Foundations of Holocaust: Superstition and Jewish demonization

the people and local leaders of Switzerland, France and Germany accused Jews of poisoning wells. Most were burnt alive…” 

Background: Beginning in the eleventh century Europe entered a period of radical social and political change, of increasing expansion and local autonomy. Kingdoms emerged and Europe’s population grew dramatically. Cities, once located mostly along the Mediterranean, now increasingly began to appear inland. Connected by river and road they grew in population. By the 15th century the Church would face its first significant challenge to its authority, the Protestant Reformation.
Capital was needed to finance the expansion, but Church doctrine forbade Christians to lend money at interest. So it fell upon the stranger at home, the Jews. Forbidden to own or work the land, shut out from most trades and crafts, the Jews were, by default, made Europe’s bankers. And along with their new role the Jews became also collectors of rent and taxes on behalf of the wealthy land owners. The peasants, destitute and forced to surrender their meager wealth as rent and taxes vented their frustration on those nearest at hand, the owner’s representatives.



Borrowing by the Church and aristocracy meant that they would accumulate debt, and it took little time to realize that the easiest way to eliminate debt was to simply expel the Jews and appropriate their property. Europe’s expulsions began in the 1100’s and continued for several centuries, the two better know being from England in 1290, and Spain in 1492. Jews expelled from the southern regions generally settled in North Africa, while those from Central Europe settled in Poland. (see Grosser, Paul E. & Halperin, Edwin G., The Causes and Effects of Anti-Semitism (CEAS), 1978, p.103)

The Black Death: The plague known as the Black Death traveled from the Orient to the Middle East and Europe. It devastated Europe, more than a third of the total population dying from the disease in the mid-14th century. Although Jews also were victim, rumors spread accusing them of poisoning Christian wells in order to spread the disease (CEAS. p. 127). Hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed. “On January 9, 1349, nearly the entire Jewish population of Basel was massacred by townspeople.” That massacre was typical of others across Europe as,
“the people and local leaders of Switzerland, France and Germany accused Jews of poisoning wells. Most were burnt alive… in 1215 Pope Innocent III … passed [an edict that would inspire] Nazi Germany in the 20th century –Jews were required to wear a yellow badge at all times.”

Burning of Jews during the Black Death epidemic, 1349

In Strasbourg, a city not yet touched by the plague, 900 Jews were gathered together and burned alive. 


Another anti-Jewish rumor described a cabal of rabbis that was believed to gather annually to plot against Christians. Jewish communities throughout Europe were, according to the myth, instructed to poison Christian wells. Five hundred years later that myth would provide the foundation for The Protocols of Elders of Zion.


Blood libels: One of the more grotesquepopular myths inspiring the imagination of Medieval Christians accused the Jews of murdering Christian boys for ritual purposes. According to this myth pre-pubescent youths were kidnapped from their homes, would be tied up or nailed to a cross by way of mocking the Christian Eucharist. They were then imagined to be stabbed in imitation of the wounds tradition holds Jesus suffered on the cross. As the boy was dying his blood was supposed to have been collected as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzo.

"In Spain in1491 [the eve of the infamous Inquisition] Spanish inquisitors forced Jews to confess that they had killed a Christian child, one Christopher of Toledo or Christopher of La Guardia, later made a saint of the Roman Catholic Church and venerated as Santo Nino de La Guardia. No missing child was ever reported that would correspond to this child and corroborate the tale. The tale was elicited from the victims by the holy inquisitors under torture, by suggestion (for example, "Confess that on this date you did do X"). It is likely that the blood libel was well known by this time.

The libel of La Guardia occurred on the eve of the expulsion from Spain. Conversos were tortured till they confessed that with the knowledge of the chief rabbi the Jews had assembled in a cave, crucified a child, abused him and cursed him as was done to Jesus. The crucifixion motif explained why blood libels occurred at the time of Passover.
Simon of Trent, supposedly murdered in this fashion in 1475, was canonized by Pope Sixtus V in 1588 giving rise to a cult that continues to survive today. Although officially disbanded in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, evidence of its continuing is available on Catholic organization internet sites.
The idea that Jews could be involved in such a thing as a blood libel, that blood would be an ingredient in baking matzot was born of a population already very superstitious and prone to see Satan as an active participant in the daily life of Christians. This was a community under severe stress by the plague and other natural disasters. But, as with the mythic covey of rabbis plotting mayhem for Christians survives into the present in the Protocols, so does the Blood Libel survive. The most celebrated modern blood libel involved Menahem Beilis, a Russian Jew arrested on July 21, 1911 for the murder and mutilation of a Ukrainian youth. Acquitted after two years in jail, the peasant making the charge eventually admitted that his accusations were based on tutoring by the police.
And one year after the liberation of Auschwitz, of the more than 24,000 Jewish residents of pre-war Kielce, Poland, 200 survivors returning to their homes faced a pogrom inspired by… a blood libel. Thirty-five were murdered along with two Jews who just happened to be on a train passing through the city. 
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