Object of the Semester

Summer Semester 2021

The myth of the “Wandering Jew” as represented in art and culture

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.

Winter Semester 2020/21

From medieval well-poisoning myths to COVID-19: Antisemitic conspiracy fantasies during epidemics

A representative survey by University of Oxford clinical psychologists, conducted in May 2020 during an early peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, found that almost 20 percent of British citizens agreed in part or in full with the statement that “Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain.”[1]

The survey revealed how versatile and adaptable antisemitic stereotypes have been over the centuries. The topos of Jews as alleged causes of and at the same time as profiteers from illness has been a recurring element of anti-Jewish attributions since the 14th century. Outbreaks of diseases like leprosy, plague, cholera, typhus, swine flu, Ebola, avian flu, SARS, and COVID-19 continue to provide fertile ground for antisemitic conspiracy fantasies that depict Jews as troublemakers, triggering and profiting from crises, and perpetrating all sorts of evil.

A central motif which has been handed down over the centuries since the Middle Ages, and reactivated time and again particularly during periods of crisis, is the accusation against Jews as alleged poisoners of wells. Our “Object of the Semester” is a visual representation of this motif as depicted in the late 19th century illustrated edition of the nearly 1,000-page La France juive, the major work by Édouard Drumont, the most influential French antisemite of his day (Figure 1).[2]

Figure 1: Lithograph depicting an alleged well poisoning
From: Édouard Drumont, La France juive, see note 2

It depicts a village scene in which three figures are standing around a well. The left male figure is recognizable – through his bandaged limbs – as having leprosy. The middle figure, who has rags around his feet and is thus apparently also characterized as having leprosy, is pouring a liquid from a jug resembling an aquamanile – a vessel used for ritual Jewish ablutions – into the well. Standing a good distance from the leprous figures is a man in dark clothing who seems to be watching over the secretive action as a puppet master of sorts. This figure displays some key elements of traditional antisemitic representations. The typical construct of a “Jewish physiognomy” is manifested through his long, slightly hooked nose, visually emphasized by the corners of his mouth and full beard, and a facial expression that can be perceived as devious. Unlike the other two figures, who are wearing typical medieval belt pouches, “the Jew” is depicted as carrying a moneybag, in reference to the classic anti-Jewish stereotype of alleged Jewish wealth and avarice.

The origin, provenance and production of the lithograph are largely unclear.[3] But there is no doubt about Drumont’s interpretation, which he stated unequivocally in the caption: “Les Juifs avaient organisé une conspiration de lépreux pour empoisonner les fontaines.” (“The Jews had organized a conspiracy of lepers to poison the wells.”). Drumont was thus referring to an anti-Jewish myth that began in 1321 in southern France, according to which Jews had secretly instrumentalized lepers, paying them to poison springs and wells in order to take revenge on Christians, infecting them with the disease and decimating their numbers.[4] This idea proved to be extremely tenacious and adaptable[5] over the following decades and centuries; it was reactivated during various epidemics and served – as in 1348/49 during the bubonic plague epidemic in Europe – as a pretext for massive violent attacks on the Jewish population.[6]

To this day, antisemitic conspiracy thinking is widespread throughout the world and has been breaking fresh ground in countless blogs, image boards and social media – often in the form of memes, cartoons and photomontages – since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.[7] A particularly common antisemitic meme in this genre is that of the “Happy Merchant,” which originated in the US-American right-wing extremist “White Supremacist” movement of the 2000s. It appears on the Internet in countless variations, particularly on the platforms 4chan, 8kun, Gab, Telegram and Reddit, and serves conspiracy fantasies ranging from Christian anti-Judaism to racist forms to Holocaust denial and Israel-related antisemitism.

The Stürmer-like caricature sports a grotesque face with an exaggerated nose and an unkempt full beard; the figure is wearing a kippah, laughing conspiratorially and rubbing his hands together in anticipation of financial gain (see here). Equipped with a syringe and an ambiguous warning sign, it represents – as did the alleged “well poisoning Jew” of medieval days – an easy means to scapegoat “the Jews” for the global crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and to provide a supposedly simple explanation for what are actually complex facts that are hard to understand: “The Jews” would spread the virus in order to profit from the crisis as well as from the vaccine being developed to combat the disease.

