Simone Unverdorben, The False Martyr

Article by guestblogger La cara Pasifae

A little boy went out to play.
When he opened his door he saw the world.
As he passed through the doorway he caused a riflection.
Evil was born!
Evil was born and followed the boy.

(D. Lynch, Inland Empire, 2006)

It was a nice late-summer afternoon, in 2013. I remember well.
A friend had invited me to the opening of his latest exhibition. He had picked an unusual place for the event: an ancient and isolated parish church that stood high up on a hill, the church of Nanto. The building had been recently renovated, and it was open to the public only on specific occasions.
Once there, one immediately feels the urge to look around. The view is beautiful, but it pays the price of the impact the construction industry (I was almost about to say “architecture”) has had on the surroundings, with many industrial buildings covering the lanscapes of Veneto region like a tattoo. Better go inside and look at the paintings.

I was early for the opening, so I had the artist, his works and the entire exhibition area all for myself. I could walk and look around without any hurry, and yet I felt something disturbing my peace, something I couldn’t quite pin down at first:  it kind of wormed its way into my visual field, calling for attention. On a wall, as I was passing from one painted canvas to the next, I eventually spotted a sudden, indefinite blur of colors. A fresco. An image had been resting there well before the exhibition paintings were placed in front of it!

Despite the restoration, as it happens with many medieval and Renaissance frescoes, some elements were still confused and showed vanishing, vaporous outlines. But once in focus, an unsettling vision emerged: the fresco depicted a quite singular torture scene, the likes of which I had never encountered in any other artwork (but I wouldn’t want to pass as an expert on the subject).
Two female figures, standing on either side, were holding the arms of a blonde child (a young Christ, a child-saint, or a puer sacer, a sacred and mystical infant, I really couldn’t say). The kid was being tortured by two young men: each holding a stiletto, they were slicing the boy’s skin all over, and even his face seemed to have been especially brutalized.


Blood ran down the child’s bound feet into a receiving bowl, which had been specifically placed under the victim’s tormented limbs.

The child’s swollen face (the only one still clearly visible) had an ecstatic expression that barely managed to balance the horror of the hemorrhage and of the entire scene: in the background, a sixth male figure sporting a remarkable beard, was twisting a cloth band around the prisoner throat. The baby was being choked to death!

What is the story of this fresco? What tale does it really tell?
The five actors do not look like peasants; the instruments are not randomly chosen: these are thin, sharp, professional blades. The incisions on the victim’s body are too regular. Who perpetrated this hideous murder, who was the object of the resentment the author intended to elicit in the onlookers? Maybe the fresco was a representation — albeit dramatic and exaggerated — of a true crime. Should the choking, flaying and bleeding be seen as a metaphor for some parasitic exploitation, or do they hint at some rich and eccentric nobleman’s quirkiness? Is this a political allegory or a Sadeian chronicle?
The halo surrounding the child’s head makes him an innocent or a saved soul. Was this a homage, a flattering detail to exhalt the commissioner of this work of art? What character was meant to be celebrated here, the subjects on the sides who are carrying out a dreadful, but unavoidable task, or the boy at the center who looks so obscenely resigned to suffer their painful deeds? Are we looking at five emissaries of some brutal but rational justice as they perform their duties, or the misadventure of a helpless soul that fell in the hands of a ferocious gang of thugs?

At the bottom of the fresco, a date: «ADI ⋅ 3 ⋅ APRILE 1479».
This historical detail brought me back to the present. The church was already crowded with people.
I felt somehow crushed by the overload of arcane symbols, and the frustation of not having the adequate knowledge to interpret what I had seen. I furtively took a snapshot. I gave my host a warm farewell, and then got out, hoping the key to unlock the meaning of the fresco was not irretrievably lost in time.

As I discovered at the beginning of my research on this controversial product of popular iconography, the fresco depicts the martyrdom of Saint Simonino of Trent. Simone Unverdorben, a two-year-old toddler from Trent, disappeared on March 23, 1475. His body was found on Easter Day. It was said to have been mauled and strangled. In Northern Italy, in those years, antisemitic abuses and persecutions stemmed from the widely influential sermons of the clergy. The guilt for the heinous crime immediately fell upon the Trent Jewish community. All of its members had to endure one of the biggest trials of the time, being subjected to tortures that led to confessions and reciprocal accusations.

