Ritual Murders 

Local writer looks at Jewish persecution through the lens of history

Local writer looks at Jewish persecution through the lens of history

The Butcher's Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town

By Helmut Walser Smith (W.W. Norton, 270 pp., $14.95)

We live in a world in which stories have power. Behind our attitudes, beliefs and actions lie communally held, oft-told narratives that serve to guide the best and worst of human behaviors—the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, for example. This type of narrative is the subject of The Butcher's Tale, an academic crime story by Vanderbilt history professor Helmut Walser Smith, which was published in 2002 and has just been released in paperback. Smith's book, which won a Fraenkel Prize for History and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2002, takes an in-depth look at familiar accusations of ritual murder that were leveled at the Jewish citizens of Konitz, Germany, in 1900.

Like many Eastern European towns at the turn of the century, the population of Konitz, which numbered about 10,000, was struggling to assimilate a wave of newcomers, most of whom were fleeing the countryside's economic hardships. Though at the time the German population was the best educated in Europe, this influx of less educated refugees assured that old superstitions and fanciful beliefs would still hold sway. Therefore, when the surgically dismembered body of Ernst Winter, a local high school student and a Christian, was discovered, many of Konitz's residents quickly reverted to small-town prejudice in explanation: The town's Jews must have slaughtered Winter to satisfy their lust for Christian blood. These accusations, which originated among lower- and middle-class citizens, were quickly picked up by affluent townsfolk eager to exert power over their successful Jewish neighbors.

This particular charge, the so-called "blood-libel," has haunted Jews since the early years of Christianity. First documented in the 12th century, the hundreds of blood-libel cases reported follow a recurring, anti-Semitic story line: According to this legend, the Jews, who murdered Jesus, require Christian blood to make the Passover matzo; a young Christian is then selected and ritually slaughtered, often at the hands of the local kosher butcher. Historically, none of these charges has ever been substantiated, and no Jew has ever admitted, except under extreme torture, to having participated in such acts. What's more, a cursory reading of the Talmud demonstrates that, for a practicing Jew, any type of blood is unclean and should not be ingested. Nonetheless, the blood-libel charge and the narrative of the butcher's tale proved exceptionally resilient in Europe.

At the time of Winter's murder, the Jews and Christians of Konitz were experiencing stable and functional relations. Though some latent anti-Semitism must have existed for later events to have occurred, by and large the two groups interacted positively both in the marketplace and in local government; romantic pairings between Konitz's Jewish and Christians citizens were illicit but also not uncommon. In the wake of the ritual murder charges, however, all this changed. The initial rumors were fueled by anti-Semitic agitators from outside the community, most of whom accused the local Jewish butcher, Adolph Lewy, and those close to him. Violent rioting followed, during which Jewish storefronts and the local synagogue were damaged. Military occupation put an end to the hostilities, and overt anti-Semitic sentiments in Konitz eventually ebbed. Lewy spent two long terms in prison before Kaiser Willhelm II pardoned him in 1903, after relative calm was restored.

Smith's thesis in The Butcher's Tale hinges on the assumption that the violent response by the Christians of Konitz itself follows a narrative script and a ritual process. Like Medieval passion plays, during which Jewish responsibility for Christ's suffering was alleged and reenacted, the reenactment of the butcher's tale in Konitz, and the violence that followed, served to symbolically reinforce Christian collective memory and preserved the social boundaries between the Christian community and the Jewish ghetto.

Smith sees parallels between the activities in Konitz and the lynching of blacks in the American South. Though in Germany the ritual didn't end in murder as it did in the rural South, still the intent of both rituals—to dehumanize and differentiate—remains the same. "One might argue that the riots brought about a 'social death.' Not the Jews but their Christian accusers performed the ritual murder. Just as it unlocks the motivation behind the telling of the butcher's tale, [this reversal] reveals the hidden script of the blood libel that bedeviled Christian relations with Jews for nearly a millennium."

It's indisputable that the events in Konitz in 1900 foreshadowed the horror that swept through Europe 40 years later. In fact, Smith's point is that anti-Semitism—and discrimination in general—can exist in abstract and hidden forms before erupting into full-blown violence, given the right economic and political circumstances. These days, debate over Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ shows that many Christians are still unaware of anti-Semitism's insidious character. The movie's implication that the Jews were responsible for Christ's suffering, for example, runs contrary to historical evidence and is drawn from late-period texts designed to distinguish the fledgling Christian community from the synagogue. By deconstructing the butcher's tale, Smith lays bare such prejudicial beliefs, which have fueled immeasurable hatred and still fire the Christian imagination. "The idea that the Jews killed Christ," Smith says, "makes about as much sense as saying that the Americans killed Martin Luther King."

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