German federal court mulls bid to remove antisemitic relic in Wittenberg

A German federal court mulled a Jewish man’s bid to force the removal of a 700-year-old antisemitic statue from a church where Martin Luther once preached, and said it will deliver its verdict in the long-running dispute in June 2022.

The “Judensau,” or “Jew pig,” sculpture on the Town Church in Wittenberg is one of more than 20 such relics from the Middle Ages that still adorn churches across Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

The case went to the Federal Court of Justice after lower courts ruled in 2019 and 2020 against plaintiff Michael Duellmann. He had argued that the sculpture was “a defamation of and insult to the Jewish people” that has “a terrible effect up to this day,” and has suggested moving it the nearby Luther House museum.

Placed on the church about four meters above ground level, the sculpture depicts people identifiable as Jews suckling the teats of a sow while a rabbi lifts the animal’s tail. In 1570, after the Protestant Reformation, an inscription referring to an anti-Jewish tract by Luther was added.

In 1988, a memorial was set into the ground below, referring to the persecution of Jews and the 6 million people who died during the Holocaust. In addition, a sign gives information about the sculpture in German and English.

In 2020, an appeals court in Naumburg ruled that “in its current context” the sculpture is not of “slanderous character” and didn’t violate the plaintiff’s rights. It said that, with the addition of the memorial and information sign, the statue was now “part of an ensemble which speaks for another objective” on the part of the parish.

Presiding Judge Stephan Seiters said at the hearing that, viewed individually, the statue is “antisemitism chiseled into stone,”.

However, the later additions and context are likely to be a key factor in his court’s decision as well. Duellmann’s lawyer argued that the information on the sign isn’t sufficient and that the depiction of a pig was a sign of hatred even when it was put up.

The federal court, based in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, plans to announce its ruling on June 14.

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