Trial of the (last) century

Trial of the (last) century

In March 1911, in Kiev, a 13-year-old Christian youth, Andrei Yushchinsky, was kidnapped and murdered. On July 11, 1911, a Jewish man, Menachem Mendel Beilis, was arrested for the crime, which was touted in the czarist-controlled media as a Jewish ritual murder. It was a classic case of the blood libel. A Kiev police detective investigating the case, Nikolai Krasovsky, did not believe that Beilis was guilty. It cost him his career, but even after being fired, he continued his investigations. One hundred years ago next week, on May 30-31, 1912, his findings – including naming the real killers – were published in Kiev newspapers. Nevertheless, Beilis was brought to trial on Sept. 25, 1913. The case, which lasted just over a month, had international news coverage, shining a world spotlight on anti-Semitism in the Russian empire. For many, it gave the czarist government a black eye and helped to spur the exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe. In the end, despite the efforts of the Kiev prosecutors, a jury acquitted Beilis after a few hours of deliberation.

A century ago, the trial of a Jew accused of the ritual murder of a Christian boy in Kiev grabbed international attention. Today, the case of Menachem Mendel Beilis, who ultimately was acquitted of the charge but not until a painful stint in prison and a grueling trial, still echoes today.

Mendel Beilis wrote of his ordeal in Yiddish in 1925. The book was translated into English a year later by Harrison Goldberg under the title “Blood Libel: The Story of My Suffering.”

Jay Beilis honors his grandfather’s memory.

Now, a grandson of Beilis, Jay Beilis of Oradell, working with Mark S. Stein, an attorney in Chicago, and Jeremy Simcha Garber, a New York attorney who lives in South Orange, has brought out a new version which sharpens some of the earlier translation and includes a final chapter dealing with Beilis’ life in the United States. The new version is titled “Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis.”

One goal of the book is to correct what Beilis family members contend was confusion created by the author Bernard Malamud in writing “The Fixer,” his 1966 fictionalized account of the case that went on to win the National Book Award and a Pulitzer that year, and two years later became a major motion picture starring Alan Bates.

The family also contends that Malamud plagiarized parts of “The Story of My Suffering” in writing his novel. (See accompanying sidebar).

The complete Beilis story “needs to be told,” said Jay, whose late father, David, lived through the dread of the Kiev trial. “It was chilling, for 2 1/2 years he didn’t see his father,” Jay Beilis said of his own father.

The account by Beilis himself has all the elements of a Hollywood script, only better. Against a backdrop of anti-Semitism, the forces of evil – in this case, the repressive czarist Russian government – charge an innocent man, an ordinary hard-working citizen, with a heinous crime.

Conscience of a juror

The deck is stacked against the defendant, but the good guys, in this case honest policemen, skilled lawyers, and witnesses who know Beilis as an upstanding friend and neighbor, win the day.

The victory comes, however, in a nail-biter by the jury, which originally was voting for conviction seven to five. At the last minute, according to the account, one of the all-peasant jury said in good conscience he believed Beilis was innocent.

In Beilis’s own account, evidence pointed to involvement by the mother of the victim’s friend, but hysteria, fueled by the Black Hundreds, a right-wing anti-Semitic organization in czarist Russia, pointed to the “Jews” as the culprits.

The accusers said the victim suffered 13 wounds, claiming somehow that this showed the murder was for Jewish religious purposes.

The police investigation began to focus on Beilis. He was rudely shaken early in the morning of July 22, 1911, by loud knocks on the door, and he was arrested by the Okhrana, the czar’s secret police.

At police headquarters, he is overcome by the shocking realization that he is being charged with the murder.

The account of his arrest foreshadows the arrests during the Stalin years: The innocent victim at first thinks the arrest is a mistake, and will be quickly corrected. As time drags on, the realization sets in that release is not near, that the officials are convinced, or at least pretend to be convinced, of the person’s guilt.

First questions,
then clarity

Questioning by the prosecuting officials centered on Jewish terms – chasid, misnagid, afikomen, tzadik. Beilis wondered what they were fishing for.

From conversations with other prisoners, Beilis comes to understand that the case is a political one, trumped up to incite pogroms. His terror was heightened by the fear that he was alone, targeted by an all-powerful regime.

On the flip side of his despair, he is heartened by kindnesses and words of encouragement shown by some gentiles: “The bits of kindness shown me by many ordinary Russians before and during my imprisonment mitigated my bitterness towards my persecutors,” Beilis wrote.

“Many people helped my grandfather to escape the evil blood libel,” Jay Beilis wrote. They included “the neighbors and coworkers who testified on his behalf, the honest officials in Kiev who tried to prosecute the real murderers, the lawyers, Jewish and Gentile, who represented him so well. I thank them all once again.”

In his book, Mendel Beilis recounts the shock of being thrust into a dank cellblock with some 40 inmates, left to squabble over taking turns at a limited number of food pails. Daily searches and primitive conditions – dirt, vermin, damp, cold – wore Beilis down.

Beilis felt his case put the Jewish people on trial, and it was his solemn duty to see the charges erased. According to Beilis, his hope rested on a fair trial, leading him to refuse offers of leniency if he confessed.

“One thing I always had before me: the shameful charge of ritual murder must be wiped off the good name of the Jewish nation. It was my fate, it had to be done through me, and in order to be effected, I had to remain alive. I had to exercise every ounce of power, I had to suffer all without murmuring, but the enemies of my people would not triumph,” he wrote.

“One of the lessons [of the Beilis case] is that there are always people who will make false accusations against Jews,” said attorney Garber. Also, in a backhanded way the Beilis case was so outrageous it helped to expose the sham of the blood libel, he said.

It was notable “how quite a number of liberal and progressive non-Jews came to his defense.”

Also notable, he said, is that Beilis, a simple man thrust into the public eye, never confessed, never accepted pardon. If he had, it would have caused massive pogroms.

For Beilis, freedom after prison and the stresses of the trial combined into a roller coaster ride. Well-wishers, both Jewish and Christian, flocked to his house to see him. He had to stay in the hospital for a time to escape the stress.

At the same time, death threats came from the Black Hundreds, and the governor of Kiev said he could not provide for the safety of Beilis. His money ran out, and it was apparent that he had to leave Kiev.

Offers came from the West. A newspaper in the United States offered him a handsome sum if he would come here and tell his story to its reporters. There was a Rothschild offer of a home in London.

Beilis, however, chose to settle in the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine, where he hoped to work the land. His hopes collapsed when funds promised by would-be benefactors never came and the shock waves of World War One reached Palestine, then in the final throes of Ottoman Turkish rule.

Facing poverty, Beilis reluctantly came to the United States. Again, promised aid did not materialize, tragedy struck his family back in Palestine, and the outlook was bleak.

Beilis was desperate for work, and was willing to take low-paying jobs, but even those were not offered him. Employers would say such jobs were demeaning to Beilis. In today’s parlance, he was being told he was overqualified.

Beilis died in 1934 and is buried in Mt. Carmel cemetery in Queens. His funeral was attended by 4,000 mourners.

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