Anti-Semitic expressions in the arts can nearly be traced back to the dawn of Christianity.  Shakespeare’s Shylock, from The Merchant of Venice, manifested Elizabethan attitudes of a stereotypical Jew demanding a “pound of flesh” for unpaid debts.  Critics have long debated the extent  of anti-Semitism in the play, but even the most resistant critics have admitted that, at the least, the character has the outline of anti-Semitic stereotypes.[1] The Nazis certainly thought so and utilized the play for their own means in an extreme, notorious production staged at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1943. That play starred German actor Werner Krauss in the role of Shylock. Krauss had also starred in the unsettling Nazi propaganda film, “Jew Suess” which was a box office hit in Germany and inspired mob violence against many Jews upon its release.

“Jew Suess” (1940) was one of many anti-Semitic films produced in Germany during the Nazi regime, but in the medium of film the latent seeds of depicted racist attitudes began in the silent film era, especially in films immediately following the end of the first world war.  Germany was hardly alone in expressions of anti-Semitism in film. The French surrealist Georges Melies made several short films at the turn of the century which had blatant anti-Semitic tones. The most notorious of these was “The Wandering Jew” (1904). The expressionistic cardboard shore of the Dead Sea is vividly juxtaposed against the stereotypical, cursed Jew, forced to wander throughout eternity for having refused water to the suffering Christ. The ghostly image of Christ, followed by nuns as he carries his cross on the way to Calvary, fills the painted sky, tormenting the forever wandering Jew. Satan appears in  a vivid forest and beats the Jew with his own staff when the wanderer stops for a rest. An angel appears and points the way onward, ever onward. The last expressionist set of a hillside is filled with lightning as the Wanderer presses forward in his never ending, cursed journey.

The Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel once said, “film is a beautiful weapon.”  [2] German cinema certainly took Bunuel at his literal word. Bunuel hardly meant, nor could have imagined, film as a medium for anti-Semitic weaponry. Even though Germany had notable Jewish filmmakers, such as Fritz Lang, Arian German filmmakers utilized the new medium to fan the flames of cultural paranoia regarding the Jews, especially in numerous expressionist horror films, such as F.W. Murnau’s  famous “Nosferatu” (1922) which depicted a hooked-nosed, loathsome vampire out to drain Europe of blood and finance. While the vampire was not labeled Jewish, his countenance was clearly a Jewish caricature who emptied Arian Germans of their blood and brought the plague into civilized Europe (The myth still persisted that grave-robbing Jews had spread the black plague). That film followed on heels of Paul Wegener’s “The Golem” (1920).

Paul Wegener made three film versions of “The Golem.” The first two are now lost and it is the third version which is known to historians today. “The Golem” has been simultaneously labeled as film of Semitic sympathies and as an anti-Semitic film. Wegner later made anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi films for Hitler and this is an undeniable factor in assessing “The Golem” as an example of ant-Semitism in German film.

In her essay of “The Golem” Cathy Gelbin writes, “The term Golem first appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Psalm 139:16 it connotes a shapeless mass, perhaps an embryo, while a derivative of the root in Isaiah 49:21 refers to female infertility. Medieval Jewish mystics adopted the term to describe an artificial man created via Cabbalistic ritual. A Polish-Jewish folk-tale tradition centered around the creation of a Golem arose around 1600 and made its way into German literary Romanticism two hundred years later. Writing in the age of Jewish emancipation, Christian authors such as Achim von Arnim, ETA Hoffmann and others used the Golem to reflect the common perception of Jews as uncanny and corrupt.”[3]

In “The Golem”, the Christian Emperor, waxing resentment towards the Jews, decides to expel them. He posts a large sign ordering them to leave for “Killing Our Lord and Savior.” In panic, the ghetto Jews go to Rabbi Lowe for help. Rabbi Lowe , black magician that he is, conjures up a Golem, through sorcery, to protect his Jews from the Christians. Of course, the Golem goes berserk, even killing the Rabbi’s Jews until an Arian girl removes the star of David from the Golem’s chest, killing him.

