By Daniel Tilles

In the Middle Ages, the Polish lands were often a haven for Jews escaping persecution in the West, but the myth of Jewish ritual murder arrived from other parts of Europe to take a strong hold among some members of the clergy, who encouraged its spread through the broader population. Daniel Tilles offers a critical assessment of the Polish church’s recent attempts to come to terms with this history, while giving credit to those within the church and beyond who have sought to further the cause of positive Jewish-Catholic relations in Poland.

In April 1698, the dead body of two-year-old Małgorzata was mysteriously deposited in a church mortuary in the Polish town of Sandomierz. Her mother, when summoned to explain the child’s death, testified that she had died of illness. Her explanation was accepted by the court, which meted out a mild punishment for failing to ensure that the child’s body was properly buried. The matter would normally have ended there; but the court’s judgment was rejected by the Bishop of Krakow, causing the investigation to be reopened. Now, under torture, the mother suggested that on the Tuesday before Divine Mercy Sunday she had given Małgorzata’s dead body to a Jew, Aleksander Berek. However, when confronted with the accusation, Berek produced witnesses who confirmed that he had not been in Sandomierz on the day in question. Consequently, the mother changed her testimony, claiming that she had made mistakes. She had, in fact, given her child to Berek on Thursday, not Tuesday, and her daughter had been alive at the time, not dead.

One may wonder why, if the mother admitted to giving inaccurate statements, mistaking a fact as important as whether her child was dead or alive, the case proceeded any further. But proceed it did, and the Crown Tribunal in the nearby city of Lublin, to which the case had been transferred, had an ingenious solution to resolve these inconsistencies: more torture. The mother reiterated her story that Małgorzata had been alive when she gave her to Berek, adding that the body had then been returned to her dead, with visible wounds and its eyes missing. Berek, however, despite protracted and brutal torture (later described in gruesome detail by a priest who was involved in the prosecution), refused to confess to the crime, and denied completely the suggestion that Jews used the blood of children for ritual purposes. Nevertheless, both he and Małgorzata’s mother were found guilty and sentenced to death, with Berek’s head nailed to a stake and his body quartered and hung in the street.

The case of Małgorzata is typical of the blood-libel charges – false accusations that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood for ritual purposes – which periodically emerged across Europe, beginning in 12th-century England and, by the 17th and 18th centuries, occurring most frequently in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which housed Europe’s largest population of Jews. Indeed, Berek had not been the first Sandomierz Jew to fall victim to such charges, and nor was he the last: twelve years later, when the body of another child, Jerzy Krasnowski, was discovered, a local rabbi was blamed for his death. Three Jews were executed for their alleged involvement, with a number of others, including the rabbi, dying in captivity during the proceedings.

While, then, Sandomierz’s contribution to this regrettable feature of European history is significant, it is far from unique. But what has ensured that the town’s name remains so closely associated with the blood libel is the fact that its cathedral continues to host an 18th-century painting, “ritual murder” by Karol de Prevot, dedicated to the memory of Małgorzata and Jerzy, that graphically depicts ritual murder. It shows Jews abducting a Christian child, extracting its blood in a barrel lined with nails, and then feeding the leftover body to a dog. The continued public display of this image has occasioned heated public debate, particularly in the wake, fourteen years ago, of an article by Stanisław Musiał, a Polish priest and tireless proponent of improving relations between Christians and Jews, which called for the painting’s removal. It has also inspired considerable academic interest, most notably a detailed investigation into contemporary attitudes towards the painting in Sandomierz, led by cultural anthropologist Joanna Tokarska-Bakir and subsequently used as the basis for a book on the subject. The debate has even made its way into popular culture, with one of Poland’s best-known authors of crime fiction, Zygmunt Miłowszewski, choosing to set his most recent novel in Sandomierz, with the plot revolving around a series of modern-day murders inspired by the ritual-murder painting. The author explicitly aimed to use this history as a prism though which Poles could be encouraged to explore their “inglorious moments of vile behaviour.”

Under the glare of such scrutiny, a decision was made in 2006 to remove the painting from public display, and for the next eight years it remained hidden behind a curtain and a pointedly placed portrait of John Paul II, the Polish pope celebrated for his efforts to encourage Polish-Jewish dialogue. Then, at the start of this year, the painting was returned to public view. The unveiling took place on the Polish Catholic Church’s “Day of Judaism.” The choice of date, however, was not as inappropriate as it may first seem – for a decision had been made to place alongside the painting a plaque containing text – in Polish, English and Hebrew – that provided some explanation of its content.

