In the Christian world right now, it’s Lent. The season of fasting. Time to pull in the belt, repent of bad habits and reflect.
And of course Jews have just come through Purim, which — hafuch al hafuch — is about flipping things upside down.
So let’s take another walk through the sometimes-pretty, sometimes-gritty city of Poznań (Poland) to see what we can find.
After all — for now — it is my home.
Here is the tram stop on Ratajski Square, not far from our priory, with its Communist rabbit hutches built in the 50s to replace what was lost in the War.
… comes the tram.
This is one of the new models.
In the afternoon hours, Line 8 is packed.
But we only need to hold on for two stops. It takes just four minutes to cover the thousand yards between our neighborhood and this:
This is the stop for the old Jewish Quarter. In the background we see the denuded Great Synagogue, whose interior was transformed into a pool by the Nazis. It has been dubbed “Swim-a-gogue” by Poles, who kept paddling in it for decades, right into the present century.
And what’s on the wall of the sad old hulk, above the Volkswagen and behind the scraggly tree?
The street sign: Żydowska.
Where else to put your synagogue but on Jew Street?
If that old sign seems grim, there’s also a new, nicer one:
This is an informational plaque about Jew Street put up by the Municipal Roads Management authority in or after 2004. It was written by two art historians, Zofia Kurzawa and Andrzej Kusztelski, co-authors of a guidebook called “Historical Churches of Poznań” (Historyczne kościoły Poznania). The logo “SIM” stands for “System Informacji Miejskiej” (Urban Information System). The plaque says:
Jew Street. The street took shape in the 13th century during the planning of left-bank Poznań. From the 15th century, it was known as “Sukiennicza” [street of clothing or dresses] or “Żydowska” [Jewish street]. In this district of the Old Town was a neighborhood settled by a Jewish population in the Middle Ages. The extension of the street comes from the period when, after the great fire in the town in 1803, the street was planned out anew.
Close by the Synagogue, we find a very new hipster restaurant specializing in meat.
You can tell they’re hip because everything is in English.
And their newest sandwich offering?
Pastrami. Aaron Lebedeff, rejoice.
The Jewishness of that sandwich is, to be sure, somewhat diluted by its menu-mate, the BLT.
Neither of those are Polish sandwiches.
Let’s keep walking.
Here’s the Chimera Restaurant and Tea Room, which has thrived since the 90s in a fine Art Nouveau building.
See the street signs to the left and right of the door?
This is the intersection of Jew Street with Dominican Street.
I am a Dominican. I sometimes intersect with Jews.
Let’s see what’s down that street.
It’s the Dominican church.
Well, formerly Dominican. The first church on this site was finished around 1253, but it has been modified many times since. The Dominicans were chased out by Prussian authorities in 1833. Since 1920 the Jesuits have been in charge.
Go through the Gothic portal and you have a perfectly nice Polish sanctuary with many Baroque flourishes.
From the pulpit bulging out of a column on the left, my Dominican fore-brothers preached.
In the Order of Preachers, a pulpit is sacred. Or at least very close to one’s heart.
One wonders as one wanders back to Jew Street what was said from this pulpit about the neighbors.
And then, just a few more paces down Jew Street, you run into this structure.
And you need wonder no longer.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is a 300-year-old monument to perfidy:
It’s a church finished in 1704, built over and around a townhouse going back to (perhaps) the 14th century.
The address is 34 Jew Street.
The place is officially called The Church of the Most Holy Blood of the Lord Jesus.
The thing was carefully restored over the past decade, inside and out, with funds from the European Union’s Regional Development Fund. And here are the gorgeous hi-res 360° panoramic pictures to prove it.
But look above the main altar. What’s on the ceiling?
In the ovule at the top of this photo, villains lean over a table and stab wafers with knives. They are desecrating the host — one of the holiest things possible — the flat bread consecrated at Mass that Catholics believe contains the real presence of Christ.
Behind them crouches the Devil.
The evil-doers are, of course, the neighbors.
(A set of crystal-clear photos by Piotr Skórnicki of this “art” can be found here.)
The pious history tells how, in 1399, a group of Poznań Jews — wanting to see if the wafers were indeed, in the Church’s phrase, “the Body of Christ” — decided to bribe a poor Polish woman to steal three hosts from the Dominican church down the block. One version of the story says she smuggled the hosts out in her mouth.
Once she turned them over and, like Judas, received her silver, the Jews trundled the hosts down to the basement of their tenement (now transformed into this church) and stabbed them with sharp knives.
And then: a miracle! The hosts gushed blood. The blood spurted into the face of a Jewish girl who had been blind from birth. Suddenly, she could see.
The Jews were terrified. They tried to drown the hosts in a well that was there in the cellar. The water was tinted red by the blood, but — to their horror — the hosts did not sink. They rose up glowing over the well like a trio of flying saucers.
