Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Today I discovered the earliest documentable traces of my family, from the Neumark area of Germany, now Poland. (It’s the Neumark, like the Bronx!).

Jews were officially permitted to live in the Neumark (an area within Brandenburg) since 1344 and that license was extended to Jews living in the city of Brandenburg in 1420. This acceptance proved fragile and ended abruptly during the Black Death when Jews were scape-goated and blamed for poisoning wells and performing spells to cause the plague. Persecution and execution followed.

The surviving Neumark/Brandenburg Jews were expelled, permitted to return, taxed prohibitively and finally in 1510, expelled again for desecrating the host. Since the advent of the 13th century doctrine of transubstantiation, (codifying the belief that the communion wafer was actually the body of Jesus), Jews were accused of attacking consecrated wafers, stabbing and piercing them with knives, nails and needles in an attempt to recreate the crucifixion of Jesus, ironically implying that Jews believed it was the body of Christ. Blood from the bleeding wafers was supposedly used as rouge on Jewish cheeks. Along with these fabrications against Jews, fantasies were spun about consecrated hosts wailing in pain like injured children. Stories circulated about hosts buried to hide the evidence of crimes committed against them emerging from the ground as butterflies, alighting upon the blind and crippled and healing them.

Many Jews were victimized by this hateful hysteria, condemned and burned at the stake. This is what happened in Brandenberg in 1510. There was a mass trial of Jews charged with desecrating the host and 38 Jews were burnt alive. Two others “accepted” Christianity and were beheaded

“mercifully.” The other 400-500 Jews were expelled.

It was a group of these exiles who arrived in Wittenburg in 1510, among them the Neumarks where they lived until the 1930’s.

It is where my grandfather grew up. It is ironic that I stand at the altar every Sunday saying prayers of consecration over bread and wine and repeating the words, “The body of Christ, given for you. The Blood of Christ, shed for you” as I place the hosts in the hands of my congregants. I’ve done it for without thinking of the slaughtered Jews, my namesake Jews. I will not do it again without their painful presence beside me.

“On the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread.” For me, these remain life-giving words. In the face of betrayal and hatred – bread, not revenge. Bread -- not a never-ending cycle of violence. Bread. That is the sustaining hope that emerges from the desecrating slaughter of God’s children wherever and whenever it occurs.


  1. Thanks for this Heidi. That thing about the host bleeding was something I learned about in Catholic grade school--the difference being it was Soviet communists who were doing the stabbing. They actually gave us comic books that showed Stalin and other Soviets stomping on the Host and it bleeding. I think I was about 7 or 8 at the time