The protest movement in the wake of police killings of African Americans that has targeted monuments to the Confederacy has also targeted statues of Christopher Columbus (including one in Tower Grove Park), Thomas Jefferson, a Texas Ranger (not one of those that lost a World Series to the Cardinals) and others.
These historical figures did many great things and benefited our nation,but they also perpetrated or contributed to atrocities such as slavery, racism, violence and genocide.
Some who want to topple the statues and some who want to keep them share something in common: They want the statues to serve as stimuli for exploring history more deeply, looking beyond the myths that all societies create to describe their collective memories.
Several years ago, I was privileged to visit Kyiv, Ukraine, with Tim Stern, then the campaign vice chairman of Jewish Federation’s board in St. Louis, and other members of national Federation leadership. We experienced several of the programs funded by our Federation and other federations and donors. Simply put, I was blown away.
One of my memories of that trip is seeing an awesome statue of Bogdan Chmielnicki, leader of the Cossack uprising against Polish rule in Ukraine in 1648, dominating the city’s main square. Chmielnicki (also spelled Bohdan Khmelnytsky) is undoubtedly a hero to many Ukranians. But he scapegoated the Jews of Ukraine, sought to expel them, led pogroms that killed up to 100,000 people, and tortured and tormented many, many more.
The stories of what the Cossacks did to the Jews are truly terrifying, and the Chmielnicki massacres were considered among the bloodiest tragedies in all of Jewish history until they were overshadowed by the Holocaust. I had known about the massacres, but seeing that statue inspired me to learn more.
Seeing that statue made me reflect on St. Louis and our statue of King Louis IX – St. Louis – on Art Hill. I was struck by the fact that Kyiv and St. Louis proudly display magnificent statues of the murderers of thousands of Jews. Perhaps we should take a moment to consider some of King Louis IX’s greatest “accomplishments.”
As Matthew of Paris, a non-Jewish French historian and contemporary of the king, wrote of the Jews: “The French king hates and persecutes you.”
As an ardent and pious follower of the Catholic Church, King Louis banned Jews from lending money and collecting interest. When the economic realities set in, Louis simply wiped out one-third of the debts that Catholics owed to Jews and ruled that the rest be paid to the royal treasury. He also paid Jews to convert to Catholicism.
Louis undertook two crusades, including one to the Holy Land: the Seventh Crusade, which some believe healed Louis of a serious illness. In order to fund his crusade, he expelled the moneylending Jews and confiscated their property. And, manybelieve that Louis actively failed to protect Jews persecuted by the crusaders on their way to the Holy Land.
In 1240, the Talmud was put on trial in the court of King Louis in Paris. Nicholas Donin, an apostate Jew, translated parts of the Talmud and argued that they were blasphemy against the Catholic Church. Four distinguished Parisian rabbis “defended” the Talmud, led by Rabbi Yechiel of Paris. (One of the claims was that the Talmud related a story that a “Jesus” was sent to hell to be boiled in excrement for eternity. The rabbis explained that this was not the Jesus of Christianity and that “not every Louis in France is king.”)
The outcome of the trial was predetermined. King Louis ordered that the Talmud be burned. Our tradition tells us that 24 wagonloads of Hebrew manuscripts, 10,000 volumes, were destroyed June 17, 1242 (778 years from the date that I am writing this). Recalling that this was two centuries before the invention of the printing press, anyone who has seen a Talmud can appreciate the amount of effort and time that went into handwriting those 10,000 volumes. Simply put, King Louis tried to erase Jewish wisdom and learning.
Louis’ friend and biographer, Jean de Joinville, wrote that after the trial and annoyed by the stalwart defense of the Talmud by the rabbis, Louis decided that rather than discussing questions of faith with a Jew that French Catholics should plunge a sword into the Jew instead. In 1269, Louis ordered all Jews in France to wear a distinctive badge.
I am not suggesting that the Jewish community in St. Louis call for the toppling of the statue of King Louis IX on Art Hill. But, with the rise of anti-Semitism throughout the world and among political movements,this is a good time for Jews in St. Louis to reflect upon the history of our great city’s not-so-great namesake.
Michael Oberlander was the Chief Philanthropy Officer of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis from 2016-2019. He and his family moved to Israel in 2019, after living in St. Louis for many years. He is still an avid reader of the St. Louis Jewish Light.