Trent, in northern Italy, and Sandomierz, in eastern Poland, are hundreds of miles apart but share a ghastly connection: both were sites of anti-Jewish libels hundreds of years ago. In 1475 in Trent and in 1698 and 1710 in Sandomierz, Jews were falsely accused of killing Christian children. Both towns have remnants of these hideous affairs, but neither has a Jewish population any longer.
In the past few years, as the Covid pandemic raged, two remarkable exhibitions—“The Invention of the Culprit: The Case of Little Simon of Trento from Propaganda to History” at the Diocesan Museum in Trent and “The Absent: The History of the Jewish Community in Sandomierz” at the Regional Museum in Sandomierz—sought to reckon with that troubling past. Museums play a crucial part in shaping public understanding of history and thereby have the potential to fashion cultural change. But even as they look toward the future, museums, through their dependence on scholarly research and their need as public institutions to accommodate current political dynamics, remain tethered to the past. In the two shows (and their printed catalogs), these restraints could be felt in the language used and objects displayed, in uneasy efforts to maneuver around obstacles, and in noticeable blind spots.
In March 1475 the body of a Christian toddler named Simon was found washed up under a house in Trent, Italy, that was being used as the Jews’ synagogue. It was the Christian Easter and the Jewish Passover. Simon’s death led to a lengthy and uniquely well-documented trial of all local Jews. The men were arrested, tortured, and executed, and the women and children, under house arrest, forced to convert to Christianity—a catastrophe that ended the presence of Judaism in the town.1 After Simon’s disappearance it was assumed the child drowned in one of the canals of the town. Soon rumors implicating Jews began to circulate. Their homes were searched, but nothing was found. Over the course of the trial Jews’ testimonies, extracted under torture, began to align with a narrative casting Simon as a martyr killed by Jews that was written and published a few days after Simon’s body had been found.
A cult of Simonino (Little Simon) arose, promoted enthusiastically and at great expense by the local prince-bishop, Johannes Hinderbach, who was eager to attract pilgrims to Trent. The validity of the cult depended on the acceptance of the child as a martyr worthy of veneration; his death, therefore, had to be ascribed to Jews who stood accused of killing him in “hatred of Christ.” The bishop paid writers, poets, and artists to produce songs, tales, poems, and images about Simon’s supposed martyrdom and the miracles his relics were said to perform. Hinderbach harnessed a new technology—the printing press—to widely disseminate this work showing Simon as an innocent, Christlike victim of Jews, who were sometimes portrayed as his murderous crucifiers. As a result, the Trent affair left behind not only a trail of blood, tears, and suffering but also an unsurpassed record—literary, legal, and visual.
Hinderbach’s efforts did not go unchallenged. Pope Sixtus IV set up a commission to investigate his claims, the legitimacy of the trial of the Jews, and the authenticity of the miracles that were said to have ensued. In 1478 the pope narrowly ruled the trial lawful by the legal standards in place in Trent though not by those in Rome—but he explicitly forbade the veneration of Simon. He exhorted Hinderbach not to allow devotion that “might result in injury to God or contempt of the Apostolic See,” and stood by earlier papal protections of Jews, threatening “those who oppose this decree or rebel against it” with “the weight of ecclesiastical censure and other [pertinent] laws.”
Hinderbach did not heed the pope’s enjoinder. He continued to promote the cult until his death in 1486, leaving evidence of it in the cityscape itself and across the region: pilgrimage sites such as Simon’s house, the house where his body was found, and the church where his relics were kept; paintings, sculptures, and frescoes on building façades and in churches; illustrated leaflets and booklets. Thanks to the bishop’s efforts the story of Simon was the first anti-Jewish libel to go viral in the premodern era. The putative evidence was solidified in print and entered the most authoritative chronicles, becoming a much-repeated and indelible tale that shaped European Christians’ perception of Jews for centuries to come. The Nazis used it in their anti-Semitic propaganda, and neo-Nazi white supremacists return to it even now to justify their violent attacks on Jews in the United States.
