From church reliefs and postcards to anti-Zionist caricatures - peculiar forms of visual anti-Semitism in Czech history

18-10-2019

Anti-Jewish sentiment was often fuelled by vicious and clichéd imagery. Just how varied and inventive these forms of depiction could be was a theme recently explored at an international conference in Prague. It showed that while more latent than in neighbouring states such as Germany, anti-Semitic imagery was present in Czech history, often in especially curious depictions.

Judensau at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Regensburg, photo: Public DomainJudensau at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Regensburg, photo: Public Domain From pogroms to the Holocaust, there are plenty of examples of what anti-Semitism can lead to. One of the common forms of how preconceptions and blame towards Jews were spread was through the use of caricatures, the Nazi publication Der Sturmer being perhaps the most famous example.

Medieval church imagery

However, the origins of anti-Jewish imagery in Central Europe go as far back as the Middle Ages, before the advent of the printing press. One particularly obscene example is the church ornamentation known as the “Judensau” a depiction of Jews suckling a large sow.

Through settlement, such images seem to have spread into the Kingdom of Bohemia from neighbouring Germany also into the ornamentation of Czech churches, says historian Jan Dienstbier, who spoke on Thursday at a special conference in Prague focused on the characteristics of anti-Jewish imagery in Central Europe.

“It appears that the first known depiction [of the Judensau] in Bohemia, was on the church in the city of Kolín, which was newly settled during the 13th century, was inspired by the depiction in Magdeburg and that the settlers came from this region as well.”

“The depiction of this image started in the middle of the 13th century in Germany, possibly even before. The earliest depictions we know about can be found in Thuringia and Saxony, for example in the city of Magdeburg and the early depictions we can see in the Czech lands are connected with these German sources.

“It appears that the first known depiction in Bohemia, on the church in the city of Kolín, which was newly settled during the 13th century, was inspired by the depiction in Magdeburg and that the settlers came from this region as well.”

Judensau imagery lasted for over 600 years in Europe, being referred to by the father of Protestantism Martin Luther and was promoted by the Nazis as an insult once they came to power in the 1930s.

Today, the reliefs depicting the act still complement many churches in the wider region and, in the case of the municipal church in the east German city of Wittenberg, a debate was recently opened up over whether they should be removed.

Postcards from spa towns

The Judensau reliefs are not the only extraordinary anti-Jewish imagery nearly forgotten among today’s Central Europeans. Another, perhaps stranger example, was widely spread among Bohemian spa towns during the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in the form of postcards, says Dr. Eva Janáčová from the Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

“Postcards were a new form of media which was very popular in the second half of the 19th century. It was modern, cheap and the text was accompanied by pictures. If you compare it with other media of the time it was something new.”

The popularity of the postcards may have stemmed from the large number of Jewish visitors to Bohemian spa towns of the period. This included wealthy Jewish businessmen, but also the generally much poorer Jews from Eastern Europe, says Dr. Janáčová.

“In Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) and Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) there was a Synagogue, a Jewish hospital and some organisations also provided the funding for visitations by poor Galician Jews. From what we know at least 50 percent of these spa visitors were Jewish and personally I believe their number was even higher, around 60 to 70 percent. There is a problem that in the lists of spa visitors, only the first and second names of visitors are recorded, not their religion, so we can only guess based on their names and the cities of their origin.”

More than 200 different types of such postcards from Czech spa towns have survived until today. It should be stated that not all stereotyped images of visitors are exclusively focused on Jews. Some feature visitors, whose dress clearly suggests their origin, for example an officer in French uniform.

However, the fact that postcards depicting Jews seem to have been a lucrative market at the time is suggested not just by the wide variety of publishers that issued them, but also through their diversity.

“In Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) and Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) there was a Synagogue, a Jewish hospital and some organisations also provided the funding for visitations by poor Galician Jews. From what we know at least 50 percent of these spa visitors were Jewish and personally I believe their number was even higher, around 60 to 70 percent."

There were general caricatures, depicting Jews as unclean, but also specific imagery differentiating between the generally wealthier western Jews and the poor from regions such as Galicia. The postcards on sale were dominated by the usual stereotypes of Jews, but their authors often blended these in with the common realities of spa life, such as the fact that visitors were often constrained to the toilets due to the laxative effect of the spring water, says Dr. Janáčová.

“For example, there is a postcard titled ‘Der Boersianer’, stock exchange man. He is depicting sitting on a toilet while doing on the phone conducting his ‘dirty’ business.”

