Object of the Semester – Summer Semester 2021

The Myth of the “Wandering Jew” as Represented in Art and Culture

Angelika Königseder/Carl-Eric Linsler/Philippe Pierret

This massive bronze sculpture, more than half a meter high, completed by the Belgian sculptor Alfons De Wispelaere in 1919, depicts a bearded man garbed in a flowing cloak and sandals, standing on a rock. He has sidelocks, wears a head covering that resembles a kippah, and is supporting himself with a walking stick held in his right hand. His appearance is notable: It is characterized by a prominent, hooked nose and distorted facial features that give the man a tormented and at the same time malicious, sly expression. The flowing cloak, bare feet and walking stick suggest that this sculpture is a three-dimensional representation of the mythical figure of the “Wandering Jew” or “Eternal Jew”;[1] its stigmatizing, supposedly “Jewish physiognomy” presents undeniable elements of the antisemitic tradition of representation.[2]
Born in 1879 in Bruges, Alfons De Wispelaere came from a family of sculptors who specialized in Christian religious themes, creating objects, statues, decorations and furnishings for numerous churches, cathedrals and chapels in Belgium, other European countries and the USA. In addition to ecclesiastical commissions, the De Wispelaeres also worked as interior decorators for secular clients. The context of production, purpose and previous ownerships of our “Object of the Semester” remain yet unknown. Alfons De Wispelaere died in 1957 in Bruges, the city of his birth.[3]
Bronze sculpture of the mythical figure of the “Wandering Jew”
ALAVA – TU Berlin, inventory number 8910

The legend of the “Wandering Jew” – who allegedly refused to let Jesus Christ rest in front of his house on his way to the crucifixion and was therefore condemned to roam the earth forever – dates back to the early Middle Ages. With an anonymous pamphlet only eight pages in length, entitled Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzehlung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasverus, which appeared in 1602 in the context of the Protestant Reformation movement, the previously unnamed figure was personified as a Jewish cobbler named Ahasverus.[4] The brochure had a major impact and was reprinted numerous times in several languages well into the 17th century, reaching a wide audience in Europe.[5] 

At the same time, an oral narrative developed, referring to appearances of the “Wandering Jew” in different locations. Ahasver’s supposed complicity in the suffering and death of Christ gradually faded into the background, while the aspect of his restless wandering dominated, becoming a “paradigm for the fate of his people.”[6]
Herein lies the significance of the Ahasver legend for the development of hostility towards Jews. The figure of the eternally “Wandering Jew” increasingly came to symbolize the homeless Jewish people in the Diaspora, rather than one individual.[7] Jews as a whole were seen as eternal strangers, as cosmopolitans or as a “nation within the nation,” who – whatever their citizenship, social advancement, or declarations of patriotism – could not belong to any nation and were assumed to have a supranational loyalty to their brothers and sisters in faith wherever they might be.[8] In this context, the “eternal” character was and is understood from an antisemitic perspective as an indication of the everlasting immutability and impenitence of “the Jews” to the Christian doctrine of salvation[9] and as “proof” of their supposedly unalterable “racial” and character traits. As with other antisemitic myths and stereotypes, the figure of the eternally “Wandering Jew” has adapted to the most varied cultural and historical contexts, from the Middle Ages to today.
For the National Socialists, the construct of the “Wandering Jew” – largely disconnected from the Ahasver legend – served as the “incarnation of Jewishness,” an enemy concept that stigmatized Jews collectively.[10] The poster for the Nazi exhibition “The Eternal Jew,” which opened in Munich in November 1937, depicted a sinister figure holding a whip in one hand and coins in the other, a world map of Bolshevism tucked under one arm. This remains a prominent example of antisemitic imagery to this day. The Nazi exhibition and the eponymous propaganda film from 1940 appealed to the basest instincts of the viewers by comparing Jews with rats and depicting brutal scenes of slaughter.[11] They were intended to create a repulsive counter-image to that of the “value-creating Aryan” – by means of the constructed image of the unsteady and unproductive “Eternal Jew” striving for world domination – and thus helped pave the way for the murder of the Jews of Europe.
The figure of Ahasver, doomed to wander forever, was not universally interpreted as antisemitic.[12] It has inspired numerous Jewish and non-Jewish writers, philosophers and publicists over the centuries – from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Arthur Schopenhauer, from Ludwig Börne to Egon Erwin Kisch.[13] The same applies to painting: The repertoire ranges from the antisemitic representation of the “Wandering Jew” in Wilhelm Kaulbach’s monumental 1846 work, “The destruction of Jerusalem by Titus,” to the famous drawings by Marc Chagall.[14]
[1] For an overview of artistic representations of the “Wandering Jew,” see: Richard I. Cohen, “The ‘Wandering Jew’ from Medieval Legend to Modern Metaphor,” in: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett/Jonathan Karp (eds.), The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times, Philadelphia 2008, pp. 147-175.
[2] To learn more about the history of antisemitic forms of representation and the construct of “Jewish physiognomy,” see: Peter K. Klein, “’Jud, dir kuckt der Spitzbub aus dem Gesicht!’ Traditionen antisemitischer Bildstereotypen und die Physiognomie des ‘Juden’ als Konstrukt,“ in: Helmut Gold/Georg Heuberger (eds.), Abgestempelt. Judenfeindliche Postkarten. Auf der Grundlage der Sammlung Wolfgang Haney, Heidelberg 1999, pp. 43-78.

[3] See the entry on De Wispelaere – een Brugs kunstenaarsgeslacht, on the blog of Rob Michiels Auctions in Bruges, undated, https://www.rm-auctions.com/nl/blog/de-wispelaere—een-brugs-kunstenaarsgeslacht- [accessed on 6 May 2021].

[4] See Mona Körte, “Ahasverus,” in: Handbuch des Antisemitismus. Judenfeindschaft in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Bd. 3: Begriffe, Theorien, Ideologien, published by Wolfgang Benz, Berlin 2010, pp. 3-6, here p. 3.
[5] See Wolfgang Benz, “Der ewige Jude.“ Metaphern und Methoden nationalsozialistischer Propaganda, Berlin 2010, p. 9.
[6] Stefan Rohrbacher/Michael Schmidt, Judenbilder. Kulturgeschichte antijüdischer Mythen und antisemitischer Vorurteile, Reinbek 1991, p. 249.
[7] See Benz, “Der ewige Jude,” p. 10.
[8] See, by way of example, Dominique Schnapper, “Le Juif errant,” in: Yves Lequin (ed.), Histoire des étrangers et de l’immigration en France, Paris 1992, pp. 363-377; Michael Woolf, “The Wandering Jew,” in: Frontiers. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 30 (2018) 1, pp. 20-32.
[9] See Körte, “Ahasverus,” p. 4.
[10] Benz, “Der ewige Jude,” p. 12 f.
[11] For background information on the National Socialist propaganda film “Der ewige Jude,” see: Benz, “Der ewige Jude,” pp. 139-157.
[12] See, by way of example, Galit Hasan-Rokem, “Ahasver,” in: Dan Diner (ed.), Enzyklopädie jüdischer Geschichte und Kultur. Bd. 1: A-Cl, Stuttgart 2011, pp. 9-13.
[13] See Mona Körte, Die Uneinholbarkeit des Verfolgten. Der Ewige Jude in der literarischen Phantastik, Frankfurt a. M. 2000.
[14] See Cohen, “The ‘Wandering Jew’,” particularly pp. 153-174.