The Transformation of the Celebrated, Centuries-Old Oberammergau Passion Play

May 12, 2022 | Noam Marans and Peter Pettit
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In 1930 and 1934, Adolf Hitler journeyed to Oberammergau, Germany, home to the country’s—if not the world’s—best-known passion play, which has been performed at least once every decade since 1634 and is often viewed in person by half a million pilgrims. These performances, traditionally held on or shortly before Easter, dramatize the final days of the Christian messiah. As Noam Marans and Peter Pettit note, Hitler appreciated the play: “Never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed,” he said.

This week, following delays related to the coronavirus pandemic, Oberammergau will once again begin to host performances of the play, though in a new form that seeks to mitigate its anti-Semitic elements.

Passion plays originated in the Middle Ages in Christian Europe as a way to celebrate and teach the story of the last days of Jesus’ life, and from the beginning embodied the anti-Judaism derived from the depiction of the Jewish religious authorities in the Holy Week Gospel readings. Passion plays regularly triggered anti-Jewish violence by repeatedly affirming in the minds of Christians and others who viewed passion plays the powerful spectacle that Jews are devilish, manipulative, legalistic, and bloodthirsty Christ-killers.

With the post-Holocaust transformation of Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism, Passion plays began to change for the better. Jewish caricatures were increasingly challenged on both historical and theological grounds, and the shows have de-emphasized the role of Jewish figures and the idea that blame for Jesus’ death lay on the Jews as a people.

But change came very slowly to Oberammergau, Germany [which] resumed its play after the Holocaust as if nothing had happened. It remained unaffected by the evolution of Christian attitudes regarding Jews, which was enshrined in the Catholic Church’s 1965 teaching Nostra Aetate.

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