NEW YORK — They said the devil had traveled in her clothing. Elsche Prösche, née Wohler, wife of Jochim, was in her forties, and lived a life of relative poverty in Kölzin, a village in northeastern Germany. She was my great-aunt, nine generations ago — and for charges of witchcraft, she was burned at the stake.
I learned about her story from my father. An avid researcher of family history, back in in 1997 he'd noticed a thick dossier about the witch trials of Zarrentin in church archives. It wasn't until nearly two decades later, after he and my mother met with a local historian, that our relation to one of the unfortunate sorceresses became clear.
Reading the transcript of Elsche's story, which my dad translated from German, was awful. She begged for another year with her children, and instead was tortured and burned alive. Our distant kinship was a reminder of the way each of us is personally connected to historical events in ways we can't conceive.
Witch burning in Derenburg, Germany — Source: R. Decker/Wikimedia Commons
Her story also made me suddenly quite conscious of the frequency with which politicians and other public figures accused of wrongdoing today spit out the words "witch hunt." It goes without saying that the pain they experience bears no resemblance to the psychological and physical agony of past victims of true witch hunts.
The lives of these privileged men could hardly stand in starker contrast.
Donald Trump recently dismissed House Democrats' fledgling impeachment inquiry as "breaking news Witch Hunt garbage." Senator Lindsay Graham, meanwhile, remarked during the 2018 debacle over the next Supreme Court justice that perhaps we should "dunk" Brett Kavanaugh in water to see if he would float. This references to the practice back in the 17th century of tossing suspected witches in the water: If they sank, they were not considered a witch ...
In 2017, Woody Allen told the BBC that the #MeToo movement risked creating a "Salem atmosphere where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself." Back in 2011, when Dominique Strauss-Kahn — then head of the International Monetary Fund — was accused of sexually assaulting a West African hotel maid, his defenders proclaimed that the media was engaged in a "chasse aux sorcières" — yes, the witch hunt metaphor is an international phenomenon.
The lives of these privileged men could hardly stand in starker contrast with the life of Elsche. Born in 1641 in Bantin, Mecklenburg, a village that today has an estimated population of 428, she faced repeated accusations of witchcraft and struggled repeatedly to clear her name.
In 1684, 300 years before I was born, she was imprisoned in Zarrentin and tried for crimes against people and livestock. Five witnesses swore that the devil had traveled in her clothing. One insisted that she had put a curse on the mayor's horses, so that they ran into the swamp and broke their legs. According to the Chronik von Kölzin, a typed manuscript available at the government archives, the court authorized torture if she continued to deny her misdeeds.
The local pastor noted with suspicion that Elsche had a "wild nasty habit of speaking with her tongue which flew from side to side and sometimes stuck out." Did she have some sort of congenital disfigurement? It's impossible to know, though she acknowledged having a throat ailment.
Burning sulfur was held under her nose and poured across her body.
She pleaded her innocence, but was tortured extensively. A blemish behind her left ear was poked with a needle to draw blood. Her hands were tied and attached with thumbscrews, and then she was fitted with Spanish boots — metal plates with dull nails that were squeezed over her legs. She was "hoisted into the air" and beaten with a club covered in nails known as the "roasted rabbit." Finally, burning sulfur was held under her nose and poured across her body. She admitted nothing, but screamed, cried and periodically fainted. The court demanded that she refrain from exacting revenge and released her.
In 1689, she faced another trial after a local cattle herder accused her of witchcraft. This time, when Elsche wouldn't confess, she was handed over to a man who ran a compulsory labor camp. He undressed her and subjected her to the same tortures she had experienced five years prior.
Here, the transcript notes that "it wasn't humanly possible to withstand such pain," and unsurprisingly Elsche confessed to all sorts of supernatural evils, including having sex with the devil, before the court ruled that she should be "punished by fire until death."
Т. Mattson's "Interrogation of the Sorceress' (1853) — Source: Wikimedia Commons
While we cannot know what led the mayor's horses to run into the swamp, a poor, possibly disfigured mother in her mid-forties certainly did not cause their demise through witchcraft. Or have sex with the devil.
Today, the historical witch hunts of Europe and the United States should be seen as a chilling reminder of both the wild irrationality and cold calculations of those persecuting people who are somehow seen as different, in the minority, or socially inferior. In Medieval Europe and during America's colonial period, people turned to the supernatural to explain real-life woes, and it's not surprising that women seen as different were frequent scapegoats.
Corruption and sexual assault are real.
Around the world, actual witch hunts still occur, and the victims are often, though not invariably, women. That's been true for a long time: Of the tens of thousands of people executed for witchcraft in Europe, the vast majority were women.
Likening Congressional investigations into Trump's Ukraine dealings or Kavanaugh's alleged sex crimes to the torture these women experienced is deeply misleading. While corruption and sexual assault are real problems, witchery has always been an imaginary evil. Using the term "witch hunt" to protest the investigation of a misdeed is a deliberate ploy to suggest it is impossible, rather than merely unproven.
Witches, like ghouls and goblins, don't exist. Crimes and bad acts do. Let's stop pretending we don't see the difference and drop this tired expression.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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