A medieval sculpture of Jews engaged in obscene acts with a pig appears on the facade of a historical German church where Martin Luther preached. On Tuesday, a court rejected a Jewish man's efforts to remove the offensive sculpture.

The sculpture, in the eastern German city of Wittenberg, depicts a pig surrounded by a group of Jewish people, with some suckling at the animal's teats and one man looking under its tail. It's one of the most well-known examples of medieval folk art known as a Judensau — meaning Jews' sow — and is believed to date back to at least 1290.

Judge Volker Buchloh said the sculpture could remain because, on the ground beneath it, there is a memorial paying tribute to the 6 million Jews who died during the Holocaust. Buchloh said that while the sculpture was indeed originally meant as an insult, its place in the context of this memorial neutralizes this meaning.

Michael Düllmann, a member of Berlin's Jewish community, calls the sculpture defamatory and sued the local parish to get it removed in 2018. The district court of Dessau rejected his claim last May, and he appealed the decision. Now that the Higher Regional Court in Naumburg has struck down his appeal, he intends to take the case to higher courts.

Düllmann believes the statue should be put in the Luther House museum in Wittenberg.

"The whole issue is not over yet," Düllmann says. "This is a church, a holy place. You can't mix it with such a shameful assault on the Jews."

The controversy has drawn attention to an ugly relic from the past and has forced the Lutheran Church to publicly examine its history of anti-Semitism at a time when Germany's Jewish community has decried attacks against Jews in the country.

On Europe's walls for centuries

As many as 30 such images, by one German artist's count, are still displayed on churches in Germany and other countries such as Austria, France and Switzerland.

Many of the images were originally on the inside of churches and were meant as moral instruction, urging Christians not to follow the example of Jews. Eventually, the works began to be placed on church facades, in public places and on wealthy private homes.

By the 18th century, ordinary objects like playing cards might feature the image of Jews crowding around a pig's lower parts.

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 images were intended to portray Jews as dirty, greedy, less than human. Because observant Jews do not eat pork, it added another layer of insult. The word "Judensau" itself is considered a highly offensive term sometimes used by the Nazis.

Today, most of the remaining works are damaged or heavily aged and are tucked away in corners of churches. The Wittenberg sculpture, however, is visible and well-preserved, adorning a church on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

Martin Luther referred approvingly to it in anti-Semitic writings. In 1570, after Luther launched the Protestant Reformation, a Luther quotation was added to the sculpture, saying, "Vom Schem Hamphoras," which includes a taunting reference to a Hebrew name for God.

"Belongs in a museum"

A campaign to remove the Wittenberg sculpture began in 2017, during celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, with an online petition and protests in front of the church. The protests and Düllmann's lawsuit have drawn attention to the sculpture and prompted prominent church and public officials to take opposing positions on it.

Felix Klein, Germany's federal anti-Semitism commissioner, said in November that the sculpture "belongs in a museum" and should be taken down from the church. The Wittenberg Town Church's pastor, Johannes Block, and many local parishioners believe it should remain. The region's Lutheran bishop, Friedrich Kramer, favors 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. The monument continues to preach."

But some historians disagree.

"This is a terrible sign, but only those who are anti-Semites will find what they want to in it," says Michael Wolffsohn, a prominent German Jewish historian. "We have to comment on this shame and not hide it. If you remove these memorials, you'll once again make martyrs of those who continue to identify with them."

Many observers agree that in deciding what to do with this sculpture, the Lutheran Church must walk a fine line between seeming to condone the insulting image on the one hand and appearing to whitewash the church's history of anti-Semitism on the other.

"If the church were to take the sculpture down, I'm sure that a lot of people would say they want to clean up Luther's image and erase a very dark side of the reformer," says Christiane Hennen, an art historian at Martin Luther University in Wittenberg, who is also a member of the church. Luther's anti-Semitism "is hard, but it is the reality," Hennen says. "It is not possible to take only parts of history. Better to explain the meaning and all the layers of this sculpture."

Anti-Semitism today

It's not just Germany's history that has prompted strong reactions to this relatively obscure monument. There are indications that anti-Semitism in Germany has increased in recent years.

On Oct. 9 of last year, a man from the state of Saxony-Anhalt, where Wittenberg is located, posted an anti-Semitic screed online and then attacked a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, killing two.

And anti-Semitic incidents, including hate speech and anti-Jewish graffiti, rose nearly 20% between 2017 and 2018, according to Germany's Interior Ministry.

A study last fall by the World Jewish Congress found that more than a quarter of German poll respondents held anti-Semitic beliefs.

In the political arena, the far-right Alternative for Germany, the AfD party, has made gains, especially in parts of the former East Germany. The party won 24% of the vote in the 2016 state election in Saxony-Anhalt.

Although AfD leaders have publicly disavowed anti-Semitism, prominent party officials have made dismissive comments about Germany's remembrance culture and the significance of Nazi crimes. Party co-founder Alexander Gauland has described the Nazi era as only "a bird poop" in German history.

Some in Germany's small Jewish community see a close connection between ancient and modern anti-Semitism.

"Jew hatred is part of the DNA of European culture," says Sigmount Königsberg, the Berlin Jewish community's commissioner on anti-Semitism. "What you see of anti-Semitism today is the old anti-Judaism but wrapped in modern form."

Historical slanders that cast Jews as child-murderers or parasitic moneylenders, Königsberg claims, persist, as do harsh criticisms of Israel and conspiracy theories involving the Rothschilds and other bankers.

Steffen Klävers, an education consultant at the Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Anti-Semitism in Munich, sees a connection between the sculpture and contemporary anti­-Semitism.

"This sculpture illustrates the continuity of anti-Semitism," says Klävers. "The contents of the anti-Semitic stereotype remain the same. The effects are not only visible on the walls of this church but also on the streets of Germany. Like on the streets of Halle, I would say."

The fate of the Wittenberg sculpture remains unclear. Düllmann is determined to press his case.

"We will appeal to the highest civil court in Germany, the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe," Düllmann says. "Then we will go further to the Constitutional Court, then, if necessary, to the EU court for human rights in Strasbourg."

Whatever the future rulings, the church may decide on its own to take the sculpture down. The statue is more than 20 feet up the side of the church and is partially concealed by a tree, but the publicity of the trials has shone a harsh spotlight on it.

Christian Staffa, the Lutheran Church's commissioner for the fight against anti-Semitism, believes some of this attention might be useful.

"If you bring the statue down and put it closer to people," says Staffa, "they would get to know for the first time how ugly it is, how really evil."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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