Siegfried Kracauer writes, “The resentful Golem reflects Germans’ grudge against their international ostracism after World War I, and anticipating the rise of the Nazi dictatorship.  [4] While “The Golem” does refrain from depicting Jews as money grubbing zealots, it succumbs to negative Christian associations of Jews with sorcery. The film also clearly draws a negative portrayal of Jewish women, “Anti-Jewish stereotypes mark the portrayal of Miriam as the dark and seductive Jewish woman, while Christian women at the court shy away from the Golem’s advances. Even more strongly, the blonde girls at the end of the film signify. The polarity between the images of Jewish and Christian women is blatant. Outside the ghetto walls, the Golem sees a mother and child bringing flowers to a statue of the Virgin Mary and her baby Jesus. The Jewish woman thus exemplifies the destructive allure of the female sex unless restrained by Christian chastity, domesticity and maternity. The soulless Golem equally contrasts with the naturalized image of mother and child who are bathed in light and aligned with the Christian world. This construction evokes the claim by Tertullian that “the soul is by nature Christian,” an assertion still cited in the Twentieth Century.”[5]

In 1940, Germany produced the film, “The Eternal Jew.” If the anti-Semitism in “The Golem” could be debated as being ambiguous, no such questioning could be attached to “The Eternal Jew.” This film, along with the afore mentioned “Jew Suess”, from the same year, was blatant hate propaganda. A typical, telling review was from the Nazi Party’s monthly propaganda paper,  Unser Wille und Weg, “ The Eternal Jew not only gives a full picture of Jewry, but provides a broad treatment of the life and effects of this parasitic race using genuine material taken from real life. It shows why healthy peoples in every age have responded to the Jews with disgust and loathing. Just like rats, the Jews moved from the Middle East to Egypt. In large hordes they migrated from there to the Promised Land, flooded the Mediterranean region, broke into Spain, France, and Germany. Along the way they remained eternal parasites, haggling and cheating. Poland above all became the enormous reservoir from which Jewry sent its agents to every leading nation of the world. All that is overshadowed by the powerful examples in this new, most valuable film, The Eternal Jew. This film with its persuasive power must be shown everywhere. No one will fail to shudder at the sneaking servility and dirty bartering of the Jews when they reach their goal and control finance. The most revolting scenes show Jewish slaughtering methods. These customs are so terrible that it is hard to watch the film as the grinning Jewish butchers carry out their work. It is illuminating to see how stubbornly Jewry holds to its method of slaughter and with which casuistry it defends it against the horror of the civilized world. Rarely will people feel more horror than which watching the desperate and horrible death struggle of the slaughtered animals. Long before the seizure of power, the NSDAP fought against Jewish slaughter. National Socialist representatives in parliament repeatedly introduced legislation to abolish this form of animal torture through a ban on Jewish slaughter. Such proposals were always rejected, since the entire Jewish and Jewish-influenced press ran long articles against them and the so-called German parties refused to support National Socialism in its battle against this evil.”[6]

Calling out and addressing Anti-Semitism was not tolerated, even here in the states. Charlie Chaplin, possibly the most beloved figure in cinema history, finally made his Tramp speak and it was in “The Great Dictator.” (1938). Chaplin later said that if he had known the extent of loss in Hitler’s Germany, he could not have made the film, but Chaplin, who had a Jewish half-brother, felt driven to confront the rise of Fascism. He paid for his ruthless parody of Hitler, who we had not yet gone to war with. “The Great Dictator” was booed, cherry bombed, and ridiculed. J. Edgar began a crusade to kick Chaplin out of the country, which he succeeded in doing, and labeled Chaplin a communist sympathizer. Like the Nazis, American wanted romantic escapism in their art and entertainment. They did not want to be confronted with the horrors of the world. Chaplin eventually wound up in Switzerland. He made a few more films in Europe, but the Tramp was dead, killed by “The Great Dictator.”

Aggressive hostility towards Jews, through the arts, was not at all limited to the medium of film. The most notorious example of this was the infamous “Entartete Kunst”, the “Degenerate Art” show in 1937. The Nazis had purged German museums for an extensive list of art labeled “degenerate.” Most of the art was by Jewish artists, such as Marc Chagall, Franz Marc, August Macke, Max Beckmann, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Otto Dix, Ernst Kirchner, (who committed suicide shortly after the showing), Oscar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, Jean Miro, Egon Friedell (who threw himself out of a window)and Kurt Schwitters, among others. Hitler singled out the Jews for their “modern, vulgar, and foreign influences on the arts.” [7]German art was supposed to be rooted in romantic classicism. Pathos of the human condition, in art, was immediately labeled “degenerate.” 650 works were put on display. The exhibit opened in Munich and traveled to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria. In each installation, the works were poorly hung and surrounded by graffiti mocking the artists and their work. In much of the graffiti, Jewish were intensely mocked. One such sign read, “Cretin and whore- An insult to German women.”[8]   Over three million visitors attended the exhibit. Many ridiculed the art and spat on it. After the show some of the works were sold, mostly to Switzerland (Switzerland refused Paul Klee citizenship, after he fled there, on the grounds that he was a degenerate artist). However, much of the work, over five thousand canvases, were burned in the Berlin bonfire in 1938.

