but they could not travel fast enough against the current. Thus, they left him lying within a thorny shrub close to Bacharach, and in honor of the young martyr, Windsbach Abbey was later built at the spot.5 Others say that the murderers had thrown the dead boy into the Rhine at Wesel.6 The corpse then swam against the course of the river, and reached land at Bacharach.

From the battlements of the nearby knightly castles, a strange glow could be seen at the spot where the innocent one was lying in the shrubs. The corpse was discovered, and the authorities laid him out for public viewing. Soon, the minds of the locals were filled by devotion due to all sorts of extraordinary circumstances, and even by the manner of his death. A silken cushion was put beneath his head. A golden ribbon was tied around it. His grape knife, which he had used for work in the vineyards, was put next to him. Finally, the beautiful (though not large) Wernerskirche (“Werner’s Church) was built in Bacharach, and even now its remains (which are well worth visiting), which lie on the heights between Stahleck Castle and the above-mentioned city, draw the gaze of the travelers.7 The corpse did not decompose, and numerous miracles occurred near his grave.

The poor Jews fared the worst. The locals wanted to eradicate them entirely, and this might have happened, if Emperor Rudolph had not thwarted the inhabitants of Boppard and Wesel, and taken the Jews under his protection. The honest chroniclers uttered heavy sighs about his decision. Furthermore they bemoan that, after Bacharach turned towards Lutheranism, the saint was buried, and all images and monuments related to him were destroyed in order to erase the memory of his fame. However, others report that the Spaniards had taken his earthly remains with them. And in the year 1548, a finger and the sweat-cloth of the martyr were donated to the Magdalene abbey at Besançon.

Source: Coeckelberghe-Dützele, G. R. W. v. Ruinen oder Taschenbuch zur Geschichte verfallener Ritterburgen und Schlösser: nebst ihren Sagen, Legenden und Mährchen. 3. Band. 1834, p. 146ff.

Commentary: Discussing antisemitism in German folk tales is a difficult subject, and there are several possible approaches. One is to simply omit antisemitic tales from collections, which I regard as cowardice – in a way, it’s pretending that such tales never existed. Another one is to share them as they appeared in older collections, without commentary, and let the reader come to their own conclusions. This, too, I consider to be the wrong approach – many old folk tales need to be given a proper context to be understood by modern audiences, and for antisemitic tales the context and the crimes they often justified are of utmost importance.

And then there is the approach taken by Herr Gerhard Robert Walter von Coeckelberghe-Dützele here, which is to double down on the most ludicrous slanders and deem them “credible”. Such slanders were wrong in the 13th century, they are wrong now, and they certainly were wrong in the 19th century as well when this text was published!

I mean, even if we take the miracle of the glowing boy at face value, there is not actually any evidence that he was murdered by Jews! What was the chain of logic here? “We found a dead boy, so the Jews must have done it!”? Apparently this was compelling enough for the agitated mob, but everyone – including our collector here – really should have known better.

As an addendum, in 1996 a plaque was installed in the ruins of the Werner Chapel with the following quote by Pope John XXIII:

“We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people nor recognise in their faces the features of our privileged brethren. We realize that the mark of Cain stands upon our foreheads. Across the centuries our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew, or shed tears we caused by forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh. For we know not what we did.”

The Little Holy Johannes at Siegburg

In the year 1750, it was still possible to see the crumbling remains of the walls of a chapel close to the “Zur-Mühle” house,8 and next to the path leading to the village of Kaldauen. At this spot, administrator von Wecus ordered the construction of a small shrine, which still exists. In it, there is a painting created by the painter Berg, which depicts a child who has been murdered by a knife. Gelen’s “de magnitudine urbis Colon. 1.”9 and the Minorite Raymund Sebastian in his “Siegbergschen Heiligthum” (published in Cologne at Hilger Hamacher 8.)10 tell the following of this story:

“This child was from Troisdorf and had the name Johann. He used to go to school in the Minorite abbey in Seligenthal,11 which was one hour distant. One day, Jews captured him in order to attain Christian blood. They murdered him with a knife, but hid the body beneath the ground near the house “Zur Mühle” (where the crumbling walls of a chapel erected in his honor can still be found).

