British Jews to bury medieval massacre victims

Remains of seventeen bodies discovered at bottom of well in Norwich in 2004 given a Jewish burial; evidence points to violent deaths.

Jewish tombstone 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Jewish tombstone 370
(photo credit: reuters)
The remains of 17 bodies, discovered at the bottom of a well in the city of Norwich in 2004, were given a Jewish burial in Earlham Cemetery in Norwich on Tuesday.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella organization for England’s Jewish community, estimated that some 50 people attended the ceremony that was composed of both Jews and Christians.
Members of both faiths shoveled dirt onto the newly dug graves, while local Rabbi Alex Bennet read an introductory prayer and his counterpart from the Norwich church eulogized the deceased.
The bodies, which were dated to somewhere between the 12th and 13th centuries, were found during an archaeological dig prior to construction of a new shopping center and are suspected to belong to Jews.
According to the 2011 BBC documentary History Cold Case: The Bodies in the Well, fractures and other physical evidence may point to violent deaths.
Eleven of the skeletons belonged to children under 15 years old and Jewish community representatives have stated that “fractures suggest the throwing of the bodies of the adults down the well, head first.”
Since 1135 Jews have lived in Norwich, which is famous for the 1144 murder of William of Norwich, a young boy whose death was blamed on the town’s Jewish population, and led to the propagation of the world’s first blood libel.
Despite a fierce debate among scientists as to the identity of the bodies, the board of deputies decided to go ahead with the Jewish burial. According to a statement by the board on Monday, despite inconclusive results from DNA testing conducted on the bodies, “rabbinical advice was that there was sufficient possibility that the bones should be interned in a Jewish cemetery as they will tomorrow.”
Among those who are skeptical of the bodies’ Jewish identity is Norwich Castle Museum curator Alan West, who was quoted in the Jewish Chronicle asserting that “there is nothing to suggest they are of Jewish origins.”
According to the report, researchers at the University of London initially indicated that “the balance of probability made it likely that these individuals did indeed have Jewish ancestry,” but further examination led them to determine that “the interpretation that the individuals were Jewish was not felt to be especially likely.”
However, some historians have noted that the pell-mell way in which the bodies were disposed may indicate that the deceased were Jewish since the usual care taken in disposing of the bodies of Christians was not taken in this case, the BBC reported.
The bodies’ new grave is to be marked with a monument indicating that they were probably the victims of an anti-Jewish massacre, such as the one against Norwich’s Jews in 1190, the board announced.
According to the board of deputy’s chief executive Jon Benjamin, no one can be sure of the “circumstances these unfortunate victims met their apparently violent deaths, but their interment so soon after the anniversary of the Clifford’s Tower massacre in York is fitting.”
Some 150 Jews were murdered in the keep of York Castle in 1190, the same year in which many of Norwich’s Jews were also massacred.
“Norwich marked the scene of the first medieval blood libel,” Benjamin recalled. “We may feel that we live in a very different world today, but anti- Semitism and blood libels persist and the dangers of bigotry and xenophobia are very much with us today. This gives the coming together of Jewish and Christian friends and clergy in Norwich a particular poignancy and importance.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Monday, Benjamin said that initially the bones were given to the museum in Norwich, but the board persuaded its authorities to give them up for burial.
The local museum kept the remains in storage for several years until the board of deputies obtained them following lobbying by community representative Clive Roffe and members of the local clergy.
“Once a question was raised about the possible Jewish provenance,” Benjamin said, “the community remained interested and involved, with the Board of Deputies assisting Mr. Roffe to try to get a resolution of the matter and a dignified interment.”
According to Benjamin, even though the evidence is “circumstantial” the board of deputies felt that “if there was even a chance of them being Jewish, then interment in a Jewish cemetery would be acceptable.”
Bishop David Gillet, an interfaith adviser in the Diocese of Norwich, was involved in securing the bodies for the Jewish community.
He noted that, “Whatever the DNA research reveals, the discovery of the bones has raised awareness of some of the real injustices inflicted on the Jewish community in medieval times.”
Gillet said he worked over two years in asking for the bones to be released “for a decent and appropriate burial, with the help of the board of deputies.
“I am honored to be giving the eulogy tomorrow at the local Orthodox cemetery, with the local rabbi conducting the service,” he said ahead of the ceremony on Monday.
The bishop noted that attending the funeral was his change to offer the church’s “repentance” for the “pain of the past.”
Speaking at the bodies’ internment on Tuesday, he said that both the Jewish and Christian communities were gathered to honor and mourn those who “were brutally disposed of down a well shaft.”
Citing massacres carried out by medieval Christians against their Jewish neighbors and the expulsion of the country’s Jews in 1290, Gillet said that he and his coreligionists “pledge ourselves to live and work in our generation for supportive and respectful relationships between our two communities.”
The bodies will also be commemorated in a memorial in the local St. Stephen’s church, he said, with a plaque citing the “Hebrew scriptures.”
Gillet said he felt a sense of closure after the funeral, which he called a fitting way to end many years of pain and suffering.
“The sense of togetherness between our two faiths shown in today’s ceremony is in marked contrast to the fraught relationship that existed 800 years ago.”