BERLIN, Nov. 17 (JTA) — Members of a Protestant church here are asking God’s forgiveness for a crime committed against Jews nearly five centuries ago.
Before some 300 worshipers and guests at Berlin’s Marien Church on Wednesday, the Rev. Ulf Lunow atoned for the events of 1510, when 35 Jews were burned to death.
He also reminded his parishioners not to remain silent when faced with intolerance today.
In the summer of 1510, the Jews were executed at the church on charges of having desecrated a Communion wafer and using the blood of a Christian child to celebrate Passover — the infamous blood libel myth invoked as grounds for countless pogroms against Jews.
The names of the murdered Jews — all men and boys — were read aloud, echoing through the church’s vaulted chambers.
“The world is certainly not yet a perfect place,” said Berlin Rabbi Walter Rothschild, who during the ceremony chanted prayers of mourning in Hebrew. “But with the reading of these 35 names, it is a little better.”
The program — which included Jewish and Christian prayers, as well as songs in Hebrew and Yiddish — was inspired by Salomea Genin, a Jewish Berliner who returned to the city of her childhood after World War II.
Genin had noticed a “very heavy atmosphere” in the church while attending a cultural program three years ago.
Others reported experiencing the same heaviness, said Genin, who then remembered what had happened there in 1510.
“I said, ‘My God, these souls are still cleaving to this church. What they needed was for someone to say they were sorry.’ ”
The events of nearly half a millennium ago began after a ritual object was stolen from another church. The man who was accused of having stolen it said he had sold a Communion wafer to a Jew.
As a result, 38 Jews were given the death penalty. Three converted to Christianity in hopes of saving their lives. Two of those were put to death by the sword on July 20, 1510, the day after the others were burned.
One Jew was pardoned. He spent the rest of his days in a monastery, where he worked as an eye doctor, Genin said.
Genin said Lunow supported the idea of having a service of atonement, but his superiors balked at the idea two years ago.
“They said it happened before the Protestant Reformation, when this was a Catholic church. So we should go to the Catholics,” Genin said. “Rev. Lunow tried again this year and convinced them.”
Lunow, meanwhile, said his parishioners sometimes complain about being reminded of a far more recent crime — the Holocaust.
Some ask, for example, why they should have to pay reparations nearly 55 years after the end of the war, he said.
It seemed therefore appropriate that the service of atonement coincided with the latest round of slave-labor compensation talks in Bonn.
Lunow said it was shameful that so few German firms were taking part in the fund.
“I find it good that the Americans — and the Jews in America — continue to put their finger in this wound,” he added.
“I feel that there is relief,” said Genin after the service. “And I have the strong suspicion that the atmosphere will be much lighter when I come back here.”