The sow is suckling two Jews, another is looking at her ass: the sandstone relief on the Wittenberg town church is just one of dozens of such depictions. Now the BGH judges in the case.

The Federal Court of Justice (BGH) will decide on Tuesday (10:00 a.m.) whether an abusive plastic called “Judensau” must be removed from the town church in Wittenberg in Saxony-Anhalt. A Jewish plaintiff has been demanding this for years, but has so far failed in court.

Because the anti-Jewish sandstone relief from the 13th century has now been supplemented by a base plate and a stand, which are intended to classify the depiction. The top German civil judges in Karlsruhe will have to weigh up whether that is enough. (Ref. VI ZR 172/20)

The relief shows a sow whose teats are being suckled by two people who are supposed to be identified as Jews by their pointed hats. According to the BGH, a figure considered to be a rabbi lifts the animal’s tail and looks into its anus. In the Jewish faith, pigs are considered unclean.

“Difficult legacy”

The municipal parish describes the “Wittenberger Sau” as “a difficult legacy, but also a document of contemporary history”. The presiding judge of the sixth civil senate at the Federal Court of Justice, Stephan Seiters, said at the hearing two weeks ago that the relief in itself was “anti-Semitism set in stone”.

Plaintiff Dietrich Düllmann, who claims to have converted to Judaism in 1978 and has called himself Michael ever since, sees the “Judensau” as just one example of the many misconducts of the Church in dealing with Jews. In particular, Düllmann describes the reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), who once preached in the same church in Wittenberg, as an “arch-anti-Semite”.

The BGH lawyer for the city church community had emphasized that they had made the relief part of a memorial in consultation with the Jewish community. The form in which reference is made to the historical context is neither a matter for the plaintiff nor for the court.

Düllmann’s BGH lawyer, on the other hand, was not satisfied with the statements on the explanation board. The church takes no responsibility.

Dozens more artworks

The plaque on the church says that abusive sculptures of this kind were particularly widespread in the Middle Ages. “There are still about fifty such works of art.” The Central Council of Jews has no reliable information about the total number of such depictions. Nothing is known there of other legal disputes that could be based on a BGH judgment.

Central Council President Josef Schuster had told the German Press Agency that the church had to express a clear demarcation and condemnation. That has not been apparent so far. “The anti-Judaist history of the church cannot be undone,” said Schuster. An explanation board is better than removing abusive plastic and thus denying it. According to the Central Council, there are successful examples at the Regensburg Cathedral and at the Knights’ Collegiate Church of St. Peter in Bad Wimpfen near Heilbronn.

For plaintiff Düllmann, the matter may not yet be settled with the BGH judgment: He had already failed before the Dessau-Roßlau District Court and the Naumburg Higher Regional Court and also assumed a defeat after the oral hearing at the BGH. But then he would go to the Federal Constitutional Court, said the 79-year-old. There it is not about civil law questions about insult and omission, but about the Basic Law and human dignity. And if that doesn’t help either, he still has to go to the European Court of Human Rights.