In the 1580s, over a century after the affair, the Catholic Church formally recognized the cult, and Simon entered the newly reformed liturgical calendar. Across Europe, this recognition soon came to be seen as the validation not only of the cult in Trent but also of other libels against Jews. The cult of Simon was abrogated only on October 28, 1965, the same day the papal declaration Nostra aetate was issued, publicly marking a rapprochement in Jewish-Catholic relations.
The libel in Trent was first recorded in Polish in 1579. But in 1700 a local priest, Stefan Żuchowski—who had two years prior instigated a trial against a Jew in Sandomierz, accusing him of killing a Christian girl—visited Trent. There he would have seen the art and sites associated with Simon’s purported martyrdom along with publications devoted to the subject—including at least one book the priest is known to have bought. He may also have purchased broadsheets relaying the tale, because eighteenth-century paintings in a Sandomierz church appear to copy some scenes from them rather faithfully. Ten years later, in 1710, when the body of a vagrant Christian boy was found behind the Sandomierz rabbi’s house, Żuchowski led another campaign—this time against the town’s Jewish leaders. By the time the trial ended in 1713, six of the Jews had died in prison; three, including the rabbi, had been executed; and the rabbi’s teenage son had converted to Catholicism.
The anti-Jewish libels are commemorated in a defamatory painting in the town’s cathedral, one of sixteen large, explicitly violent paintings devoted to the martyrdom of Catholics at the hands of non-Catholics, mostly pagans butchering early Christians. The series follows the liturgical calendar into which Simon was inducted in 1583 but adds local events: the martyrdom of Dominicans by Mongols and Tatars in 1260, the destruction of the town castle by Protestant Swedes in 1655, and the imagined murders by Sandomierz Jews.
Like the portrayals in Trent, and certainly inspired by them, the art in Sandomierz emblazoned the anti-Jewish libels in the town’s history and material heritage. While similar accusations of murder by and trials of Jews took place in many places across Europe, they are now largely forgotten, since no physical traces have survived; those in Trent and Sandomierz are among the few to still bear witness. In Poland these relics have helped preserve a piece of Sandomierz’s horrid past, denying its residents the ability to forget, but they have not shaped the town’s identity. Sandomierz sees itself proudly as “a royal city” on a hill (the logo has a crown resting on the S), a town of kings, a home to and a place admired by famous Polish writers, and a site of major historical events, such as the Sandomierz Consensus of 1570, which united three major Protestant denominations. Sandomierz has steadfastly resisted being at all defined by the anti-Jewish libels and their legacy, choosing to highlight other aspects of its history.
By contrast, the cult of Simon in Trent, one of its patron saints, has permeated the town’s history, culture, and topography, with annual rituals and periodic processions (the last one in 1955) that involved parading his relics. Since the nineteenth century, as photographs and postcards testify, families joining the festivities would dress their young sons as Little Simon. “Simonino was an integral part of the historical tradition,” a wall text in “The Invention of the Culprit” explained, his “innocent holiness capable of reinforcing a feeling of communal identity.” Questioning the truthfulness of the story behind the cult was therefore audacious. That Simon was also part of the officially sanctioned Catholic calendar meant further challenging the authority of the church.
The exhibition devoted a section toward the end to describing “the lengthy process” required to abrogate the cult and the courage it took to do so, given how much was at stake locally and within the church itself. Although there were voices questioning the cult already in the early twentieth century, it was only after World War II and its destruction of European Jewry (in which blood libels, including that of Simon of Trent, were used as propaganda) that such a challenge found “a fertile ground.” The magnificent catalog of the exhibition offers, among other essays, a lengthy, gripping discussion by the historian Emanuele Curzel of what was entailed in the abrogation. It would make a strong film. In 1961 an encounter between a Jewish researcher from Trieste, Gemma Volli, and a professor of church history at the diocesan seminary in Trent, Iginio Rogger, led to the abolition of the cult in 1965 after years of delicate navigation around local interests and church and national postwar politics.