During the preliminary investigations of the Trent trial, a converted Jew was asked if the practice of ritual homicide of Christian toddlers existed within the Hebrew cult. […] The converted Jew, at the end of the questioning, confirmed with abundant details the practice of ritual sacrifice in the Jewish Easter liturgy.
Another testimony emerged from the interrogation of another of the alleged killers of the little Simone, the Jewish physician Tobia. He declared on the rack there was a commerce in Christian blood among Jews. A Jewish merchant called Abraam was said to have left Trent shortly before Simone’s death with the intention of selling Christian blood, headed to Feltre or Bassano, and to have asked around which of the two cities was closer to Trent. Tobia’s confession took place under the terrifying threat of being tortured and in the desperate attempt to avoid it: he therefore had to be cooperative to the point of fabrication; but it was understood that his testimony, whenever made up, should be consistent and plausible.
[…] Among the others, another converted man named Israele (Wolfgang, after converting) was  also interrogated under torture. He declared he had heard about other cases of ritual murders […]. These instances of ritual homicides were inventions whose protagonists had names that came from the interrogee’s memory, borrowed to crowd these fictional stories in a credible way.

(M. Melchiorre, Gli ebrei a Feltre nel Quattrocento. Una storia rimossa,
in Ebrei nella Terraferma veneta del Quattrocento,
a cura di G.M. Varanini e R.C. Mueller, Firenze University Press 2005)

Many were burned at the stake. The survivors were exiled from the city, after their possessions had been confiscated.
According to the jury, the child’s collected blood had been used in the ritual celebration of the “Jewish Easter”.

The facts we accurately extracted from the offenders, as recorded in the original trials, are the following. The wicked Jews living in Trent, having maliciously planned to make their Easter solemn through the killing of a Christian child, whose blood they could mix in their unleavened bread, commisioned it to Tobia, who was deemed perfect for the infamous deed as he was familiar with the town on the account of being a professional doctor. He went out at 10 pm on Holy Thursday, March 23, as all believers were at the Mass, walked the streets and alleys of the city and having spotted the innocent Simone all alone on his father’s front door, he showed him a big silver piece, and with sweet words and smiles he took him from via del Fossato, where his parents lived, to the house of the rich Jew Samuele, who was eagerly waiting for him. There he was kept, with charms and apples, until the hour of the sacrifice arrived. At 1 am, little twenty-nine-months-old Simone was taken to the chamber adjoining the women’s synagogue; he was stripped naked and a band or belt was made from his clothes, and he was muzzled with a handkerchief, so that he wouldn’t immediately choke to death nor be heard; Moses the Elder, sitting on a stall and holding the baby in his lap, tore a piece of flesh off his cheek with a pair of iron pliers. Samuele did the same while Tobia, assisted by Moar, Bonaventura, Israele, Vitale and another Bonaventura (Samuele’s cook) collected in a basin the blood pouring from the wound. After that, Samuele and the aforementioned seven Jews vied with each other to pierce the flesh of the holy martyr, declaring in Hebrew that they were doing so to mock the crucified God of the Christians; and they added: thus shall be the fate of all our enemies. After this feral ordeal, the old Moses took a knife and pierced with it the tip of the penis, and with the pliers tore a chunk of meat from the little right leg and Samuel, who replaced him, tore a piece out of the other leg. The copious blood oozing from the puerile penis was harvested in a different vase, while the blood pouring from the legs was collected in the basin. All the while, the cloth plugging his mouth was sometimes tightened and sometimes loosened; not satisfied with the outrageous massacre, they insisted in the same torture a second time, with greater cruelty, piercing him everywhere with pins and needles; until the young boy’s blessed soul departed his body, among the rejoicing of this insane riffraff.

(Annali del principato ecclesiastico di Trento dal 1022 al 1540, pp. 352-353)

Very soon Simonino (“little Simone”) was acclaimed as a “blessed martyr”, and his cult spread thoughout Northern Italy. As devotion grew wider, so did the production of paintings, ex voto, sculptures, bas reliefs, altar decorations.