It is this plaque that served as the inspiration for my recent visit to Sandomierz, and my subsequent decision to write this piece; for I find its wording to be unsatisfactory. I will begin by recounting the text in its entirety (from the English version, which is a good rendering of the Polish):

This painting depicts a ritual murder that the Jews of Sandomierz allegedly carried out in order to add the blood of a Christian infant to the matzah they baked for Passover. This event controverts historical truth and, what is more, could not have taken place because the laws of Judaism prohibit the consumption of blood. Jews could not and did not carry out ritual murders. On account of similar accusations they were often persecuted and killed, which also happened in Sandomierz. From the 13th century on, popes forbade spreading such false accusations and protected Jews against them.

It should be recorded, first of all, that the plaque does represent progress of a kind. Most obviously, it unambiguously refutes the blood-libel myth. This is no small matter in a country where, according to a recent survey, 23% of people believe that Jews have historically been involved in kidnapping Christian children (with such a belief most heavily concentrated in two regions bordering Sandomierz); where within living memory such allegations helped trigger widespread anti-Jewish violence (most infamously in Kielce, 90km from Sandomierz, where 42 Jews were killed after being accused of kidnapping a nine-year-old boy, but also in Rzeszów, Kraków, and elsewhere); and where updated forms of the blood libel still appear in certain spheres of public discourse. Moreover, as Tokarska-Bakir has demonstrated, the residents of Sandomierz itself retain, to this day, a deeply ingrained attachment to the myth – exemplified by a cathedral tour guide, who describes the ritual-murder painting to visiting groups as “documentation of an event that was true.” In this context, drawing attention to the pernicious mendacity of the blood libel, and doing so in a permanent plaque alongside the image in the cathedral, which is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists a year, is a worthy aim.

There are, however, two respects in which the plaque’s text is lacking, one a distortion of history, the other an omission, and both concerning the involvement of the church in this dark passage of Sandomierz’s – and Europe’s – history.

The distortion concerns the final sentence, which, though slightly ambiguously worded, suggests that popes uniformly fought against the blood libel from the 13th century onwards. This is patently untrue. Some popes did indeed attempt to counter the myth, such as Innocent IV and Gregory X, the 13th-century popes presumably alluded to in the statement on the plaque. In 1759, Cardinal Lorenzo Ganganelli, the future Pope Clement XIV, compiled a report on allegations of Jewish ritual murder, concluding that such charges were “false and calumnious.”

Yet, as the historian Marina Caffiero has demonstrated, Ganganelli’s findings represented “an isolated opinion” within a church hierarchy that tolerated, and at times actively encouraged, the blood libel. In particular, it did so by endorsing the veneration – and even passage to martyrdom – of alleged child victims of ritual murder, around whose memory local anti-Jewish cults often developed. This was the case with Pope Sixtus V’s canonisation, in 1588, of Simon of Trent, a two-year-old boy alleged to have been ritually murdered by Jews a century earlier. (Simon was removed from the Calendar of Saints by Pope Paul VI in 1965.) In 1755, Pope Benedict XIV went even further, not only sanctioning the veneration of Andreas of Rinn, another alleged child victim, but undertaking a broader attempt to affirm the validity the blood libel, writing that both Andreas and Simon had been “butchered in the cruellest fashion…by Jews out of hatred towards the Christian faith”. As Caffiero concludes, the “convenient and reassuring belief” that there was some “tradition of the church” that “systematically denied…the blood accusation” is no longer tenable.

As well as glossing over the mixed legacy of the papacy with regard to the blood libel, the plaque’s second, and perhaps more serious, deficiency is its complete failure to acknowledge the specific role that the church played in the episodes that took place in Sandomierz. For the curious observer, certain questions may spring to mind when reading the plaque. It states tersely that blood-libel accusations “happened in Sandomierz” – but when and how? And who was responsible? Moreover, if, as the plaque makes clear, blood-libel accusations were dangerous falsehoods that caused great harm to Jews, then why was this painting displayed in a cathedral, as part of a series of images purportedly depicting historical events? And if “popes forbade spreading such false accusations and protected Jews against them”, why did the church in Sandomierz deliberately disobey their commands?