Another type of postcards which may seem particularly repulsive from today’s perspective were those which featured staged photographs depicting long-bearded Jews in dressed in ethnic clothes posing in clichéd settings. Whether these were actual Jews, or individuals dressed to look like them is unclear.

The popularity of spa photographs started to decrease after around 1910. However, anti-Jewish sentiment survived into the period of the First Czechoslovak Republic, although more latent than in neighbouring Germany.

Caricatures in the interwar period

Photo: Public DomainPhoto: Public Domain Jakub Hauser from the Museum of Czech Literature analysed the imagery in the period’s popular right-wing Humoristické listy magazine. He says that while some of the general depictions of anti-Jewish sentiment remained, others were introduced through the particular clichés and paranoias of the period.

“This journal had a strong anti-Semitic tradition from the late 19th century and the trend continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Of course the anti-Semitic assaults were not as frequent as in the 19th century, but on some occasions they could be really strong.

“There is a very rich iconography of anti-Jewish caricatures, beginning with the Galician Jews, depicted as poor and dirty refugees who were never accepted into society. Then we also have the theme of Jewish revolutionaries being the cause of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. From the other side of the spectrum, there is this portrayal of Jews as rich, capitalist factory owners who are misusing their wealth to control the country.”

There was also another theme present in the magazine’s imagery, which set Czechoslovakia apart from the trends present in neighbouring Central European states, says Mr. Hauser.

“I would say that anti-Semitism in the Czech lands is quite specific through the fact that it related a lot to anti-German rhetoric. That sets it out from anti-Semitism in Germany for example. The Jews were often viewed as a group which was not loyal to the country.”

“I would say that anti-Semitism in the Czech lands is quite specific through the fact that it related a lot to anti-German rhetoric. That sets it out from anti-Semitism in Germany for example. The Jews were often viewed as a group which was not loyal to the country.”

One such example can be seen in a Humoristické listy publication from 1931, where a Jewish capitalist is seen conversing with a German, saying that although they had feared the establishment of the new state, things had ended up turning out well for them. Aside from his clothes, another giveaway, which was a trend also used by caricaturists in neighbouring Austria, was the presence of a Jewish accent in the protagonists speech.

While anti-Jewish imagery could be expected in the right-wing publications of the period, Mr. Hauser says that occasionally it also spread into the more centrist periodicals.

“Especially at the beginning of the existence of the First Republic, there were very liberal, or centrist journals, for example Nebojsa, that surprisingly also contained anti-Semitic assaults. The actual depictions are perhaps not that strong, or aggressive, but basically the iconography is similar.”

With the onset of the Second Czechoslovak Republic following the Munich Agreement in 1938 anti-Semitism became much more prevalent and during the Nazi administered Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was widely spread in the media. Aside from caricatures, anti-Semitic themes also spread into film such as in the case of the popular sketches performed by the First Republic comedy star Vlasta Burian. Later, in 1943, the head of the Protectorate administration, Karl Herman Frank also initiated the establishment of the satirical magazine Ejhle, which featured particularly aggressive anti-Semitic content.

The turn towards anti-Zionist imagery during the Communist era

Photo: David Hertl / Czech RadioPhoto: David Hertl / Czech Radio This indoctrination meant that even after the end of the Second World War anti-Jewish feelings and paranoia remained among parts of the population although, these tendencies remained largely in the sphere of rumours.

Nevertheless, anti-Jewish imagery did return to the public sphere in the late 1940s and 1950s. This time it featured a specifically anti-Zionist message based on the shift in Soviet policy towards the newly formed state of Israel after it became evident the latter was going to be a Western- oriented country. Israel had received support from Czechoslovakia in the form of weapons during in the initial stage of its establishment and many Czechoslovak pilots who were Jewish moved to the Middle Eastern state to help in its defence. But the newly formed communist administration, adopted Stalinist paranoia towards Zionism. The old, stereotypical cartoon figure of the Jew as a capitalist made occasional appearances during the 1950s.

During the 1960s and later in the normalisation era, the more raw stereotypes of Jews as large nosed and money obsessed figures gave way to imagery focused purely against Israel, depicting the small state as an aggressive ally of American imperialism. However, such caricatures which dealt with foreign politics were not very popular in society.

With the onset of perestroika in the mid-1980s this trend also began to subside and after the fall of the Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic this phenomenon has more or less disappeared from Czech imagery, although researches have noticed anti-Semitic manifestations present in the online sphere.

18-10-2019