Blood Accusation: The Strange History of the Beiliss Case
It is more than thirty years since the English translation appeared of Alexander B. Tager’s detailed study of the framing, trial, and acquittal of Mendel Beiliss. There was need for another study, for another look at this chapter in the long history of Russian anti-Semitism in the light of what has happened both to Russia and to the Jews in the past decades. Mr. Samuel has now admirably fulfilled the task. His work leans heavily on that of Tager, as one would indeed expect. But he has made a scrupulous study of all the available primary sources and has diligently questioned those survivors of the witnesses in the wings of the drama who could be of any help to him. He tells his story with passion, but with dignity. Some faults apart, which will be noted below, this is a most valuable book for the historian both of Russia and of the Jewish people; and, for those not so directly involved, a stirring account of those ever-fascinating themes—the folly, depravity, cowardice, vice, and, at the same time, dignity and courage of man. It is a theme which calls for the talents of Dostoevsky or Galdos. It is no disparagement of Mr. Samuel to say that he has not their gifts, and that his story must be read more for its content than for the form in which he has cast it.
The grim story begins in the Kiev underworld, in a part of the Jewish pale where Jews had long lived under the shadow of pogroms. They were subject to accusations of the most heinous beliefs and practices by the fanatical extremist organizations which followed the extremist, superstitious anti-Semitism of the population, in order to foster anti-revolutionary sentiments and loyalty to Emperor and Church. These proto-fascist organizations—like the Black Hundred and the Two-Headed Eagle—enjoyed the support and protection of the Emperor and his more obscurantist advisors. They saw, in what appears to have been little more than an organization of thugs and careerists, a patriotic bulwark against subversive, Jewish-influenced, un-Russian revolutionary ideas—as they judged them to be—alien to the simple Russian people.
ON 12 MARCH 1911 a thirteen-year-old Ukrainian boy, Andryusha Yushchinsky, was murdered by the denizens of the criminal underworld, apparently for fear that he was going to inform on their criminal activities. Either before or after death the body of the child was mutilated in a manner which crudely suggested that the body had been drained of blood, while alive, for ritual purposes. (Crudely, because the medical evidence showed that the wounds were not in the places appropriate for this purpose.) The gangsters’ object in simulating ritual murder is unknown: one can only surmise that they chose this method either in order to divert suspicion from themselves to the Jews, or, more probably, in order to provoke a pogrom, which was always a profitable occasion for looting (with the connivance of the local authorities).
Be that as it may, the local extremists immediately raised the cry of ritual murder, and their main spokesman, a young student named Golubev, enlisted the aid and support of Chaplinsky, the Kiev State Prosecutor, in order to lay the ritual murder of a Christian child at the door of the Jews. Here began what Mr. Samuel repeatedly refers to as “the conspiracy,” and his use of the word often suggests that the whole Beiliss affair was planned by the central government from start to finish. This was not so: the conspiracy to frame a Jew (and the choice fell on Beiliss quite by accident) was begun in Kiev; but once it got under way, its further progress received full support from the Minister of Justice—the ill-famed Shcheglovitov—and from the Director of the Police Department at the Ministry of the Interior, Beletsky. The evidence for the personal intervention of the Emperor suggested by Mr. Samuel is not very conclusive, at any rate on the documents which he cites. But there is no doubt that the Emperor was kept informed of the general progress of the case.
Since the evidence led the first investigators appointed (and they were honest) to the real culprits, they had to be replaced by rogues. In due course, by evidence which would, in any impartial court, be considered insufficient—even to make a man stand trial—a case was framed against Mendel Beiliss, a Jewish clerk in a brick factory where children, including the murdered child, were in the habit of playing. He was then thirty-seven years old, and the father of five children. I wish Mr. Samuel had told us rather more about Beiliss—a gentle, almost saintly man, whose resignation and patience in the face of the most appalling persecution was very moving to all who witnessed it. Perhaps there is little more to be disclosed about him. But he remains a shadowy figure during his two-and-a-half years in prison and the thirty-four-day trial in 1913. After his acquittal, he left Russia for Palestine, but did not prosper there. He died in America in 1934.
