On September 30, 1338, mounted knights entered the small Jewish quarter of the Bavarian town of Deggendorf, slaughtering its approximately 50 residents and pillaging and burning their property.
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The Deggendorf massacre was just the first among a number of murderous attacks perpetrated upon Jews in southern Germany at the time. What makes it especially bizarre, however, is that, in local history, a legend was created in retrospect to justify the murders. The Jews of Deggendorf, according to the story, were being punished for having desecrated the Host a year earlier.
Like the blood libel, which accused Jews of ritually murdering Christian children, the accusation of "Host desecration" imagined Jews stealing the Eucharist wafer, which Catholic tradition sees as being transformed into the body of Christ during communion, and subjecting it to abuse and torture.
In the case of Deggendorf, the desecration of the host had supposedly been perpetrated in 1337, a year before the massacre. But it served to "demonstrate" that the attack on the Jews had not been unprovoked: it was, rather, intended as atonement by Deggendorf’s Christians for having permitted the Jews to commit their blasphemous act in the first place.
'Miracles' where a synagogue once stood
In place of the synagogue that had stood in the Jewish quarter, a church was constructed to commemorate the events, which, as the legend evolved, also came to include a variety of miracles that occurred on the site.
Completed by the end of the 14th century, the church became a place of pilgrimage, and was sanctioned as such by Pope Boniface IX in a 1389 bull. Later, popes also granted an indulgence to be offered to Catholics who made the pilgrimage.
Only six centuries after the massacre, in 1992, did the bishop of nearby Regensburg, Manfred Mueller, see fit to call for an end to the Deggendorfer Gnad (“grace”), as the pilgrimage came to be called.
Bishop Muller was prompted to act after being presented with the conclusions of a study undertaken by historian Manfred Eder. According to Eder, the 1338 slaughter had come at a time of economic recession, which was in part caused by an invasion of locusts, which destroyed the local crops. Unable to repay their debts to the town’s Jewish moneylenders, the burghers and gentry eliminated those debts by eliminating the Jews.
Exoneration for the murderers
The same year, Henry XIV, the duke of Bavaria, officially pardoned Deggendorf’s gentiles for the killings - and granted them permission to retain any possessions of the Jews they may have confiscated during the pogrom.
The church built on the site of the synagogue, which still stands today, is called the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. Its construction was financed with the money taken from the Jews.
Inside is a dedication, in German rhyme, explaining the building’s origins, and moving up the cycle of events by a year, to 1337: “In the year of the Lord 1337, on the day after St. Michael’s Day, Michaelmas, the Jews were slain, and the city burned. God’s body [namely, the Host] was found there, as [pious] women and men saw, and [it was] there [they] undertook to build a House of God” (as translated by Mitchell B. Merback, in “Pilgrimage and Pogrom.”)
Other written sources flesh out the story of the "Host desecration" with extensive detail, and provide examples of the miracles that later took place at the site, thus providing a basis for the transformation of the church into a place of pilgrimage. By 1737, the 400th anniversary of the alleged blasphemy and slaughter, the number of pilgrims who flocked to the church is said to have exceeded 100,000.