While the answers may be uncomfortable, they are important ones to confront. The picture is located in the cathedral because it was commissioned in the 18th century by Stefan Żuchowski, a powerful church figure in Sandomierz and the wider region. He was the priest, mentioned above, who played a prominent part in the prosecution of Aleksander Berek in 1698; twelve years later, he took the leading role in initiating and conducting the ritual-murder trial arising from Jerzy Krasnowski’s death. After both cases he published books on the subject, which became influential in perpetuating belief in the blood libel in Poland and encouraging further accusations to be made against Jews. Żuchowski was rewarded for his efforts by being appointed commissioner for Jewish affairs by the diocese of Kraków, allowing him to pursue further cases against Jews – an indication that the Polish church not only tolerated the blood-libel myth but positively encouraged it.

This was reflected in the fact that a number of senior church figures were prominently involved in pursuing the spate of blood-libel cases that struck Poland over the first half of the 18th century. In Kraków, Bishop Kazimierz Łubieński had suggested during the Jerzy Krasnowski case that all the Jews of Sandomierz be tortured in order to find the culprits. His counterpart in Lutsk, Antoni Wołłowicz, was instrumental in ensuring the retrial and conviction, based on forced testimony given under torture, of an alleged Jewish child-murderer who had initially been found innocent. Wołłowicz informed the papal nuncio in Warsaw that there were “many and great proofs of cruelty towards Christian blood…in this kingdom by the perfidious Jewish nation.” Kajetan Sołtyk, the Catholic bishop of Kiev – like Lutsk, today in Ukraine but at the time part of the Kingdom of Poland – oversaw a ritual-murder trial that resulted in the execution of twelve Jews, and was responsible for the production of publications designed to confirm the authenticity of the blood libel. Indeed, of the various antisemitic tracts relating to alleged Jewish ritual murder published in Poland, the majority were the work of Roman Catholic clergy.

The situation became so unbearable for Poland’s Jews that a petition was made to the pope in 1758, beseeching protection from the “vexations, imprisonments, extortions, torments and deaths” they were facing as a consequence of ritual-murder accusations. The man charged by the Vatican with investigating the situation, Cardinal Ganganelli, after concluding that blood-libel charges were completely groundless, expressed his sympathy for Jews, those “unfortunate creatures” who were forced to live in “fear in Poland, where the prejudice of the Christians against them is great.” His report, as well as the outlawing of torture in 1776 and the discomfort many Polish nobles felt about blood-libel cases, appears to have been behind their diminution over the second half of the century.

A small plaque is not, of course, sufficient to do full justice to this complex, difficult and disputed history. Yet even so, it is not unrealistic to expect that a text explicitly created to explain the historical context of the painting should do something to acknowledge the fact that the church played such a central role in that history. Moreover, while today’s church bears no direct responsibility for events that took place three centuries ago, it is not unreasonable to hope that the plaque could include an expression of remorse for its past role in what remains a particularly painful feature of Polish-Jewish collective memory.

There is precedent for such a gesture. As mentioned above, it was in England that the medieval European blood libel myth originated, with profoundly tragic consequences for the country’s Jews, who faced persecution, murder and, eventually, expulsion en masse from the country in 1290. (Coincidentally, many of the exiles ended up in Poland, where the 1264 Statute of Kalisz had codified a comprehensive and benevolent set of legal rights for Jews, including the prohibition of blood-libel accusations.) One of the most infamous episodes occurred in the city of Lincoln, where, in 1255, the death of an eight-year-old boy, Hugh, was blamed on local Jews, who were accused of his torture and ritual murder. Over 90 Jews were arrested, with eighteen eventually put to death. Subsequently, “Little Saint Hugh” came to be regarded as a martyr (although he was never officially canonised), and a cult developed around his memory, including a popular 18th-century folk ballad that is still known in the English-speaking world today. Hugh’s remains were interred in Lincoln Cathedral and quickly become a site of pilgrimage, remaining so as late as the 20th century. However, in 1955, on the 700th anniversary of Hugh’s death, a decision was made by the cathedral to place a plaque where his shrine had previously been located, containing the following text:

Trumped up stories of “ritual murders” of Christian boys by Jewish communities were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and even much later. These fictions cost many innocent Jews their lives. Lincoln had its own legend, and the alleged victim was buried in the Cathedral in the year 1255. Such stories do not redound to the credit of Christendom, and so we pray: Lord, forgive what we have been, amend what we are, and direct what we shall be.