The Trent exhibition builds on decades of research, and some of the most important scholars who have written about the history of the libel and the city appear in the catalog. It was “a journey,” the current archbishop of Trent, Lauro Tisi, notes in his introduction, “into the depth and complexity of historical truth,” supported by historical sources and the “authority of their interpreters.”2
But this was no mere scholarly exercise. The event and its catalog had been planned as a response to concerns of our time. As Tisi observes, “Truth as a shared destination seems to be today more than ever a distant goal, even within the Church.” And then there is the recent “renaissance of anti-Semitism,” which, he says, seems to be turning to history to regain validity. In Italy some groups began to agitate for the reinstatement of the cult. In the US the story of Simon was cited by the shooter who in 2019 opened fire in a synagogue in Poway, California, as one factor motivating his actions.
The curators structured the exhibition so viewers would understand the cultural and political background to the 1475 events in Trent. Panels of text explained the process of the “construction of the enemy” and the cumulative isolation of Jews, even though canon law asserted their right to practice their religion. One also learned that since the thirteenth century, Jews (although not only Jews) were ordered to wear distinctive marks, which, where implemented, came to symbolize inferiority. Interpretation of sacred Christian texts by church scholars and artists gradually created “a negative and dangerous” image of the Jew—made visual, for example, in the representation of Jews as responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. As one wall label read:
Christians forgave the Romans, the actual killers of Jesus, but not the Jews who contributed to his condemnation. Precisely on the basis of the accusation of deicide, a specific anti-Jewish iconography of the Passion and in particular of the Crucifixion was developed starting from the Middle Ages.
Another panel sought to convey how anti-Jewish sentiments became culturally embedded: the proliferation of late medieval depictions of Jesus’ circumcision, with baby Jesus lying “defenseless on the altar, menacingly surrounded by Jews with caricatured facial features,” only served, the text asserted, to confirm for Christians “the bloody inclination of Jews.”
Jews were attacked as moneylenders, even though such lending activity, according to the curators, was sanctioned by local authorities. Preachers began to rally the faithful, accusing the Jews of exploiting poor Christians and thus giving birth to the stereotype of the Jew as usurer. For Franciscans usury was “an act of war of Jews against Christianity.”
Reaching the events of 1475, viewers encountered the inexorable Hinderbach and his “invention of the culprit” and of the “blessed Simon,” whose story, which “root[ed] the myth of the murderous Jew in the system of popular beliefs and superstitions,” he helped popularize. These accusations against Jews, the wall text said emphatically, were “not based on fact.”
The Trent exhibit offered, as Archbishop Tisi had hoped, a nuanced history of the affair, the culture that produced it, and its aftermath, including the importance of the cult of Simon for the town’s identity. It displayed remarkable works of art and reliquaries, some of which had not been seen in public since the cult’s abolition, including the urn that had held Simon’s remains. It poked holes in myths and legends while unpacking for the broader public a complex history.
And yet, as some of the above quotes suggest, there was something unsettling about the presentation and the language deployed. Bolded phrases in some of the generally thoughtful wall texts amplified the exhibition’s intended message, while others had the opposite effect. References to medieval stories known only from literary sources as “facts” or “cases” “reported in chronicles” (and, in an English text in the smaller exhibition still on display, “documented in literature”) turned imagined crimes into real ones. I wondered how many visitors simply glanced at the texts, taking away the impression that the cult of Simon had been validated rather than exposed as a fabrication.