The evidence against Beiliss was so slender that the prosecution (even with an almost all-peasant jury and a presiding judge specially picked by the corrupt Shcheglovitov) had little hope of a conviction. Their main purpose during the long trial was to establish the fact that a ritual murder had taken place, and that such ritual murders were a part of Jewish religious practice. For this purpose they proffered the evidence of one Father Pranaitis, a Roman Catholic priest with a criminal past. His evidence consisted of an illiterate hotchpotch of medieval anti-Jewish superstitions, many times condemned by the Vatican (a fact which the prosecution concealed from the jury). His lurid catalogue of the religious uses to which Jews allegedly put the blood of Christians evoked the sardonic comment from the London Times that “it is indeed difficult to see why the huge supply of such a demand has escaped general attention hitherto.”
ALTHOUGH BEILISS was acquitted, the prosecution did in effect succeed, with the help of the presiding judge, by skillfully loading the questions put to the jury, in getting them to record that a ritual murder had been committed. The whole trial was symptomatic of the degeneration during Shcheglovitov’s term of office of the Russian courts, which before then had been among the best in the world. But if the object of those who handled the Beiliss case was to serve the cause of monarchy by linking the revolutionary movement with the Jewish evil, they failed to achieve it. The whole of enlightened opinion in Russia was aroused to fury and indignation—and by no means only liberal opinion, but more widely in the Church, intellectual, and even conservative circles. The whole sordid incident was, in a way, a prelude to that wave of almost universal indignation against an outmoded and obscurantist government, which was to sweep the country during the war and to become a direct cause of the Revolution. The very choice of the frame-up—the medieval ritual murder legend—was in itself symptomatic of the extent to which the more corrupt elements in the Russian administration were becoming out of touch with opinion in the country. Before long the era of ritual murder would be succeeded by the modern theory of the world Jewish conspiracy. The success of this new theory, as launched in Russia in the famous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was much more consonant with the formulations of the age—in Russia and even more outside—forms a fitting sequel to the Beiliss case. It has now been admirably recounted by Professor Norman Cohn.*
IT IS GOOD for this generation, which has witnessed so much vile injustice and diabolical inhumanity perpetrated in the names of Nazism and Communism, to be reminded of these first faltering steps. The wave of international indignation and protest which was aroused when the Beiliss case was launched forms a striking contrast to the comparative equanimity with which Hitler’s preparations for the extermination of the Jews were received outside Germany. As for Stalin’s “trials”—I can recall, not so very long ago, a solemn debate on the BBC on the subject of whether or not they were fairly conducted. The Beiliss trial found its “neutral” commentators too—with their “fair-minded” refusal to prejudice the issue, or to intervene in the internal affairs of another country. But they were but a small voice in the general chorus of protest.
It is, perhaps, in its demonstration of the contrast between the Russian monarchy and the totalitarianism of Communist rule that the Beiliss case is most instructive to us today. There seem to me to be several such points of contrast. First, the fact that even with the aid of the Minister of Justice, and of corrupt officials in the Kiev procuracy, there were limits to what could be achieved in planning and excluding evidence. No such problems ever bothered Stalin—they do not bother the Soviet authorities very much today. The defense team was magnificent in its courage and fearless independence—their names deserve to be recorded once again for posterity to remember: Gruzenberg, V.A. Maklakov, Zarudny, and Grigorovich-Barsky, of whom only the first was a Jew. Secondly, that there were individuals who, at great risk to their careers, resisted all pressure to play the part which the organizers of the case tried to make them play. And finally, the widespread protest of all the leaders of the Russian intelligentsia. It has been the proud boast of the Russian intelligentsia that it has never remained silent in the face of injustice. Lenin, himself sprung from the intelligentsia, was able to do what no Russian monarch had been able to do for long—silence them. Of Stalin one need not speak. Today, once again, the voice of the Russian intelligentsia is being raised in protest inside Russia—long lists of signatures have been appended to letters protesting the treatment of Sinyavsky and Daniel and other violations of elementary justice. We may rightly wax indignant, along with Mr. Samuel, about the injustice done to Mendel Beiliss. It does not alter the fact that an event which at all resembled the Beiliss trial in Soviet Russia today would mark indescribable progress.
Warrant for Genocide, Harper & Row, 268 pp., $6.95. ↩