The Beilis Conspiracy
A century after the last blood libel trial, the idea that Jews drink Christian vital fluid is still alive and well
After the trial was over, Beilis wrote a memoir, The Story of My Sufferings, the most remarkable part of which is his memory of how many non-Jewish Russians, including even a few diehard members of the Black Hundreds (the anti-Semitic organization responsible for many pogroms), ardently professed their support for the beleaguered Jew. When he was in jail, Beilis remembered, a fellow prisoner embraced him and wept, hoping aloud that God would protect Beilis, because “the Jews are an honest people”; when Beilis’ wife and children visited him, prison guards turned aside with tears in their eyes. The detectives first assigned to the case, along with the chief of Kiev’s secret police, were sent to jail as a result of their belief that Beilis must be innocent.
In his trial, Beilis was defiant when he needed to be. He answered one of the judge’s opening questions, “To what religion do you belong?” with, he remembered, “something approaching a shout”: “I am a Jew.” As the trial went on, the prosecution’s case collapsed. The workers that Beilis supervised testified to his honesty; they knew he was incapable of murder. A 10-year-old boy, a friend of the dead Andrei, had been primed by the Tcheberiak gang to testify that Andrei had often played near the brick factory and had been chased off the factory grounds by Beilis. Instead, the boy stated that Andrei had never gone near the factory. The student who had distributed the anti-Semitic leaflets at Andrei’s funeral fainted when he took the stand. Then, in a moment of high drama, the lamplighter who had originally said that Beilis had chased Andrei from the brickyard recanted his testimony, proclaiming, “I am a Christian and fear God. Why should I ruin an innocent man?”
The prize piece of evidence for the prosecution was theological: expert opinion that would prove that Jews engaged in ritual murder. Here, the prosecution thought, was perfect material to sway a jury of uneducated Russian peasants. But they could find only two expert witnesses, and neither of them was persuasive. One was a priest who turned out to be a convert from Judaism; he admitted that he had never seen or heard any trace of ritual murder in his father’s Jewish house, but had only been told of the bloody practice by Christians. The second expert witness was a Catholic priest named Father Pranaitis. (To the prosecution’s dismay, the Orthodox scholars they wanted were nowhere to be found.) Pranaitis claimed to be an accomplished scholar of Jewish practices and beliefs, but the defense unmasked him as a fraud whose knowledge of Hebrew was practically nonexistent. The climax of the hapless priest’s humiliation by Beilis’ legal team (led by Oskar Gruzenberg, who was renowned for his championing of Jewish causes) occurred when they asked Pranaitis, “When did Baba Batra live and what was her activity?” When Pranaitis answered, “I don’t know,” the Jews in the courtroom erupted in laughter. Baba Batra is one of the most famous tractates of the Talmud; but Baba in Russian means grandmother—the Christian “expert” was easily tricked.
The judge, however, stood steadfast in his determination to find Beilis guilty. His final instructions to the jury were somber and pointed: “This trial … has touched upon a matter which concerns the existence of the whole Russian people. There are people who drink our blood.” Despite such heavy-handed instruction, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty (although they did indicate that they believed a ritual murder had occurred).
After the verdict, wild jubilation stormed the courtroom. Beilis reported that a “very distinguished and gigantic looking Russian,” a factory owner who had left his business for a month to attend the trial, approached him with these words: “Now, the Lord be blessed, I can go home rejoicing. … I wish you all the happiness in the world, Beilis.” The freed Jew became an instant celebrity. In the fall of 1913, three plays about Beilis ran at the same time in New York, featuring the greatest stars of the Yiddish stage.
From the moment he became a free man again, Beilis found himself mobbed by throngs of admirers, who had come from all over Europe to see him. At one point, he wrote later, he had 7,000 visitors a day. Some insisted that they must see him or they would commit suicide. A Russian priest knelt and kissed Beilis’ hand, asking forgiveness. Finally, Beilis left Russia, unable to bear the harassment of constant adulation. When his train passed through Lvov, word got out that Beilis was on it: A swelling crowd demanded to see him and threatened to damage the station or sit down on the tracks if he did not appear. Beilis turned away offers to make his home in London and New York and chose Palestine instead. Even in Eretz Yisrael there was a heated competition for his presence: The Jews of Jerusalem reminded him that they had prayed for him at the kotel and told him it would be an insult for him to settle in Tel Aviv—but he did.
Beilis wrote that, during his visit to the Temple Mount, he was permitted to enter the Dome of the Rock by “one of the leading Arabs,” who told him, “You belong to the three great Jewish heroes and martyrs”—Dreyfus was another, the Arab said; Beilis didn’t catch the name of the third. Beilis’ memoir ends with his departure for New York, after nine years in the holy land. The Rothschilds and others had promised Beilis financial assistance. “But could I live on promises?” Beilis lamented that he never received the money. There was no livelihood in Palestine; the new world, the true goldene medina, beckoned.
Mendel Beilis entered the limelight again, long after his death in New York in 1934, when Bernard Malamud decided to write a novel based on his prison experience. The novel was The Fixer, which would win for Malamud both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. (The title refers to the hero’s vocation: He is a repairman before he becomes a factory supervisor.) For his book, a tour de force of misery and dry wit, Malamud drew conspicuously on Beilis’ memoir. Six times a day, Beilis wrote, he was subjected to body searches. The door of his cell had 13 heavy locks, and each had to be shot back with a blood-chilling clang before Beilis was stripped and inspected by taunting guards. Malamud changed the number of locks from 13 to 12, but his account of the searches is clearly modeled on Beilis’ version. One of Beilis’ sons later charged Malamud with plagiarizing his father’s memoir; there are in fact strong resemblances between Beilis’ account of his prison life and Malamud’s version.
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