The addition of a similarly succinct acknowledgement of regret would do much to enhance Sandomierz’s plaque. The Polish Council of Christians and Jews, who were involved in the protracted discussions over the creation of a plaque, initially suggested that the text should end with a quotation from Pope John Paul II, expressing that the “Catholic Church, guided by the evangelical principle of truth and love, and not by any political considerations, deeply regrets hatred, persecution and manifestations of antisemitism whenever and wherever they met Jews from the side of Christians.” Yet not only was this idea rejected, but the committee appointed by the Bishop of Sandomierz to consider the text of the plaque attempted to water down the eventual statement even further, by adding claims that the “church opposed the dissemination” of blood-libel accusations and that “Jews in Poland were legally protected, and even possessed many privileges.” While containing grains of truth, both statements clearly misrepresent events in Sandomierz.

Sadly, despite its faults, the current wording of the plaque was provided official endorsement by Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, who, along with the Israeli ambassador to Poland, Zvi Rav-Ner, appeared at the unveiling this year, describing it as a “good and wise” solution. Magda Teter, professor of Jewish Studies at Wesleyan University, who was closely involved with the process of returning the painting to public view, suggests that the plaque provides a “proper description” of the painting, and believes that its installation, along with the accompanying Day of Judaism events, “seems to mark the end of longstanding hostility between Jews and the local Catholic diocese and town.”

Elsewhere, Teter has even offered a partial defence of the painting, claiming that its critics often ignore the fact that it is just one of a series of four images within the cathedral that depict various forms of Catholic martyrdom in Sandomierz. Thus, she argues, it “must be seen in the context of…violent deaths of Catholics at the hands of non-Catholic enemies.” Yet this ignores the fact that the other scenes depicted in the series – the 13th-century Tatar invasion of the town and the destruction of its castle by the Swedish army in 1656 – are based on actual events, whereas the ritual-murder scene is inspired by a manufactured myth regarding an imagined enemy. In this light, the painting’s context makes it more, not less, problematic, as viewers may be led to believe it is based on authentic history, like the other images around it. Additionally, unlike with Swedes and Tatars, the (false) belief that Jews were a dangerous enemy of Catholics is one that has had concrete, negative consequences, used as it was to justify the persecution and murder of those “enemies” in Poland right up to the 20th century, making the painting particularly dangerous and distressing. (Indeed, the 17th-century Swedish invasion even became the occasion for anti-Jewish attacks, with the Polish army killing possibly hundreds of Sandomierz Jews in revenge for allegedly collaborating with the invaders.)

Yet whatever faults one can find with the treatment of the cathedral’s painting, an even more troubling situation exists a ten-minute walk away, in St Paul’s Church. There, a set of eight ritual-murder paintings, far cruder and more immediately repulsive than the single, faded image in the cathedral, is displayed prominently around the church’s chancel, showing Jewish figures engaged in various forms of torture and murder of Christians (two examples here and here). As far as I am aware, no explanatory plaque of any kind is present. During my own visit, the nun watching over the church had been extremely welcoming on my arrival; but, once it became apparent what I had come to see, the mood perceptibly soured, and it was made clear that my interest in the paintings was not welcome.

As a smaller church with far fewer outside visitors, the St Paul’s images have received much less attention than the cathedral’s; but their continued presence is perhaps more telling. Church authorities have responded to widespread criticism by first concealing the painting and then adding a plaque, at St Paul’s, where there is far less pressure to act, nothing has been done. In this light, it is tempting to see the action taken in the cathedral as a reluctant concession, or a public-relations exercise, rather than a genuine effort to deal with this aspect of the town’s and the church’s history.

This leads, finally, to the question of what should be done to improve the situation. In his article fourteen years ago, Father Musiał declared that for Sandomierz’s blood-libel paintings – both in the cathedral and at St Paul’s – to remain in place, even with an explanatory inscription alongside them, would be an “to insult human dignity.” Instead, he suggested they be relocated to a specially created museum of antisemitism in the town, where they could be viewed and understood in a “clear context, unmarked by ambiguity, outside the sacred space.” My own feeling is that the sacred space in which the paintings are located is, in fact, essential to their understanding: how they came into being, the events they are associated with, what they represented at the time of their creation, why they remain important artefacts today – honest answers to all such questions must take into account the church’s role, and removing the paintings from their original context risks obscuring an essential aspect of their history.