One panel titled “The Sacred Body” appeared to have taken the claims of Hinderbach and other advocates of the cult at face value: “The devotion to Simonino originated from the first and most amazing miracle: the absence of odor and the incorruptibility of his body.” That there were doubts about the validity of these miracles, that fragrant oils had to be applied to the corpse to conceal the odor, and that the papal envoy nearly vomited when he visited the decomposing relic go unmentioned. (That last point was only made in a multimedia installation that included a reenactment based on a selection of quotes from the historical sources, giving voice to both sides but leaving the viewer to decide what to make of it.) The catalog offers more detailed analysis, but occasionally it too suffers from similar slippages.
Then there is the language unquestioningly inherited from earlier scholarship, such as the common use of the word “cases” for legends and rumors. Or the phrase “ritual murder,” coined by anti-Semites and now frequently accompanied by the word “alleged” to qualify and ostensibly undermine it but leaving open the possibility of its reality. (Merriam-Webster says “alleged” can also mean “accused but not proven or convicted,” “asserted to be true or to exist,” and “questionably true or of a specified kind.” The Oxford English Dictionary is even more explicit: to allege is to assert something as true “without proof” or “pending proof.”) Such unreflective use of language has subverted the goodwill of “The Invention of the Culprit.” These imagined offenses and fake stories led to the torture and deaths of many Jews over the centuries. In the current moment of resurgent anti-Semitism and unrelenting attacks on truth, it is vital to be mindful of the language deployed in scholarship and in public, to avoid discourse historically loaded with ambiguity or deleterious meaning, and to call something false when it is.
The exhibition in Sandomierz and its catalog similarly suffered from acquired linguistic habits. “The Absent” sought to demonstrate the presence of the town’s now-vanished Jewish community over the centuries. It was, as the curators note in the catalog, one of the first major attempts to explore “Jewish heritage” in the region.3 As such, this was a significant development after decades when any recognition of the history of Jews in Sandomierz seemed a hard-to-breach taboo—the legacy of both the Communist era’s silencing of the Jewish past and the blood libels and their material remains, which, despite the town’s efforts to obscure this history, had stigmatized it and turned it into a shameful symbol of anti-Semitism that clashed with its identity as a royal city. (The first such attempt was made at the Diocesan Museum in Trent in January 2014, with a brief exhibition about Jews in Sandomierz to accompany the celebration of the Day of Judaism, a day of learning created to help Jewish-Catholic rapprochement and reconciliation.)
“The Absent” displayed artifacts or facsimiles of those no longer available from the medieval period to the aftermath of World War II. The curators did not shy away from the blood libels and the part played by the local priest Żuchowski as their instigator, and they reproduced images of the paintings that had sullied the town’s reputation. The exhibition complicated previous perceptions of Jewish-Christian relations—by showing, for example, that local church officials lent money to Jews with interest, whose repayment was designated for music in the local collegiate church; or by displaying images of eighteenth-century synagogue accoutrements featuring the Polish eagle, school photographs from the interwar period with Jewish and Catholic students learning together, and pictures of a city council that included Jews and Christians. And although for the earlier period the curators sometimes mixed legends with historical facts and nineteenth-century fantasies with historical documents, the exhibition left no doubt that Jews were part of Sandomierz’s history. Some of that presence is still visible in the cityscape, and some was implied in the captions accompanying the objects, though these last were too often left to the viewers’ interpretation.
The most striking descriptions were those noting how the objects were found. A splendid silver Hanukkah menorah, made in the interwar period and likely from the local synagogue, was discovered decades after World War II during excavations carried out by the city to prevent the collapse of the old part of town. The menorah had been buried in the cellar of a Christian house a short block away from the synagogue. A Torah crown was stowed under a wooden floor in a village not far away. Also hidden underground were kiddush cups as well as rings and brooches worn by Jewish women who were murdered and never returned to claim them.
