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Bernard Malamud’s ‘The Fixer’ Is a Jewish Classic. But Did It Defame and Plagiarize a Hero?

Mendel Beilis’ grandson takes up the cause a century after the blood-libel trial that riveted the Jewish world

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Mendel Beilis (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
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The blood-libel trial of Mendel Beilis, which occurred 100 years ago this month, was one of the great legal dramas of the 20th century. Beilis, a Jew, was arrested in 1911 by the Czarist Russian secret police in Kiev and accused of ritually murdering a Christian boy and using the boy’s blood to bake matzah for Passover. Jailed for over two years while awaiting trial under horrible conditions, Beilis heroically resisted all pressure to implicate himself or other Jews.

In 1913, after a dramatic trial that riveted the Jewish people and much of the rest of the world, Beilis was acquitted by an all-Christian jury. After his acquittal, Beilis moved to Palestine, and then to New York. In 1925, he published a memoir in Yiddish. In 1926, Beilis published an English translation of his memoir titled The Story of My Sufferings, with translation by Harrison Goldberg.

But the most famous evocation of Beilis’ story was written not by him but by Bernard Malamud, whose 1966 novel The Fixerwith a protagonist, Yakov Bok, patterned after Beilis—went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. “By the late twentieth century,” the historian Albert Lindemann noted, “memory of the Beilis case came to be inextricably fused (and confused) with … The Fixer.” And yet, neither in The Fixer nor in any of his public statements about The Fixer did Malamud ever acknowledge the great debt he owed to Beilis’ book.

We, the authors of this article—including Jay Beilis, a grandson of Mendel Beilis—have published a new edition of Mendel Beilis’ memoir, in a volume titled Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis. Our book also contains a long essay, “Pulitzer Plagiarism,” setting forth two complaints about The Fixer: that Malamud debased the memories of Beilis and his wife, and also that he plagiarized extensively from Beilis’ memoir, presenting another man’s account of his terrible suffering and heroic choices as fictions of his own invention.

***

In Blood Libel, we detail 35 specific instances of plagiarism. Following are a few of them. When quoting from Beilis’ memoir in this part of the article, we quote from the 1926 English edition, rather than our own edition, because the 1926 edition is what Malamud read.

In the first interrogation, Beilis is questioned by the hostile District Attorney Karbovsky:

The District Attorney, Karbovsky who had been leaning back on his chair, watching me intently, suddenly bent over the table and asked me:

“They say there are people among you Jews who are called ‘tzadikim’ (pious men). When one wishes to do harm to another man, you go to the ‘Tzadik’ and give him a ‘pidion’ (fee), and the ‘tzadik’ uses the power of his word which is sufficient to bring misfortune upon other men. …”

The Hebrew words that he was using, “Tzadik,” “pidion” and the like were written down in his notebook and each time he wanted to use the word he would consult his notebook. I answered:

“I am sorry but I know nothing about ‘tzadikim,’ ‘pidionoth’ or any other of these things. I am a man entirely devoted to my business, and I don’t understand what you want of me.”

Malamud depicts Yakov Bok’s interrogation by the hostile Prosecuting Attorney Grubeshov in strikingly similar fashion:

Grubeshov addressed Yakov, reading aloud certain words from his notebook and pronouncing them slowly.

“There are those among you—are there not?—Jews who are called ‘tzadikim’? When a Jew wishes to harm a Christian, or as you call him ‘goyim,’ he goes to the ‘tzadik’ and gives him a ‘pidion,’ which is a fee of some sort, and the ‘tzadik’ uses the power of the word, in magical incantations, to bring misfortune on the Christian. Isn’t that a true fact? Answer me.”

“Please,” said Yakov, “I don’t understand what you want of me. What have I to do with such things?”

At the prison hospital, Beilis is treated for his infected feet by an anti-Semitic doctor:

After the good rest I had … I was operated upon by the physician. When he commenced to open the sores, the pain made me wince and scream. The doctor smiled and observed, “Well, Beilis, now you know for yourself how it feels to be cut up. You can imagine now how Andriusha had felt when you were stabbing him and drawing his blood—all for the sake of your religion.” You can imagine how cheerful I felt at this raillery of the doctor. He kept on cutting leisurely and I had to bite my lips not to let myself scream.

Malamud’s Bok is also treated by an anti-Semitic doctor:

When he awoke, the surgeon, smoking a cigar, unwound the bandages and operated on his feet. He cut into the pussing sores with a scalpel, without anesthetic. The prisoner, biting his lips to be silent, cried out at each cut.

“This is good for you, Bok,” said the surgeon. “Now you know how poor Zhenia felt when you were stabbing him and draining his blood, all for the sake of your Jewish religion.”

Every time Beilis was searched, all the locks on his cell had to be opened, which unnerved him: “[E]ach time the door was to be opened, all thirteen locks had to be shot back. The sound of the rasping lock-springs used to set my nerves on edge. I was obsessed with the illusion that somebody behind me was hitting me repeatedly upon the head—it was one blow after another.”

Malamud’s Bok has the same reaction to the unlocking of his cell: “Hearing the six bolts being snapped back one by one, four or five times a day, put the fixer on edge. … Six times a day [the] key grated in the lock, and one by one the twelve bolts were snapped back, each with a noise like a pistol shot. Yakov put his hands to his head, obsessed by the thought that someone was hitting him repeatedly.”

The list of passages in The Fixer that borrow without attribution from Beilis’ autobiography goes on and on. In one striking passage of his memoir, Beilis is warned by his attorney that the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds might attempt to kill him by poisoning his individual portions of prison food, in order to stave off defeat in the courtroom. Beilis therefore petitions the court authorities to allow him to take food from the common kettle:

My petition was at first refused. I was told, “if you want to eat, eat what you are given—if not, you can starve. No special privileges for you. We shall not poison you—it is your Jews that you have to beware of. They are not satisfied with using our blood and are inventing additional lies to make us appear ridiculous.”

I had reasons to be stubborn. I declared a hunger strike. Three days elapsed—whenever a prisoner doesn’t eat for a few days the [prosecutor] is summoned to investigate. The [prosecutor] appeared. I told him I should like to get my food myself from the kettle—not to have it brought into my room.

His reply was: “It cannot be permitted; you must not leave your cell. You are supposed to be under strict confinement. The other prisoners and guards must not even look at you.”

“Well,” I answered, “let them turn away.”

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Bernard Malamud’s ‘The Fixer’ Is a Jewish Classic. But Did It Defame and Plagiarize a Hero?

Mendel Beilis’ grandson takes up the cause a century after the blood-libel trial that riveted the Jewish world