Revenge is a highly evocative word. It conjures up emotions, various associations, and memories of cultural and historical tradition. Acts of revenge are carried out in retaliation for humiliation, disenfranchisement, violence, and murder. They follow a logic of justice situated outside the legal system in force today—yet this was not always the case. In ancient times, the dictum of returning like for like was the norm. This legal principle is also at the heart of the saying “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” in the Torah, which asserts its demand for reparation.
An Eye for an Eye, a Tooth for a Tooth
In the Middle Ages, the Christian Church cited this sentence as proof of the revengefulness of the Jews. In the aftermath of the Shoah, a great fear prevailed that Jewish survivors might attempt to retaliate. The only acts of revenge that took place, in fact, were against National Socialist perpetrators. To this day, the majority of the survivors and bereaved continue to wait for the systematic robbery and mass murder to be punished appropriately. This absence of justice continues to resonate to the present day. But it also inspires the imagination.
On the Exhibition
The exhibition “Revenge: History and Fantasy” presents various forms of self-empowerment on the part of Jews in response to the discrimination and violence they faced. It starts out with a prop from Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds and ends with a video installation comprised of various depictions of revenge in pop culture. In addition to biblical figures, the show explores rabbinical writings as well as anti-Jewish conspiracy myths, and takes a look at legendary figures such as Lilith and Golem as well as Jewish “outlaws” who organized themselves in groups of pirates, robbers, and the “Kosher Nostra” gang.
Videos about the exhibition
In this video, museum director Mirjam Wenzel takes you on a short walk through the exhibition and introduces the most important themes (with English subtitles).
In this interview, museum director Mirjam Wenzel and curator Erik Lutz introduce the last room of the exhibition: the "Archive of the Present." Here you will encounter numerous comic superheroes. Find out what they are doing in the exhibition in the video (with English subtitles).
Vengeance Is Mine
The Hebrew Bible contains numerous stories in which God Himself exacts revenge: for instance, the Flood, the Ten Plagues He inflicted on the Egyptians, and the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah. It also tells of acts of revenge by individuals in keeping with the will of God. Two of these avengers are revered as heroes in Jewish and Christian tradition alike: Judith and Simson, or Samson, whose acts of revenge brought about decisive turning points in wars. Judith beheads Holofernes, leader of the Assyrian army, while Samson brings down the temple of the Philistines, killing all enemies inside. The stories of Judith and Samson are still being told in works of art, literature, and popular culture.
Pour out Your Wrath!
Rabbinical Judaism continues to interpret the biblical texts. Increasingly, the emphasis is on the Jewish people’s ability to endure injustice and to await messianic redemption. Only when a certain level of suffering has been reached will God, according to conventional wisdom, intervene in history and exact vengeance on his people’s tormentors. Requests for divine retribution therefore play a role in rabbinical tradition, traditional prayers, and liturgical practice. This rabbinical tradition has repeatedly been reinterpreted by the Christian Church and used to legitimize anti-Jewish acts of violence.
Anger and Resilience
There are numerous legends surrounding the figures of Lilith and Golem. In Jewish tradition, Adam’s first wife Lilith is seen as an avenger who mortally threatens women who have just given birth and young boys not yet circumcised. The Golem, fashioned from clay, is a legendary medieval figure symbolizing the power of creation. He later evolved into an avenger with superhuman powers who protects the Jewish community.
The interpretations of Golem and Lilith have transformed over time. After 1945, the Golem became a character in comic books and other popular cultural stories, and took revenge for Nazi atrocities. In the 1960s, on the other hand, Lilith metamorphized from a demonic being who had to be warded off with amulets to a feminist role model for the second women’s liberation movement.
Outlaws: Robbers, Gangsters, and Pirates
In the Middle Ages and early modern times, Jews were forcibly expelled and persecuted in many regions. They were also prohibited from practicing a wide array of professions. And so many of them had no other choice but to organize themselves outside the reaches of the respective legal system. After their expulsion from Spain, Sephardic Jews became pirates and attacked the ships of the Spanish Crown. During the early modern period, so-called “beggar Jews” organized themselves into vagabond gangs that carried out robberies throughout the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. In the early twentieth century, to escape poverty, Jewish immigrants on the American East Coast banded together in gangs that operated according to their own laws. The best known of these was the “Kosher Nostra,” which fought, among other things, the rising National Socialist movement in the US.
