Blood Accusation: The Strange History of the Beiliss Case
by Maurice Samuel
Knopf, 286 pp., $5.95
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 …