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Mendel Beilis' blood-libel trial in Kiev 1913

My grandfather told me this story many times in the 1950s. Grandpa was only an adolescent in 1913, at a time when pers­ecution of Jews had never abat­ed. But he believed that immigration visas suddenly opened up for Russian Jews, in a window of opportunity during and after the Beilis trial. What the records do show is that by 1917 the Jewish Emigration Society organised and managed the outflow of endless thousands of Jewish emigres to destinations abroad, before the Society was disbanded in 1917.  Due to Expulsion Edicts, pogroms and revolution, as well as the Beilis Trial.

Beilis with his wife and 5 children, 
after the trial

The libel that Jews committed ritual murder to take Christ­ian chil­d­ren’s blood originated in C12th. In Eng­land in 1144, Norwich Jews were accused of ritual murder-crucifixion after young William of Norwich's body was found. Blood libel trials continued in Gloucester 1168, Bury St Ed­munds 1181 and Bristol 1183. And in 1190, 150 Jews were massac­red in York. Finally every Jew in England was exil­ed in 1290.

In the C19th, blood libels saw a myster­ious revival in Central Europe, with 100+ cases in Germany and Austria-Hungary. This post examines the last blood libel trial in Europe. 
                            
Medieval image of Jews killing a Christian child for his blood

Consider the political background. In Feb 1911 the Duma-parliament began debating the abolishment of the restrict­ive Pale of Settlement. And new elections were pending in the legislature, so there were forces that wanted to prevent liberalising acts. Among them was Tsar Nicholas II, given his strongly anti-Semitic views.

The victim, 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky, was found mangled in a cave on the outskirts of Kiev in March 1911. At first the police concent­rated on Vera Cheberyak (see photo) and her underworld associates. But within days of finding the body Russian anti-Semites, known as either Black Hundreds or Union of the Russian People, began spreading the blood libel. A leaflet passed out at the boy’s funeral read: “The Yids have tortured Andrusha Yushchinsky to death!”

The accused was Mendel Beilis (1874-1934) of Kiev. This 39 year old was an ex-soldier and the father of five children, working as a midd­le level manager at Kiev’s Zaitsev brick factory. After his arrest, Beilis spent 2 years in squalid prison cells, waiting for his trial.

In Kiev, the 34-day Beilis trial in 1913 was presented to a biased jury. Of the 12 jurors, 7 were member of the notoriously anti-Semitic Union of the Russian People.

Beilis received international support. Journalists wrote that the Russian state was charging a Jewish citizen with the ritual murder of a Christian citizen, to drain his blood for the baking of Passover matzo. This Dark Ages accus­at­ion led to indignation and drew the attent­ion of leading cultural, pol­itical and religious fig­ures like HG Wells, Anatole France and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In America, rallies head­lined by social reformers like Jane Addams were huge. The New York Times headlined an editorial The Tsar on Trial.

To prove the char­ge of ritual murder, the prosecution produced a weird collection of wit­ness­es and expert testimony. Among those pres­ented to the jury were: a Catholic priest from Tashkent who testified to the real­ity of the Jewish blood rituals, alcoholics and pathologists on-the-take.  But the most sens­at­ional witness was an attractive prima donna, Vera Cheberyak, leader of an infamous criminal gang in Kiev. A few years earlier she had blinded her young French musician lover by throwing sulfuric acid at him. She was the likely mastermind be­hind the murder of Andrei, her son’s best friend, in revenge for his suspected betrayal of her criminal activity to the police. Yet she ended up as a star witness for the state against Beilis!
                                             
Vera Cheberyak 

Detective Nikolai Krasovsky found that Vera Cheberiak was responsible for the murder. 
Krasovsky paid dearly for his honesty.

The fate of a huge country was at stake, given that after the 1905 revolution, Tsar Nicholas had already agreed to a constit­ution and a parliament. Beilis’ lawyer reminded the court that already by 1913 the Tsar was constantly und­er­mining emerging democratic institutions. Tsarist autocracy was clearly even more regressive than feared.

Tsarist officials were fully aware of the obvious weakness of their case. By the end of the trial, the state had devised an ingenious insurance policy against any possible failure to convict. The issue of ritual murder would be separated from the guilt of the defendant. The jury would be asked: First, did it accept the prosecution’s desc­rip­t­ion of the crime as having been committed at the Jewish-owned brick factory? The words Ritual Murder were not used, but the implic­ation was clear: the crime had all the hallmarks of the bloody Jewish rite. Second, was the defendant guilty of committing the crime “out of motives of religious fanaticism”?

Most courtroom observers believed the uneducated, peasant-dominated jury would vote with the prosecution on both quest­ions. But the jury voted Yes on the first question and found Beilis not guilty of the crime. 

Beilis had been starved and unwashed for 2 years, before he won his freedom. He warmly thanked the Russian gentiles who risked sacrificing their careers for him – the barristers, phil­osophers, detectives and professors who stood up for him in court and the journalists outside court. The Beilis family moved to Palestine, then to America in 1921.

Recent History 
The case maintained the myth of Jewish ritual murder. In 1926, the official Nazi Party newspaper devoted a series to the Beilis affair. In the 1930s, Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi weekly Der Sturmer, propagand­ised for Jewish ritual murder charges, devoting special issues to the subject. In May 1943, head of the SS Hein­rich Himmler sent a book on Jewish ritual murder, which included an entire chapter on the Beilis trial, to the Einsatz­gruppen-death squads.

After WW2 the Beilis case in Kiev survived in the collective memory. The worst post-war pogrom in Poland occurred in July 1946 in Kielce, where a mob killed 42 Jews & wounded 80. A Jewish del­eg­ation wanted a state­ment from Bishop Wyszinski of Lublin, condemning anti-Semitism. He wouldn’t con­d­emn blood libel anti-Semitism, writing that “during the Beilis trial, the matter was not definitive­ly set­t­l­ed.”

100+ years after the trial, the Beilis case remains a rallying point for the extreme right in Russia and Ukraine; Andrei Yushchinsky's gravesite is their place of holy pilgrimage.

Robert Weinberg, 
Blood Libel in Late Imper­ial Russia, 2003

Bernard Malamud used the trial for his great 1967 novel, The Fixer. Read Robert Weinberg’s Blood Libel in Late Imper­ial Russia, 2003.  And Ritual Murder in Russia, Eastern Europe and Beyond, edited by Eugene Avrutin et al. Thank you to Chabad.Org for the photos. 









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