Of course, music from Jewish composers was also banned. Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (both fled to Hollywood and became celebrated film score composers), were among the list of composers whose work was labeled “entartete musik.” Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa were two Jewish composers who were murdered, on the same day, at Auschwitz, in October 1944. Despite the horrific conditions, Haas and Krasa managed to secretly continue composing during their internment. Remarkably, Haas wrote a life-affirming pastorale string quartet titled, “From the Monkey Mountain” during his imprisonment. When this music was finally released on compact disc in 1990, Jim Svjeda, of the Record Shelf guide wrote, “This music of Haas and Krasa is among the most sublime and jubilant music produced during the Holocaust. It is among the most heart-breaking of the Entartete Musik yet released.” [9]

Arnold Schonberg, the leader of the Second Viennese School, was among the most famous of the Jewish artists who fled Germany. Schonberg had earlier converted to the Lutheran faith, through the influence of his Christian wife,  but re-embraced his Jewish heritage with the rise of Nazism. In reflecting back on his former Christianity, Schoenberg showed no hostility towards that faith or the symbolism of its founder, “Jesus, as a redeemer, must have been the most selfless and idealistic being who ever walked the face of the earth.”[10]

Despite his conversion at the time, Schoenberg was not immune to anti-Semitism. He lamented that his friend, the painter Wassily Kandinsky, who was the leader of the Blue Riders, which had included the Jewish Franz Marc and Auguste Macke, was not immune to the anti-Semitic fervor of Europe. In a letter, Schoenberg wrote, “Even Kandinsky sees only what is evil in the activities of the Jews and in their evil activities only what is Jewish.”[11]

In a letter to Kandinsky, Schoenberg proclaimed “I am no longer European, I am no longer German, perhaps scarcely even a human being.  I am but a Jew without a home and without a voice.”[12] Schoenberg had written an earlier play, “The Bible Way” in 1926, which was a response to European anti-Semitism. In 1932, Schoenberg began composing a three act, twelve tone opera, “Moses und Aron.” Only two acts of the opera were completed and the work ends after the second act. Schoenberg had applied for a grant to finish the opera, but was turned down by the Guggenheim Fellowship (which regularly dolls out grants to hacks), and was never able to finish the work. Still, even in its abbreviated form, it is a powerful, metaphoric opera which has become close to a standard in the operatic repertoire.

In the opera, Moses has a terrible speech impediment and is forced to rely on his brother Aron, to be his mouthpiece. In this Schonberg stuck to the biblical narrative. Where Schoenberg departs from the text (which, in immense struggle, he found to be riddled with ‘unworkable’ inconsistencies) is in the developing relationship and eventual outcome in the relationship between the two brothers. Moses is frustrated because Aron cannot fully convey Moses’ expressions. Theirs is a theological dispute and it is one in which Schoenberg, as Moses, is self-critical because it is Aron who give the better argument. Moses is vehemently opposed to the divine expressed in imagery, yet Aron argues that the tablets, presented by Moses, are an image and the pillar of smoke, meant to keep the Egyptians at bay, was an image. After the frenzied orgy of the golden calf, Moses is forced to imprison and execute Aron. In essence, Moses kills his own voice.  This is densely symbolic for Schoenberg’s own silencing, as a Jewish composer. In addition to the Nazi persecution, Schoenberg was embittered over the lack of support from Christian friends and colleagues, and the rejection form a Jewish institute to fund his opera. In frustration, Schoenberg, dejected, abandoned the opera, never finishing the third act. It was not until many years later that “Moses und Aron’ was performed in European Opera Houses. Even after the war, the opera proved provocative. Miriam Scherchen, daughter of the conductor Hermann Scherchen, related how, in the mid 1950s, Italian fascists disrupted her father’s performance of “Moses und Aron” which resulted in smoke bombing the opera, her father being badly beaten and his car vandalized.