Soon after, the ground was churned up by pigs, and the incident was reported to the parents by the herders. Those then made preparations to give their child a Christian burial, and finally retrieved the body with a cart. They had reached Siegburg and were in an alley, which is still called the “Kindsgasse” (“Child’s Alley”)12 to this day for that reason, when the horse stood still and did not want to take any further steps. The people surrounding the cart were startled over this, fell on their knees, and pleaded with God to reveal this mystery to them. And – oh wonder! – in the same moment, the child lifted a hand through the coffin, and pointed at Siegburg Abbey.13 They thus believed to recognize the will of God, and told of this incident to the clergy of Siegburg. Those immediately arranged for a procession. And when they had greeted the coffin with the child and turned around in order to head back, the horse followed them with the corpse on its own, and hurriedly trotted after them up on the path to the abbey.

Afterwards, the corpse was buried close to the grave of Saint Anno.14 But before this was done, the small hand was detached and set into a silver container, and the following miracle occurred during this: The mother of the child secretly cut off a digit from a finger in order to venerate it at home. But God made it that she was unable to take even a single step out of the church until she revealed what she had done and gave the relic back.

The recent discovery of a young boy in the district of Grevenbroich who had likewise been gruesomely murdered has resurrected a prejudice of the above type in many places, which should not have happened in the so-called Century of the Enlightenment. Once again, people believed that the Jews needed the heart or the blood of a Christian child for certain religious rites, and this allegedly still made them commit such horrible deeds. That these fantasies arose in the times of brutality and darkness is at least explainable if you know that such nonsense was largely supported by the monks and the general hatred against Jews. But it is hardly comprehensible that this belief has still not disappeared entirely, and is even able to cause violations of the law. It seems that nothing is more persistent than superstition planted in hatred!

Let us permit the comment that the popes, emperors, and kings took on the concerns of the mostly innocent and subjugated Jews in a most forceful manner during similar incidents. They declared such accusations as injustice and prejudice, and called upon the bishops of Germany to fight such superstition. The following document which was written to this end in Latin is stored within the city archives of Cologne:

“Innocent IV. (reign from 1241 to 1254),15 bishop, servant of the servants of God. To Germany’s archbishops and bishops, our honored brothers, we give our greetings and apostolic blessings.

We have received the disturbing news from Germany that there is intention among the people in your towns and dioceses to illegally seize the property of the Jews for themselves, and spread evil advice to this purpose on many occasions. This is done without considering that the Jews were given to the care of the Christian faith; that they have the Commandment of the Holy Scriptures: ‘You Shall Not Kill’, and that it is prohibited to them by law to touch corpses and the like during Passover.

It is claimed that they collectively consume the heart of a murdered child, and if it is believed that this is required by their laws, even though the opposite is true, and that they are assumed to be guilty if any human corpse is found. They are accused in this and similar fabrications, but they are neither brought before a proper court of law, nor have they confessed this or convicted of it. And despite the privileges granted to them by the Apostolic See, and despite godly and human law, all their property is stolen from them. In this manner, known Jews find themselves in a worse situation than their ancestors among the pharaohs of Egypt, and are forced to pitifully flee the regions which have been inhabited by them and their ancestors for the longest of times.

In these dire straits, they seek asylum in the care of the Apostolic See. We thus forbid all unjust humiliation of those Jews, whose conversion is one of the mercies of God according to the testimony of the prophets that even those who are left shall be saved. We thus tell you, our brothers, with this Apostolic letter, that you show yourselves to be open and well-disposed to its message. Thus, if they are attacked in an outrageous manner, you should assist them in attaining justice. Furthermore, you should not permit in the first place that they are humiliated during such or similar incidents. But those who do so, shall be punished with penance and becoming last in line for advancement.

Written in Lyon, on July 5th, in the fifth year of our Papacy.”

A few years later, in 1275, Emperor Rudolph of Hapsburg confirmed this decree in a document which is adorned with his grand seal, and which is likewise stored within the city archives of Cologne. The header of this document states:

“Rudolphus Rex Romanorum confirms the freedom which Gregory16 and Innocent have given the Jews, and that it is not true what some Christians claim, to wit, that the Jews consume the heart of a dead boy for their Passover festival.”

The main content of this imperial document is a verbatim copy of the above-mentioned bull, and an additional one by Gregory X. In the latter, it is said once more among other things:

“Gregory et cetera. Following the examples which our predecessors of blessed memory Calixt, Eugen, Alexander, Celestine, Honorius and Gregory17 have left us, we take up the plea of the Jews, and grant them the protection of our shield. Furthermore, we make clear that no Christian may force them to submit to baptism against their will and free choice, as only those who come to the baptism of Christians out of their own will can be considered to be believing in Christ. Additionally, no Christian shall harm or even kill them without a legal verdict from our authorities, and neither shall they brazenly steal their money or deny them or diminish the well-established customary rights which they may have in their various places of abode.”

