A Printed Wall Hanging

A Printed Wall Hanging

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Printed in black and red on undyed cotton, inscribed, titled and dated in German and Hebrew, including a poem in German at the corners. This textile, recently attributed to Hermann Junker (1838–1899), depicts a scene that apparently never took place, but which German Jews embraced as truth. It shows Jewish soldiers in full military uniform and prayer shawls gathered in a valley outside the besieged city of Metz during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). The soldiers face a small mound upon which stands a wooden ark, in front of which a cantor leads the Yom Kippur service. On a hill overlooking the service, Christian soldiers guard their Jewish peers from attack. This portrayal of Jewish soldiers enjoying freedom of religious expression and overt support from their Christian cohort was widely reproduced to support feelings of patriotism among German Jews. The German text incorporated into the border explicitly promotes this feeling of unity and comradery. Furthermore, the involvement of their non-Jewish compatriots makes clear that this service was sanctioned by the military. The text describes the Jewish soldiers feeling emboldened, unwavering, and ready for battle after the conclusion of the service. The poem’s portrayal of empowerment of the Jewish soldiers and their strengthened sense of duty directly connects service to their country with several things the Jewish community desired—religious tolerance, equality, and unity with their Christian neighbors. The links between the Jews’ patriotic role and their empowerment suggests that the textile might have been produced in a deliberate effort to inspire patriotism. That this image was widely reproduced and accepted, despite firsthand accounts of its inaccuracy, is evidence of how successful and powerful it was in both depicting and inspiring patriotism among Jewish Germans. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, a scholar and Reform Jewish leader who passed away at age 99 in 2012, provided more facts about the picture. In fact, he called it a "fraud." His book is “Eight Decades: The Selected Writings of W. Gunther Plaut”. In a chapter entitled "The Yom Kippur that Never Was, A Pious Pictoral Fraud" he wrote: “Of all the things in my grandfather's house, I remember most vividly a large print. It was entitled "Service on the Day of Atonement by the Israelite soldiers before Metz 1870." Later I was to learn that this print hung in many Jewish homes.... It was reproduced on postcards, on cloth, and on silk scarves. The basic theme was the same: in an open field before Metz, hundreds of Jewish soldiers were shown at prayer.” Rabbi Plaut cites a participant in the service who reported: “A considerable difficulty arose in relation to the place for the services. Open air services were deemed impossible for Tuesday night because of the darkness and were ruled out for Wednesday because of the obvious reasons [it was a battlefield].... My immediate neighbor was willing to grant me the use of his room so that the service took place in our two adjoining rooms.” Rabbi Plaut cites a participant in the service who reported: “Of the 71 Jewish soldiers in the Corps some 60 had appeared. Amongst them were several physicians, a few members of the military government, all of them joyously moved to celebrate Yom Kippur. The place of prayer consisted of two small rooms.” Another example of this wall hanging is on display at the Jewish Museum of Berlin. This wall hanging is featured on the front cover of the book “Die Juden in Deutschland von der Römerzeit bis zur Weimarer Republik”, by Nachum Gidal.

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