Perhaps most devastating, haunting, and poignant of all is the Holocaust art, produced by Jews of the concentration camps. Much of that art was produced by Jewish children, “Realistically depicted guards, funerals, the departing transports, and the shooting of the German soldiers were reflected in the art of the boys. Little girls often focused on images of their past childhood years in freedom, filled with the joy of the sun, with children playing, families gathering at meal time, gardens and meadows filled with flowers and butterflies. Boys and girls made sketches of friends and often finished with heart-breaking poems. These sketches give us a glimpse of children’s tragic years, often filled with the hope of staying alive.” [13 Janusz Korczak was an author of childrens books. Having once been an orphan himself, Korczak ran an orphanage for Jewish children. When Korczak and his children were captured, a guard recognized Korczak as the author of one of his children’s books and offered to help him escape. Korczak refused, insistent that he remain with his children. Korczak wrote, ” A child is a hundred masks, but he is not a wage earner, and being so dependent, he is forced to give away to our will.”[14] In August 1942, Korczak was marched, with his children into the box car. None were ever seen again. Israel Bernbaum, a fellow prisoner (and survivor), painted the scene, titled “My Brother’s Keeper” and related,  “Dr. Korczak walked with a child in each hand; the eyes of the children looked for his support and courage. On the long road from the train station, Dr. Korczak told the children that they were going to a school outing. Two days before he and his children were murdered at Treblinka, Dr. Korczak wrote that he did not exist to be loved, but to love and to act.” [15]

Thousands of drawings from Jewish adults have surfaced from the camp of Buchenwald, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and the other death camps. Names of these artists (that are known) should be honored;  Carl Hofer, Otto Pankok, Felix Nussbaum, Karl Schwesig, Boris Taslitzky, Charlotte Salomon, Otto Freundlich(whose art graced the cover of the catalogue for the Entartete Kunst show), Leo Haas, Bedrich Frida,  Otto Unger, Karl Fleischmann, Charlotte Buresova,  Jan Burka, Israel Lajzerowicz, Ether Lurie, and many more, of course. Exploration of this art is beyond the scope and limit of this paper, but it deserves to be seen, written about and seared into our memories.


John Baxter. Bunuel. New York: Carrol and Graffer, 1994

Nelly Toll. When Memory Speaks: The Holocaust in Art. Westport: Praeger, 1998

Bluma Goldstein. Reinscribing Moses. Boston: Harvard, 1992

Jim Svejda. Record Shelf Guide. Los Angeles: Prima, 1990.

Siegfried Kracauer. From Caligari to Hitler. New Jersey: Princeton University, 1947.

Stephanie Barron. Degenerate Art. Los Angeles: Harry Abrahms, 2004

[1] Janet Aldeman’s Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in the Merchant of Venice is a brave work of complex research. It is highly recommended.

[2] John Baxter. Bunuel. New York: Carrol and Graffer, 1994. 142

[3] Cathy Gelbin. Narratives of Transgression, From Jewish Folk Tales to German Cinema. KinoEye, Vol3, 13 Oct,

[4] Siegfried Kracauer. From Caligari to Hitler. New Jersey: Princeton University, 1947. 49

[5] Cathy Gelbin. Narratives of Transgression, From Jewish Folk Tales to German Cinema. KinoEye, Vol3, 13 Oct, 2003.

[6] German Propaganda Archive, Calvin Institute.

[7] Nelly Toll. When Memory Speaks: The Holocaust in Art. Westport: Praeger, 1998.30

[8] Stephanie Barron. Degenerate Art. Los Angeles: Harry Abrahms, 2004.182

[9] Jim Svejda. Record Shelf Guide. Los Angeles: Prima, 1990. 244

[10] Bluma Goldstein. Reinscribing Moses. Boston: Harvard, 1992, 138.

[11] ibid. 140

[12] ibid.

[13] Nelly Toll. When Memory Speaks: The Holocaust in Art. Westport: Praeger, 1998.41

[14] ibid. 43

[15] ibid. 43

One thought on “MOSES AND THE GOLEM

  1. Liked every bit of it. Informative and thought-provoking. Talking of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” the playwright gave Shylock (a man “more against than sinning”) one of the most memorable of all his dialogues:

    “He [Antonio] hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew: hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction” (III, i).

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