A German appeals court on Tuesday rejected a Jewish man’s bid to force the removal of a 700-year-old anti-Semitic statue from a church where Martin Luther once preached.
The “Judensau,” or “Jew pig,” sculpture on the Town Church in Wittenberg is one of more than 20 such relics from the Middle Ages that still adorn churches across Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
Plaintiff Michael Duellmann had argued that the sculpture is “a defamation of and insult to the Jewish people” and that it has “a terrible effect up to this day.”
After the verdict, he told The Associated Press that he would appeal the case to Germany’s Federal Court of Justice and was prepared to take it all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.
Although he was disappointed with the ruling, Duellmann said he was happy with the debate the case had sparked within Germany’s Protestant Church. He said the same discourse was also needed in the Catholic Church and Jewish communities in Germany and Israel.
“This whole discussion process has been moving ahead with this legal case, and that’s a good thing,” he said.
Located about four meters (13 feet) above ground, the sculpture depicts people identifiable as Jews suckling on the teats of a sow, while a rabbi lifts the animal’s tail. In 1570, after the Protestant Reformation, an inscription referring to an anti-Jewish tract by Luther was added.
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In 1988, a memorial was set into the ground underneath it, referring to the persecution of Jews and the killing of 6 million people in the Nazi Holocaust. In addition, a sign gives information on the sculpture in German and English.
Pastor Johannes Block from the Town Church has said the church also considers the sculpture unacceptably insulting. But he also argued it “no longer speaks for itself as a solitary piece, but is embedded in a culture of remembrance” thanks to the memorial.
“We don’t want to hide or abolish history, but take the path of reconciliation with and through history,” he said.
A court in Dessau rejected Duellmann’s case in May. He then took the case to the higher state court in Naumburg, which in its ruling Tuesday said he has no right to have the sculpture taken down because “in its current context” it is not of “slanderous character” and doesn’t violate the plaintiff’s rights.
It found that the statue is now “part of an ensemble which speaks for another objective” on the part of the parish, a reference to the memorial and the information sign.
“The presentation of a part of the building in its original condition that was originally meant to be insulting is not necessarily insulting,” the court said. “Rather, you can neutralize the original intent with commentary as to the historical context. This is the case with the Wittenberg sculpture.”
Duellmann has suggested removing the relief from the church and putting it in the nearby Luther House museum.