(There’s a brand new website promoting this sanctuary and telling exactly this tale.)
That’s not the end of the story, but to access the rest we need to walk farther down Jew Street.
But first, let’s go down into that basement. We can, you know.
Every week on Thursday at 6 PM, there’s a special mass in the lower church — a sub-sanctuary formed out of the actual cellar where the evil deed was done. We happen to be here on Thursday.
You access it through this little door to the left of the main entrance.
Right inside the door is a plaque from the 19th century. Notice the sign of three hosts atop the inscription.
In the Polish of the 19th century, the plaque says “Wtej tu dolnej kaplicy dawniej domu Świdwów kłuto i topiono r. 1399 Przenajświętsze trzy Hostye. Od wchodu pomiędzy pierwszemi filarami stał ołtarz do roku 1863 zkąd na studzienkę przeniesiony został,” or, in translation:
In this lower chapel, formerly the home of the Świdwa family, were stabbed and drowned three Most Holy Hosts. An altar stood between the first pillars from the entrance until the year 1863, from whence it was moved to its present place over the well.
And then in the semi-darkness we creep down the steep and curling stairway…
… toward a cacophony of old folks chanting out the rosary in imperfect unison. These are the warmup prayers before the main event.
We enter upon this subterranean shrine, also recently restored and beautifully lit. The old ladies are praying in full swing. But it’s not all old ladies.
Genuflecting respectfully before the tabernacle, we slip behind the main altar and, to the left, find this:
A table of empty plastic water bottles.
The box for donations.
Clanking in our five zloty coin, we proceed to a filigreed spigot in the back wall. It’s marked not just “holy water” but “miraculous water.”
We fill our little bottle.
This is the faucet from which one fills a plastic bottle with water. The sign in Polish rhymes like a nursery ditty. A loose translation would be
From the well in which Your Body was drowned
Many sick folks their health have found
But most of all we ask you, Lord
For health of soul to be restored.
And ask they might.
This faucet dispenses water from the famous well. And all that water was made miraculous because of the hosts the Jews tossed into it. People take it home and drink it or smear it on aching spines or knees or pour it into rheumy eyes.
Turn around, and — sprouting out of the back of the altar — we have the well itself.
A bird lurks over it. The sign of the three hosts — again — is behind it.
The hole down into the well is covered by a wooden lid. It is opened but once a year on Holy Saturday, at which time the public is granted direct access to the holy well itself. Lines run out the door and people bring empty Coke bottles and gallon drums to scoop up the stuff.
The pulley that lowers the bucket is held up by a metal brace in the shape of a pelican’s heard. The pelican is a totem of self-sacrifice and symbol of the Eucharist. This bird looks mildly peeved at our presence.
Before Mass begins, we genuflect again and get out of the cellar.
A few yards more, and we’re down to the end of Jew Street.
This is where Jew Street intersects with Wielka (Great) Street and opens up onto Old Town Square. We see Town Hall. But our journey is not done. Passing in a straight line along one side of the square and out the other end…
We come to the corner of Wodna (Water) and Świętosławska (“Saints-be-praised”) Streets and run smack into this bright pink building:
This is the Jesuit church, the Fara Poznańska or (more officially) the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Saint Mary Magdalene.
The church is visible far down at the end of Jew Street, from the Great Synagogue where we began our journey. A big pink threat.
It was consecrated in 1705, a year after construction on the Church of the Most Holy Blood was finished.
And here is Saint Ignatius, the first Jesuit, riding an eagle in the middle of the facade. There is also, behind the Saint, a snake.
We go around the back to Podgórna Street.
We see the former Jesuit College.
It was from this college that, according to my 1972 edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica, students organized attacks on the Jews of the city. There’s a term for the practice — a German term, Schüler-Gelauf.
The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia adds: “These youths not only assaulted individual Jews whom they met on the streets, but they organized themselves into bands, invading and pillaging the Jewish quarters. Such disturbances were of frequent occurrence in cities which possessed large Jewish populations, as Brest-Litovsk, Cracow, Posen [Poznań], and Wilna; and the riots often ended in bloodshed. …The authorities tolerated and even encouraged such affairs; and, in order to protect their lives and property, the Jews had to contribute annually to the various Jesuit institutions.”
The neoclassical grounds of the college are now called Chopin Park. No dogs allowed.
I will permit myself to translate this No Dogs sign literally to give you a sense of its lourdeur: “Out of awareness of the necessity of the protection of precious and rare plants, we beg of the non-leading of dogs onto the terrain of the park.”
We head down another 550 yards via Strzelecka (Rifleman’s) Street. We are getting closer to the wetlands on the banks of the Warta (or Warthe) River. We are getting down to what was once a swamp.