Equally, however, there is a strong argument in favor of removing objects that are so offensive and painful to Jews – and should be to Catholics as well. In a country where the authorities are quick to enforce laws against “offending religious feelings” when Christianity is the religion in question – even in instances as trivial as a pop star being convicted for suggesting that the Bible was written by someone “drunk on wine and smoking herbs” – the tolerance of such images is even more egregious. It is hard to think of anything more offensive towards a religion than falsely suggesting that its members slaughter the children of another and use their blood for ritual purposes.

Moreover, by remaining in place, especially in churches, which are symbols of trust and authority in such a deeply religious country, the paintings risk lending continued credence to the blood-libel myth. Tokarska-Bakir’s findings (pp. 14, 26) are particularly telling – and worrying – in this regard. One of her interviewees comments of the cathedral’s painting that “since it hangs in a church…there must have been some truth to it”; another suggests that if the scenes depicted in the paintings “hadn’t been true, they wouldn’t be hanging there, and the church’d take some stand on it.” Others make similar observations. It is hard to find clearer testament as to the power of the images, and of the harm caused by the church’s failure to take any action whatsoever regarding those in St Paul’s.

As such, an appropriate solution would be for the painting in the cathedral, which receives far more visitors than St Paul’s, to remain in place, but with an improved plaque that explains more clearly, accurately and honestly the history behind it. The series of images in St Paul’s, however, should preferably be removed from public view entirely (in the same manner as have other, similar paintings in Polish churches, most famously in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska at the behest of the future Pope John Paul II). Whether they are covered up, put in storage or placed in a museum is an issue for the town to decide. Tokarska-Bakir’s study suggests (pp. 51-6) that, although local residents have a strong attachment to the paintings as part of the town’s heritage, there are those (albeit seemingly a minority) who accept that openly displaying them in churches is problematic, and that covering or relocating them would be acceptable. From an outsider’s perspective, it is hard to think of any reasonable justification for the continued public display in St Paul’s of such false, hateful images, which have little artistic merit and represent such a poisonous legacy, one whose tolerance damages the church’s moral standing and is contrary to its own policies regarding Jewish-Christian dialogue.

In his article, Musiał finished by reminding his fellow Catholics of the words of Stanisław Gądecki, then chairman of the Polish Episcopate’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue and today Archbishop of Poznań, who earlier that year had delivered a sermon on the Polish church’s Day of Judaism. In it, Gądecki had criticised disingenuous “exculpatory judgments”, and promised that, where “fault was confirmed by serious historical research”, the church would make a “request for forgiveness” as an “expression of the compelling need for truth.” As Musiał noted then – and as has been further confirmed since – historical research leaves no doubt that senior figures in the Polish church were intimately involved in perpetuating the blood-libel myth, and in encouraging the persecution that arose from it, all of which inflicted profound physical and psychological damage on the country’s Jews.

For Sandomierz’s new plaque to ignore, and even distort, these facts suggests that the Church favours “exculpatory judgments” over any “compelling need for truth.” Moreover, despite Archibishop Gądecki’s further suggestion, in response to Musiał’s article, that there should be “remorse” for “mistakes of the past”, there is no evidence of such a sentiment in the plaque. This represents a missed opportunity to come to terms with a difficult historical episode and to truly advance Jewish-Christian dialogue, which must be founded on an honest appraisal of the past, encompassing the bad as well as the good.

There are few better places to achieve this than Sandomierz, a town whose population was, by the early 20th century, divided equally between Christians and Jews, and which has through its history seen the best and the worst of the relationship between those two groups in Poland. This is encapsulated perfectly in the history of the cathedral itself, where, in the very same building that houses a painting representing a period of intense suffering of Jews in the town, the descendants of those very same Jews were sheltered from the Nazis during the Second World War on the orders of the bishop, who like countless other Catholic Poles – the largest single national group honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations – risked his life to save theirs. Anna Sobolewska, a member of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, suggests that “Sandomierz could become the scene of preserved memory of the centuries-long coexistence of Poles and Jews” if only it could “at long last liberate and cleanse [itself] from the odium” brought by its attachment to the blood libel.

Józef Niewiadomski, a priest and scholar, has argued that “the paintings from Sandomierz – properly used – can…become the cornerstone of a new consciousness.” Events in the town this year represent an important step forward in this process; but, as long as wording of the new plaque remains inadequate, and certainly while the paintings in St Paul’s Church remain untouched and unexplained, there is a danger that, if Sandomierz represents its cornerstone, Poland’s confrontation of the darker aspects of its past, and the related progress that has been made in Polish-Jewish dialogue, is being constructed on weak foundations.

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