The emperor ends the document with the following words:

“But we grant and confirm to the above-mentioned Jews in kingly benevolence in the present everything and all which has been granted and given to them from the Roman popes. And so that they may live in safety in the shadow of our protection, we add that they may not and must not be condemned in any circumstances except when they have been found guilty through legal testimony from Jews and Christians.”

Source: Mering, F. E. v. Geschichte der Burgen, Rittergüter, Abteien und Klöster in den Rheinlanden und den Provinzen Jülich, Cleve, Berg und Westphalen. IV. Heft, 1857. P. 73ff.

Commentary: The basic narrative is the same as in the preceding legend: “A small boy was found murdered, so of course the Jews must have done it despite the complete lack of actual evidence!” But it is the presentation that makes all the difference: Unlike Coeckelberghe-Dützele, Friedrich Everhard von Mering makes clear that the accusations were bunk. And, more importantly, he cites contemporary authorities who likewise condemn the slanders, thus throwing the ever-so-convenient excuse that “people didn’t know any better back then!” People did know better, and those who still followed their own baser natures had only themselves to blame.

It’s still not perfect – von Mering could have mentioned that there was no shortage of both worldly rulers and ecclesiastical authorities who were all too willing to persecute Jews for their own reasons. Still, he put the blame where the blame belonged in this incident.
On a final note, the shrine to Johannes, after it had fallen into disrepair for a long time, was rebuilt in the year 1934 – during the second year of the Third Reich.

  1. Schlebusch is now part of the city of Leverkusen. ↩︎
  2. Now Mühlheim, a district of Cologne. ↩︎
  3. Presumably, she cut herself while cleaning her fingernails with her knife, but the tale does not elaborate. ↩︎
  4. Stahleck Castle was likely built around the turn of the 12th century. It was largely destroyed by occupying French forces during the Nine Years War in 1689, and fragments from the explosion destroyed the Werner Chapel as well. In the 20th century, it was partially rebuilt into a youth hostel. ↩︎
  5. I found one reference indicating that this abbey was variously called Kloster Fürstenthal, Windsbach, or Wilhelmstal. It was founded by the Hermits of Saint William, sponsored by Louis II, Duke of Bavaria, and located in the valley of the small Winzbach stream, about 2.5 km south of Bacharach. It never really prospered, and was dissolved in 1558. ↩︎
  6. Wesel, now Oberwesel, lies about 6 km to the north and downriver of Bacharach. ↩︎
  7. While the chapel was heavily damaged in the above-mentioned explosion in 1689, it received renewed attention during the Rhine romanticism of the 19th century. Thus, its walls were partially repaired in order to preserve it as a landmark of the city of Bacharach and the Rhine valley. ↩︎
  8. The “Haus-zur-Mühlen” is an estate that was first mentioned in records in 1312. After a succession of various owners over the centuries, it now serves as a retirement home. ↩︎
  9. “De admiranda, sacra, et civili magnitudine Coloniae Claudiae Agrippinensis Augustae” by Johannes Gelenius. ↩︎
  10. The full title seems to be: “Siegbergisches Heiligtum, oder ausführlicher Bericht von den im hochadlichen Stift Siegberg des hl. Benediktiner-Ordens befindlichen hl. Reliquien, so daselbst alle Jahre vom 3. Sonntag in der Fasten bis den 5. Einschließlich zur Verehrung ausgesetzt werden”. I could not find an online copy of this document, however. ↩︎
  11. The abbey of Seligenthal (“Valley of the Blessed”) was founded in 1231, and dissolved in 1803 during the widespread secularization of ecclesiastical properties in the wake of the Napoleonic conquests. ↩︎
  12. The Kindsgasse has now been renamed into the “Aggerstraße”. ↩︎
  13. This refers to Michaelsberg Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1064 by Anno II, the archbishop of Cologne. It was finally dissolved in 2011 when the number of monks serving in it became too small. ↩︎
  14. This refers to the shrine of the above-mentioned Anno II, the founder of the monastery. ↩︎
  15. A nitpick: The reign of Pope Innocent IV started in 1243, not 1241. ↩︎
  16. Gregory I (who was pope from 590 to 604) defined an obligation for Christians to protect and defend the Jewish people, and admonished against forceful conversion. ↩︎
  17. Gregory X’ tenure as pope was from 1271 to 1275. The other popes mentioned here which I could identify were Callixtus II (1119-1124, issued the bull “Sicut Judaeis” which forbade attacks on Jews on pain of excommunication) and Alexander II (1061-1073, praised bishops who protected Jews against pogroms). ↩︎