JEWISH-AMERICAN HALL OF FAME • JEWISH MUSEUM IN CYBERSPACE
ANTI-SEMITIC BIGOTRY AS CHRONICLED BY HISTORICAL MEDALS


 


MEDALS RELATED TO CONVERTING JEWS TO CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM

Not surprisingly, medals were produced that relate even to this specific issue. One such medal, the so-called Useless Baptism Medal (figure 21), struck about 1700, relates to the efforts to convert Jews to Christianity and suggests that this baptism was insincere. As may be seen, on the medal’s obverse a priest with a prayer book is pouring water on the head of a kneeling Jew who has a millstone around his neck; an executioner is standing behind the Jew about to push him into the water. The legend in German is translated as: “Thus He Remains Innocent.” The reverse legend may be translated as: “A Jew rarely becomes a Christian unless he has done something wrong. He does it only for the money to avoid serious punishment, for if he would steal he would be punished too harshly.” On the rim is an additional engraving: “When the mouse eats the cat, then a Jew becomes a true Christian.” As Baptismal medals are often given to the family to celebrate this event in the Christian community, this medal, also called the Mockery Medal, apparently was made to mock the “false” baptisms of Jews.

Efforts to convert Jews to Christianity began as early as the first century CE and continue to this day. Throughout the seventh century, Jews were flogged, executed, had their property confiscated, forbidden to trade and forcibly baptized (such converted Jews were later called conversos). This reached a peak during the Christian Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Then, as in more recent periods, many Jews were suspected of not truly converting to Christianity (these secret Jews were called marranos, a term of abuse derived from the Spanish word for “swine”) but rather were accused of still adhering to their original faith. These individuals were dealt with severely, in some cases by burning them alive (see figure 1). The most notorious individual during this period was the Dominican prior and Grand Inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada, who in the fifteenth century condemned thousands of conversos, men and women, to their death for secretly practicing Judaism. Later, in eighteenth century Italy, Pope Pius VI published an Edict on the Jews, which led directly to their forced baptisms. Even more recently, now in Britain, it is said that Benjamin Disraeli, born a Jew, could never have become Prime Minister had he not been baptized, in effect “encouraging” his conversion (Johnson).

The issue of conversion affected Jews in many walks of life. A case in point is in the field of music. During the late 19th century and extending into the 20th century, there were many examples of Jews who, by desire or by necessity or coercion, converted to Christianity. Felix Mendelssohn was a convert. Johann Straus, founder of the famous Viennese musical family, was a son of a baptized Jewish innkeeper. Gustav Mahler, in order to be appointed head of the court opera in Vienna had to convert to Catholicism. Arnold Schönberg was born a Jew but raised as a Catholic. The list goes on (Johnson).

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