Polichrome woodcut, Daniel Mauch’s workshop, Museo Diocesano Tridentino.

Questionable elements, taken from folktales and popular belief, began to merge with an already established, sterotyped antisemitism.

 

From Alto Adige, April 1, 2017.

Despite the fact that the Pope had forbidden the cult, pilgrims kept flocking. The fame of the “saint” ‘s miracles grew, together with a wave of antisemitism. The fight against usury led to the accusation of loan-sharking, extended to all Jews. The following century, Pope Sistus V granted a formal beatification. The cult of Saint Simonino of Trent further solidified. The child’s embalmed body was exhibited in Trent until 1955, together with the alleged relics of the instruments of torture.

In reality, Simone Unverdorben (or Unferdorben) was found dead in a water canal belonging to a town merchant, near a Jewish man’s home, probably a moneylender. If he wasn’t victim of a killer, who misdirected the suspects on the easy scapegoat of the Jewish community, the child might have fallen in the canal and drowned. Rats could have been responsible for the mutilations. In the Nineteenth Century, accurate investigations proved the ritual homicide theory wrong. In 1965, five centuries after the murder, the Church abolished  the worship of Saint “Martyr” Simonino for good.

A violent fury against the very portraits of the “torturers” lasted for a long time. Even the San Simonino fresco in Nanto was defaced by this rage. This is the reason why, during that art exhibition, I needed some time to recognize a painting in that indistinct blur of light and colors.

My attempt at gathering the information I needed in order to make sense of the simulacrum in the Nanto parish church, led me to discover an often overlooked incident, known only to the artists who represented it, their commissioners, their audience; but the deep discomfort I felt when I first looked at the fresco still has not vanished.

La cara Pasifae


Suggested bibliography:
– R. Po – Chia Hsia, Trent 1475. Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, Yale 1992
– A. Esposito, D. Quaglioni, Processi contro gli Ebrei di Trento (1475-1478), CEDAM 1990
– A. Toaff, Pasque di sangue: ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali, Il Mulino 2008

The Devil and the Seven Dwarfs

A pale sun just came up that morning, when a soldier came knocking at the Angel’s door. He would never have disturbed his sleep, if he wasn’t sure to bring him a tryly exceptional discovery. Once he heardthe news, the Angel dressed up quickly and rushed towards the gates, his eyes burning with anticipation
It was May 19, 1944, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Josef Mengele was about to meet the largest all-dwarf family ever recorded.

The Ovitz family originated from Rozavlea, a village in the district of Maramureș, Transilvania (Romania). Their patriarch was the itinerant rabbi Shimson Eizik Ovitz, who sufferd from pseudoachondroplasia, a form of dwarfism; over two marriages, he had ten children, seven of which were stricken by his same genetic condition. Five of them were female, two males.
Dwarfism made them unfit for heavy work: how could they solve the paradox of having such a large family with virtually no labor force? The Ovitzs decided to stick together as much as possible, and they embarked in the only activity that could grant them a decent life: entertainment.

They founded the “Lilliput Troupe”, a traveling show in which only the seven dwarf siblings performed onstage; the other, medium-height members of the family warked backstage, writing sketches, preparing costumes or managing their next gigs. Their two-hour show mainly consisted of musical numbers, in which the family covered popular hits of the day on especially tailored instruments (small guitars, violas, violins, accordeons). For 15 years they toured Central Europe with huge success, the only all-dwarf act in the history of entertainment, until Nazism’s dark shadow reached them.

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In theory, the Ovitzs were bound to die. First of all because they were observant Jews; and secondly, because they were considered “malformed” and, according to the Aktion T4 euthanasia program their lives were “unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben). At the time of their arrival in Auschwitz, they were twelve. The youngest was a 18-months-old child.