Here again it becomes clear how antisemitic stereotypes and conspiracy fantasies involving Jews can adapt over time, emerging in ever-new variations. The fact that the old myth of well poisoning can be reactivated – not only in terms of structure but also almost literally – can be seen in a statement by cookbook author Attila Hildmann in May 2020. This self-appointed activist in the COVID-19 conspiracy fantasy scene, who claims to be one of the figureheads of the “hygiene demos” against the protective measures meant to contain the pandemic, claimed in a post on his Telegram social media account that sedatives had been mixed into the drinking water and that he had been “EXTREMELY tired for two days.”[8] The close connection of such crude fantasies with anti-Jewish stereotypes was revealed a few weeks later, when Hildmann drew attention through inflammatory antisemitic statements on the Internet.[9]

[1] Daniel Freeman et al., “Coronavirus Conspiracy Beliefs, Mistrust, and Compliance with Government Guidelines in England,” in: Psychological Medicine, published online on 21 May 2020, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291720001890 [accessed on 16 June 2020], p. 6.

[2] Édouard Drumont, La France juive. Essai d’histoire contemporaine. Édition illustrée de scènes, vues, portraits, cartes et plans d’après les dessins de nos meilleurs artistes, Paris, undated, p. 145. ALAVA – TU Berlin, inventory number 7800. The non-illustrated first edition of La France juive was published in 1886. See Bjoern Weigel, “La France Juive (Édouard Drumont, 1886),” in: Handbuch des Antisemitismus. Judenfeindschaft in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Bd. 6: Publikationen, published by Wolfgang Benz, Berlin 2013, pp. 215-217.

[3] The lithograph bears the signature “NAVELLIER-MARIE. S.,” which stands for the French xylographers and engravers Narcisse Navellier and Alexandre Léon Marie. In the second half of the 19th century, the duo produced countless engravings for publications of all kinds. It is not yet known whether Navellier and Marie were working on commission for Drumont when completing the illustration for La France juive, or whether it was created earlier, in another context. It is also likely that the engraving was based on a drawing by another, hitherto unknown artist.

[4] See Drumont, La France juive, pp. 147-152. See also: Stefan Rohrbacher/Michael Schmidt, Judenbilder. Kulturgeschichte antijüdischer Mythen und antisemitischer Vorurteile, Reinbek 1991, p. 196.

[5] Medievalist Johannes Heil writes that this myth was “of eminent importance for the formation of the conspiracy narrative.” Johannes Heil, “Gottesfeinde” – “Menschenfeinde”. Die Vorstellung von jüdischer Weltverschwörung (13. bis 16. Jahrhundert), Essen 2006, p. 283.

[6] See František Graus, Pest – Geißler – Judenmorde. Das 14. Jahrhundert als Krisenzeit, Göttingen 1987.

[7] For an overview, see: Anti-Defamation League, “Coronavirus Crisis Elevates Antisemitic, Racist Tropes,” published online on 17 March 2020, https://www.adl.org/blog/coronavirus-crisis-elevates-antisemitic-racist-tropes, and Community Security Trust, “Coronavirus and the Plague of Antisemitism. Research Briefing,” published online on 8 April 2020, https://cst.org.uk/data/file/d/9/Coronavirus%20and%20the%20plague%20of%20antisemitism.1586276450.pdf [both accessed on 16 June 2020].

[8] Telegram account of Attila Hildmann, post of 9 May 2020 [accessed on 4 June 2020]

[9] See Sebastian Leber, “Attila Hildmann gibt Juden die Schuld – und verteidigt Hitler,” in: Der Tagesspiegel, published online on 19 June 2020, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/themen/reportage/antisemitismus-im-netz-attila-hildmann-gibt-juden-die-schuld-und-verteidigt-hitler/25930880.html [accessed on 19 June 2020].

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