But despite the curators’ endeavor to make Jews of the past visible, the accompanying texts sometimes cast Jews as outsiders and a community apart. Jews were often referred to as “Israelites”—a nineteenth-century term used by modernizing Jews themselves but one that has gained an Orientalizing meaning as it effectively de-Europeanizes Jews—or as “believers in old law,” an archaic phrase used by Polish Christians to describe Jews. The discussion of the Jewish community’s structures and life made them appear insular—not part of the political and economic life of Poland. A description of early-twentieth-century photographs exoticized Jews, claiming that they added “character” or “color” (koloryt) to the streets of Sandomierz. This too is language commonly used in scholarly works about Jewish history in Poland in general and about Sandomierz in particular.
James Baldwin once said that “it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” Despite the curators’ best intentions, Jews are identified as a “them,” not part of “us.” And so, although “The Absent” acknowledged the Jews who had once lived in Sandomierz, it did not convey what was lost when they were gone and why it matters. Strikingly “absent” from the exhibition were—with the few exceptions noted earlier—Jews’ Christian neighbors. The narrative often used a passive voice to avoid implicating local people in contributing to the Jewish absence, noting that synagogues were no longer where they used to be: one in Staszów, for example, “survived the war but was dismantled in 1957.” This is the effect of telling two separate histories of two separate people for over a century. To make it into one will take time, and the exhibition, despite its drawbacks, represented meaningful steps in that direction.
When the museum in Trent took up the question of whether to incorporate the exhibition (and if so, how) into its permanent collection, visions clashed and the director resigned. Ultimately an abridged, one-room version was made permanent, casting the Trent affair as part of the town’s history and cultural legacy. The “strict juridical” approach of Hinderbach, whose tombstone dominates the center space, and his investment in the city’s architecture and art are highlighted. A text discusses the cult of Simon and its abolition. On view are a copy of trial records, a sculpture once at the altar in the church where Simon’s body was laid out, a broadsheet engraving depicting the urn with his relics, jewels donated by the queen of Spain in 1649 and displayed on reliquaries until the twentieth century, and an engraving of the procession in 1724. While central aspects of the original exhibition are there, some panels retain the vexed language cited above. The show’s earlier impact is necessarily blunted.
The Regional Museum in Sandomierz has tackled the ephemeral nature of its show differently, mapping historic Jewish sites online for those who want to walk around the town and visit them. Their website is accessible but not easy to find. In town, the destinations featured on the map are barely acknowledged. A small, hard-to-read plaque on the former synagogue (now an archive) states only that it was built at the end of the seventeenth century and that the Jewish community was granted “the king’s protection” in 1364. The two churches acknowledged the anti-Jewish paintings with informative signs. But the Jewish cemetery is abandoned, full of litter and overgrown with weeds, and other Jewish places are not visible at all.
In an alley in Trent is the house beneath which Simon’s body was found in 1475. It was owned by Samuel, one of the Jews killed after the trial. A plaque affixed to its side reads:
In this place where intolerance has written a dark page in human history, marking a long rift between Jews and Christians with bloody repression and secular ban, the city of Trent wanted to make amends by placing this marker for future memory and as a testimony of an active commitment to building peace and tolerance.
This powerful statement of public reckoning, hidden in an alley, contrasts with two conspicuous eighteenth-century reliefs on the building’s front façade: one shows Jews murdering Simon, the other Simon beatified, his feet stomping on the Jews. The house is a metaphor for two approaches to history: the old, in full display, representing the traditional past, and the new, demanding confrontation with the past, only discernible to those willing to see it.
An earlier version of this article misstated the decade during which the Catholic Church formally recognized the cult of Simon.
For more on this subject, see my Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth (Harvard University Press, 2018); reviewed in these pages by Sara Lipton, September 23, 2021. ↩
The Trent catalog is in Italian, as were the exhibition’s wall texts; the permanent installation has texts in Italian and English. The Sandomierz catalog is in Polish, as were that exhibition’s wall texts. All translations are my own. ↩
For other such efforts, see Eva Hoffman, “Hearing Poland’s Ghosts,” The New York Review, March 22, 2018. ↩