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Josef Mengele, nicknamed the “Angel of Death” (Todesengel), still remains one of the most sadly infamous figures in those unimaginable years of terror. In the tales of the survivors, he is without doubt the most enigmatic and unsettling character: a cultivated and elegant man, with doctorates received in anthropology and medecine, fascinating as a Hollywood star, Mengele possessed another face, one of violence and cruelty which could burst out in a totally disinhibited way. According to some accounts, he could bring sugar to the children in the nomad camp, play the violin for them, and shortly after inject them with chloroform on the operation table or personally carry out a mass execution. As the camp’s physician, he often began his day by staning on the platform and selecting with a gesture of his hand who among the newly arrived deportees was fit to work and who was destined to be eliminated in the gas chambers.

He was known for his obsession with twins, who according to his studies and those of his mentor Otmar von Verschuer (who was well-informed about his pupil’s activities) could undisclose the ultimate secrets of eugenics. Mengele carried out human experiments of unprecedented sadism, infecting healthy individuals with various diseases, dissecting live patients without anesthesia, injecting ink into their eyes in order to make them more “aryan-looking”, experimenting poisons and burning genitals with acid. Mengele was not a mad scientist, operating under cover, as was first understood, but was backed by the elite of German scientific community: under the Third Reich, these scientists enjoyed an uncommon freedom, as long as they proved their research was going in the direction of building a superior race of soldiers – one of Hitler’s obsessions.

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“I now have work for 20 years”, Mengele exclaimed. As soon as he saw the Ovitz family, he immediately ordered that they be spared and arranged in privileged living quarters, where they would be given larger food portions and enjoyed better hygiene. He was particularly interested in the fact that the family included both dwarfs and middle-height individuals, so he ordered the “normal” members also to be spared from gas chambers. Hearing this, some other prisoners from the Ovitz’ village claimed to be blood-related to them (and the Ovitz of course did not deny it), and were moved along with them.

In exchange for their relatively more comfortable life, in respect to other inmates – their hair was not shorn, nor were they forced to part from their clothes – the Ovitzs were subjected to a long series of experiments. Mengele regularly took blood samples from them (even from the 18-months-old child).

Written accounts of inmate doctors shed further light on the endless anthropological measurements and comparisons between the Ovitzs and their neighbours, whom Mengele mistook for family. The doctors extracted bone marrow, pulled out healthy teeth, plucked hair and eyelashes, and carried out psychological and gynaecological tests on them all.
The four married female dwarves were subjected to close gynaecological scrutiny. The teenage girls in the group were terrified by the next phase in the experiment: that Mengele would couple them with the dwarf men and turn their wombs into laboratories, to see what offspring would result. Mengele was known to have done it to other experimental subjects.

(Koren & Negev, The dwarfs of Auschwitz)

The “White Angel” kept a voluntarily ambiguous relationship with the family, constantly walking a fine line between mercyless cruelty and surprising kindness. In fact, although he had already gathered hundreds of twins, and could sacrifice them if need be (accounts tell of seven couples of twins killed in one single night), he only had one family of dwarfs.
Still, the Ovitzs didn’t indulge in false hopes: they were conscious that, despite their privileges, they would die in there.

Instead, they lived to see the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. They walked for seven months to get back to their village, only to find their home looted; four years later they emigrated to Israel, where they resumed touring with their show until they eventually retired in 1955.

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Mengele, as is known, escaped to South America under a false name, and during his more than thirty years as a fugitive his legend grew out of proportion; his already terrible deeds were somewhat exaggerated until he became a demon-like character trowing live children in the ovens and killing people just for fun. Reliable accounts evoke a less colourful image of the man, but no less unsettling: the human experiments carried out at Birkenau (and in China, at the same time, inside the infamous Unit 731) rank among the most dreadful examples of scientific research completely detaching itself from moral issues.

The last survivor in the family, Perla Ovitz, died in 2001. Until the end, she kept recounting her family’s tale, encapsulating all the helplessness and painful absurdity of this experience, which she could not possibly explain to herself and to the world, in a single sentence: “I was saved by the grace of the devil“.