Why are we out this way? We’re following in the footsteps of the Jews. A 500-year-old stone tablet in Latin, translated especially for this post, tells the story. You’ll see the whole inscription in a minute.
Remember the Jews’ failed attempt to drown the hosts they had tortured in a well in the cellar? Remember their panic? Well, they went on the run.
As we walk down Strzelecka, we are running with them.
The tablet says:
“[The Jews] were astonished and hurried to try to hide the crime. They wrapped the hosts in a shroud and carried them out of the city through the [surrounding] camp and plunged them into a swamp. A lame man begging for charity at the city gate was healed as they passed by.”
Of course their second attempt failed, too.
“On Sunday… the hosts were raised to the surface [of the swamp-mud] …. They were spotted by a shepherd and a small child. Their cows went down on their knees and adored [the hosts].
“… The matter was reported to the Senate. [The Bishop] came along with the clergy. The chaste priest John picked the hosts up, and they were carried out in procession and installed in the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. But by the power of God the hosts flew out of there and returned to the place they had been found [that is, the swamp]. This is why a chapel was erected [on this site]. Then Władysław, pious King of the family Jagiełło, established [on the site of the earlier chapel] a royal house of worship.”
We pass a pokey post-Communist primary school.
In the background, that “royal house of worship.” The king in question is Władysław II Jagiełło, whose face is still on Polish money.
Construction was started here about 1407.
Past the school…
We arrive at the gate of the church.
Pass under the inscription…
(On the gate, in 19th century Polish spelling, we see a citation from the Book of Genesis (28:17), “Nie jest tu inszego nic iedno dom Boży a brama niebieska” – “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”)
… go on through…
… down the old stone lane…
… up to the church’s portal.
It’s a fine Gothic number…
… befitting the memory of the king who founded the place.
At the time, these glazed bricks were really the thing.
We go through.
It’s a vast place.
Above entrance, frescoes on the vault:
We know how dangerous frescoes can be.
Notice again the symbol of the three hosts. This time, they’re flying up in a cloud of radiance toward Heaven. Some putti adore them.
On a column near the door: a black stone tablet with letters carved deep into it and rimmed in gold leaf. This tablet, probably from the 15th century, tells us why we’re here. The letters shine because someone has recently re-gilded them.
An approximate translation of the Latin is:
In the Year of the Lord 1399, Christ, in [the form of] the venerable sacrament, was again delivered up to the Jews in this place by a maid-servant of Christian name, who, on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the oratory of the Preachers, when no one else was there, proceeded to the altar. Three times she was overcome with fear and turned back, but [finally] she went up and opened the Tabernacle. She wrapped three small hosts in her clothing and went out in secret. She brought them out for the Jews gathered on Świdnicka street. [The Jews] went to check the hosts. They threw them on a table, and with knives cut apart and pierced the hosts. At this, [the host] dripped holy blood and flew onto a female Hebrew who was blind from birth, healing her.
Those around were astonished and hurried to try to hide the crime. They wrapped the hosts in a shroud and carried them out of the city through the [surrounding] camp and plunged them into a swamp. A lame man begging for charity at the city gate was healed as they passed by. A dying man came back to life and cried out that Christ was being crucified again. On Sunday in the octave [it is not clear what octave, perhaps of Easter] the hosts were raised to the surface [of the swamp-mud] by the power of God. [The hosts] were spotted by a shepherd and a small child. The cattle went down on their knees and adored [the hosts]. The matter was reported to the Senate. Bishop Albert Z. came along with the clergy. The chaste priest John picked the hosts up, and they were carried out in procession and installed in the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. But by the power of God the hosts went out of there and returned to the place they had been [i.e., the swamp].
This is why a chapel was erected [on this site]. But then Władysław, pious King of the family Jagiełło, established this royal house of worship, in which the above-mentioned hosts are cared for by the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom the same pious King brought here from Germany. Diseased people are restored to health, the blind receive sight, the dead come back to life. This is a place more sacred than others, adorned with God’s presence and with numerous miracles.
(Thanks to my fellow Dominican Fr. A.P. for working out this approximate translation from my photograph.)
We head down the nave, the grand centre aisle of the church.
What is that white structure smack in the middle, looking like Madame Pompadour’s washer-dryer?
It’s a fragment of what was once a larger altar, made in — need I say? — the 18th century.
Its placement is totally atypical: smack in the middle of the floor.
Not very Catholic.
This sacred commode marks the spot where once the hosts were found. This church was built — an incredible headache for its architects — right over the primeval swamp.
And this altar is right over the spot where the perfidious Jews plunged the Body of Christ into the mud.
Look under the table:
You don’t need to know Latin to get the message now.
Three fair-sized wooden dolls crouch down around what looks like an open manhole.
We are the only ones in church, and it’s getting dark.
What gnomes are lurking here?
We shine a light.