The Pirate Sinan Reis (Captain Sinan, also: Sinan the Jew, Cifut Sinan), copper engraving from Jean Jacques Boissard, Leben vnd Contrafeiten der Türckischen vn[d] Persischen Sultanen von Osmane an, biß auff den jetztregierenden Sultan Mahumet II. ..., Frankfurt, 1596.
Tine Fetz, Abraham Picard, comic for the anthology Nächstes Jahr in, Mainz, Ventil Verlag 2021. Tine Fetz, Berlin.
James Sturm, The Golem Enters the Field, preliminary sketch (detail) for The Golem’s Mighty Swing, USA, 2001. © James Sturm.
FBI wanted poster for Bugsy Siegel, 1939. The Mob Museum, the National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement, 2013.015.037
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, concentration camp survivors, Jewish partisans, and members of the Allied armies took part in various spontaneous acts of revenge against camp guards and members of the SS and SA. The most prominent avengers were those grouped around writer and partisan Abba Kovner. They deliberated on two plans of revenge: Plan A envisaged poisoning the drinking water in several major German cities. When this plan failed, Plan B was put into action: in a bakery, loaves of bread were sprinkled with arsenic poison and then delivered to a German prisoner of war camp. It is a matter of dispute to this day what the outcome was.
Archive of the Present
Fictional acts of revenge are much loved in pop culture. From comics and pop songs to films and computer games: characters with superpowers abound everywhere, taking revenge on their tormentors in the name of the downtrodden. For the exhibition, Berlin-based artist Daniel Laufer has put together a three-channel video installation with pop-cultural narratives about acts of revenge. The work explores the extent to which Jewish notions of revenge remain current in a post-National Socialist society.
The last room in the exhibition invites visitors to think for themselves. Here, they have the opportunity to pore through books and documents of the time, watch cartoons and film footage, or play a computer game. They can converse with other visitors, take part in workshops or curator’s talks, and continue the dialogue between curator and director that carries throughout the exhibition. This, dear visitor, is where your participation is called for.
Mixed Emotions and Mixed Media: Artists in Residency
The show presents historical documents and photographs, works of fine art, ceremonial objects and Jewish writings, graphic literature, and film and video works in a special exhibition design. Much of the material displayed sheds new light on familiar tales and previously lesser-known stories. It also gives rise to mixed emotions, which have always been one of art’s main subjects. In this vein, we’ve invited five artists in residency to engage with the exhibition’s themes and visitors. You can find the results of these efforts on site in the museum as well as on this website.
The German-language podcast “Rache. Geschichte und Fantasie” is dedicated to individual aspects of the exhibition in seven episodes, sending concentrated packages of empowerment out into the ether with selected guests including Rabbi Julien-Chaim Soussan, Lea Wohl von Haselberg, Arkadij Khaet, and Daniel Kahn, author of the song Six Million Germans.
The extensive program accompanying the exhibition includes concerts, readings, film screenings, performances, discussions, workshops, guided tours, and much more. For details, take a look at our flyer or events calendar.
We’d also like to mention that our very own FLOWDELI has designed a new culinary line especially for the exhibition.
In our museum shop, the Literaturhandlung, you’ll not only find the book accompanying the exhibition, but many other interesting things, as well. Don’t forget to stop by and have a look!
We would like to thank the following members of the scientific advisory board for their advice and assistance:
- Deidre Berger (CEO of the Jewish Digital Cultural Recovery Project Foundation)
- Prof. Dr. Alfred Bodenheimer (Center for Jewish Studies, University of Basel),
- Prof. Dr. Doron Kiesel (Director of the Education Department of the Central Council of Jews in Germany)
- Rabbi Julien Soussan (Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany)
- Prof. Dr. Rebekka Voß (Seminar for Jewish Studies, University of Frankfurt)
Our thanks go to all lenders and our generous sponsors and supporters:
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