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Further material:

An excerpt from the documentary The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz (available here), featuring Perla Ovitz.
Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz (Koren & Negev, 2013) is the main in-depth research on the Ovitz family, based on interviews with Perla and other Auschwitz survivors.
Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz (Lagnado & Dekel 1992) is an account of Mengele’s experiments on twins, with interviews with several survivors.
– The video in which Mengele’s son, Rolf, recounts his meeting with his father – whom he had never knew and who was living incognito in Brazil.
The truth about Cândido Godói, a small village in Brazil with a high twin births rate, where in the Sixties a strange German physician was often seen wandering: did Mengele continue his experiments in South America?

Il divoratore di bambini

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La Svizzera, si sa, è un posto tranquillo e la capitale elvetica, Berna, accoglie il visitatore con il distillato delle migliori attrattive nazionali: aria fresca, cucina prelibata, pulizia, precisione e ordine. Il centro storico della città è perfettamente conservato, e sorge sulla penisola all’interno di un’ansa del fiume Aare. Proprio nel cuore di questo gioiello di architettura medievale, quasi a contrastare con l’operosa ma placida atmosfera della Kornhausplatz, si erge un simbolo tutt’altro che mite e sereno. Si tratta del Kindlifresser, il Mangiatore di Bambini.


Alla base della colonna decorata, il fregio mostra degli orsi bruni (simbolo della città), armati di tutto punto, che partono per la guerra suonando strumenti militari come una cornamusa e un tamburo. In alto, invece, ecco il vero protagonista della composizione: un orco, appollaiato su un capitello corinzio, si infila in gola un bambino nudo, mentre altri neonati spuntano da un sacco per le provviste.


La Kindlifresserbrunnen, costruita nel 1546, è una delle fontane più antiche della città, ed è anche un esempio di come la storia e la cultura possano talvolta “perdersi” e venire dimenticate: oggi, infatti, nessuno sa perché quella statua stia lì, e quale fosse il suo significato originario.


Quello che si sa di certo è che l’autore della scultura è Hans Gieng, a cui secondo gli studiosi si devono quasi tutte le splendide fontane cinquecentesche che adornano la Città Vecchia, come ad esempio il bellissimo Sansone che uccide il leone (Simsonbrunnen). Ma, a differenza delle altre, l’orco che divora i bambini non è una rappresentazione classica facilmente comprensibile, e non essendo rimasto negli archivi nessun accenno al suo senso allegorico originale, per gli storici il Kindlifresser rimane un mistero.


Le teorie sono diverse. Secondo alcuni, potrebbe trattarsi di una raffigurazione di Crono, il Titano della mitologia Greca che, per non essere spodestato dai propri figli, li divorò ad uno ad uno mentre erano ancora in fasce (unico sopravvissuto: Zeus).

Un’altra teoria vede nella grottesca figura una sorta di monito per la comunità ebraica della città. In effetti pare che il vestito del Kindlifresser fosse originariamente pitturato in giallo, colore dei Giudei; anche il copricapo che indossa ricorda effettivamente il cappello conico imposto in Germania agli ebrei askenaziti, assieme alla rotella cucita sulle vesti o sul mantello. Se questo fosse vero, la statua avrebbe avuto allora un intento denigratorio collegato alla cosiddetta “accusa del sangue“, cioè alla diceria che gli israeliti praticassero sacrifici e omicidi rituali.


Ma le ipotesi non si fermano qui. C’è chi suppone che il Kindlifresser sia il fratello maggiore del Duca Berchtold V. von Zähringen, fondatore di Berna, che in un accesso di follia avrebbe mangiato i bambini della città; secondo altri, il personaggio misterioso sarebbe il Cardinale Matthäus Schiner, comandante militare in diverse battaglie nel Nord Italia; secondo altri studi potrebbe trattarsi di uno spauracchio pensato perché i bambini stessero alla larga dalla celebre fossa degli orsi che si apriva lì vicino; infine, l’inquietante figura potrebbe semplicemente essere una maschera collegata alla Fastnacht, il Carnevale nato proprio nelle prime decadi del 1500 e ancora oggi celebrato in Svizzera.


La ridda di congetture non intacca la foga con cui il Kindlifresser, da 500 anni, consuma il suo crudele pasto; spaventando i bambini bernesi, attirando frotte di turisti e ispirando artisti e scrittori.