Not gnomes, Jews. Three recently-fixed-up statues.
Poor Jews, they thought they could rid themselves of the evidence of their deed. And now they’re immortalized as an ethnically-insensitive extension of the American Girl collection.
There in the handkerchief are the three bruised hosts, shining like new pennies or the chocolate gelt you see at Chanukah.
The men look frightened.
The Jew on the left reaches for his comrade’s shoulder with one hand while stroking his beard with the other.
It’s a humane rendering. Considering.
That’s the end of the trip. It’s time to head back to the tram stop with my little bottle of miraculous water.
Now: I could mention that accusations of host desecration were made against Jews all over Europe, especially in the 13th through 16th centuries, and so Poznań, or Poland generally, is not unique. (There’s a whole Wikipedia entry on it.)
I could talk about the quite heroic Archbishop of this diocese, the Most Reverend Stanisław Gądecki, who for years has been a true supporter of Jewish-Christian dialogue; whose staff organizes a full week of Jewish education for Catholics every year. In 2005, he removed one of the most offensive inscriptions from the Church of the Precious Blood — one that calls for God to “blast and extirpate this deceitful nation” — and put it in a museum. He caught flak for that. Good for him.
Then again, I could talk about the nun who, in summer of 2015, helped run an “urban scavenger hunt” to “educate” middle schoolers about what happened at the Church of the Precious Blood. When a Jewish-Christian group protested, she said to the press: “If a child does something wrong, we don’t rush to say the child is necessarily bad. This desecration of the host by members of the Jewish nation does not mean all Jews are evil. I’ve read various writings of the rabbis, and I am impressed by their wisdom. … For me, [arguments against this devotion to the desecrated hosts] are a manifestation of Christianophobia. What right have others to try to restrict our right to believe a Eucharistic miracle happened here — especially considering that there is evidence of this, the best of which is the fact that a church was built on this spot? If [the critics] have evidence that this never happened, let them show it to the Archbishop.”
And again, I could cite Alicja Kobus, the head of the tiny local Jewish community, who hopes that explanatory displays will be placed outside of these churches to soften the anti-Jewish wallop.
Or I could quote the ambivalent professor of history from the local university, author of a book of Jewish history, who — asked by a reporter whether these events are a mere fable — shrugs and says, “From chronicles created by a town scribe, we learn that, in 1399, some riots and tumult did take place in the Jewish Quarter — but that’s all. Their causes and effects are not noted, nor does the scribe say whether Jews were involved at all — though that seems very probable. … The main source of our knowledge about the legend of the three hosts is the work of [the priest] Tomasz Treter, but that was written 200 years after the fact. We do not know what sources he used.” He adds: “Whether the legend had a basis in fact, we shall never know.”
Back in the tram, I’m tired.
Tired and queasy and a little bit angry.
For a Catholic priest — me! — the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is something of utmost holiness. I consecrate the bread at the altar, bringing God into the midst of the faithful. I distribute the blessed wafers to the congregation — actually placing them with my fingers, one at a time, on their little pink tongues; announcing to each one and everyone, “the Body of Christ.” (They respond: “Amen.”)
I know that actual instances of host desecration do happen — not necessarily by Jews. Further: I attest that any effort by the faithful to expiate such a crime — say, by building a church on the site of the deed — is laudable.
I also think it’s sinful to laugh at believers; it’s churlish to mock old pious traditions. It’s not nice to snigger at granny.
And I know it’s easy (some might say cheap) to win points in a Jewish paper as a self-critical Catholic.
All the same, I just can’t believe that the Jews were guilty here in Poznań. The perverse economic interests in this story are, to me, all too clear: in drawing in fresh pilgrims to the Carmelites’ new sanctuary; in erasing debts; in confiscating Jewish property by violent riot. The spurs to creative slander were sharp.
More than that: the idea that Jews would be so fascinated by what was, to them, only a pile of crackers suggests to me that Catholics hatched this story — and awfully self-infatuated Catholics at that.
Beyond that, I have a problem believing in flying, glowing, bleeding wafers. And genuflecting cattle. (Lucky for me, the Church does not require Catholics to believe in extra-Biblical miracles.)
But most of all the whole thing seems hafuch. And that’s where the anger comes in. If it is true that this story is nothing but a libel — something some Catholics cooked up to smear Jews — then it is the Catholics, not the Jews, who committed desecration.
And we — if it is a libel — desecrate the hosts still today, again and again, as we print labels for the plastic water-bottles; as we re-gild the damning inscriptions on the clammy stone and touch up the paint on the drooping noses of the clutch of crouching dollies.
Hafuch: that of which we accuse our neighbor, we ourselves may have done. And may be doing. Hafuch: the sanctuary stands on a swamp.
And the truth? Maybe someday the blood will fly into our blinded eyes and we’ll see it.