On July 4, 1453, some 40 members of the Jewish community of Breslau, in Lower Silesia, were burned at the stake. This punishment, which was accompanied by the expulsion from the city of any remaining Jews, was imposed after the victims’ conviction on charges of Host desecration, following an anti-Jewish incitement campaign.
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There is evidence of a Jewish presence in Breslau – today Wroclaw, in Poland – going back as far as 1153, and a tombstone dated 1203 marking the grave of a Jew. As in other European cities, they worked principally in the fields of money-lending and trade, although there were also a number of Jewish artisans as well.
In 1335, the city was incorporated into the Kingdom of Bohemia.
Although the city turned against its Jews a number of times in the 14th century, with attacks on the community taking place in 1319, 1349 and 1360, the campaign of 1453 can be directly linked to the actions of what in modern times might be called an “outside agitator.”
The Scourge of the Hebrews
John Capistrano was a Franciscan friar who came from the town of Capistrano, in the kingdom of Naples. John (1386-1456) began his career as a lawyer and warrior, and in 1412 was appointed then was the governor of Perugia. During an imprisonment in 1416, he decided to become a priest, and broke off his engagement to be married.
Morally conservative and ascetic, John became a popular and influential preacher, who traveled extensively spreading his message throughout the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, including Bohemia, Austria, Hungary and Poland. So popular was he that he had to deliver his sermons in outdoor spaces, as there were not churches that could hold the crowds of up to 120,000 that came to hear John.
John Capistrano became known as the “Scourge of the Hebrews” for the power of his anti-Semitic message, which often inspired violence and pogroms. At the time, he had been appointed inquisitor general for the Germanic and Slavonic countries by Pope Nicholas V. During the years 1451-1453, he was responsible for persuading a number of regions to banish their Jews, whom he accused of “impiety and usury.”
Torturing the Host
When John arrived in Breslau, he enthusiastically took up the cause of prosecuting the town’s Jews on charges of poisoning the water and stealing and abusing the Host, that is, the Eucharist wafers that are believed, in Catholic tradition, to transubstantiate into the body of Jesus Christ during communion. In this case, the Jews were accused of having bought nine separate hosts from a local peasant and then subjecting them to torture, as if in an enactment of the Crucifixion.
Most of Breslau’s Jews were arrested (some succeeded in escaping), and were interrogated under torture, sometimes personally implemented by John Capistrano himself. Following a trial, at which John presided, 41 Jews were sentenced to death, which, at the order of King Ladislaus, would be implemented by burning at the stake.
It’s known that at least one person, the rabbi of Breslau, hung himself rather than be burned to death by the authorities.
The punishment was carried out on July 4, 1453, at the Salt Market in the center of Breslau. Following that, Jewish children under the age of seven were taken by the Church and forcibly baptized, even though at the time this was prohibited by canon law.
The few Jews who remained were then banished from Breslau. For good measure, Ladislaw, the king of Bohemia, officially banned Jews from living in the city in 1455.
Thereafter, Jews could enter Breslau only as visitors to the city’s trade fairs. It was not until 1630 – nearly 200 years later – that Jews received official sanction to live again in Breslau.