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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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In The Fixer, Bok is actually poisoned by prison authorities, goes on a hunger strike, then demands to eat from the common pot. The almost verbatim borrowings from Beilis are italicized:

“I won’t eat what you give me. You can shoot me but I won’t eat.”

“If you expect to eat, eat what you get. If not you’ll starve.”

For the next five days Yakov starved. He exchanged the sickness of poisoning for the sickness of starving. He lay on the mattress, sleeping fitfully. Zhitnyak threatened him with a whipping but nothing came of it. On the sixth day the warden returned to the cell, his cross-eye watering and face flushed. “I command you to eat.”

“Only out of the common pot,” Yakov said weakly. “What the other prisoners eat. I will eat. Let me go to the kitchen and take my gruel and soup out of the common pot.”

“It cannot be allowed,” said the warden. “You mustn’t leave your cell. You are under strict confinement. Other prisoners are not allowed to look at you. It’s all in the regulations.”

They can turn their heads while I draw my rations.”

The following illustration of Malamud’s plagiarism is perhaps the most distressing, though it does not involve as much verbatim copying as many of the others. After one year of imprisonment, Beilis reports being approached by a curious contingent led by a general:

The general came closer to me and said: “Beilis, you will soon be let free.” “On what grounds?” I ask him. His answer was: “The tercentary jubilee of the reign of the Romanoff dynasty is soon to be celebrated. There will be a manifesto pardoning all ‘katorjniks’ [convicts].”

“That manifesto,” said I, “will be for ‘katorjniks,’ not for me. I need no manifesto, I need a fair trial.”

“If you will be ordered to be released, you’ll have to go.”

“No,—even if you open the doors of prison, and threaten me with shooting, I shall not leave. I shall not go without a trial. I am strong enough to suffer all until the trial.”

Similarly, after years of imprisonment, Malamud’s Yakov Bok is informed that in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the rule of the House of Romanov he is “to be pardoned and permitted to return to his village.” Bok demurs, however, since he would be pardoned as a criminal and not released as innocent. “Yakov said he wanted a fair trial, not a pardon. If they ordered him to leave the prison without a trial they would have to shoot him first.”

As discussed below, literary critics have congratulated Malamud on his great inventiveness in making up the pardon incident, not realizing that the incident actually happened, and that Beilis’ heroic refusal of a pardon was lifted by Malamud from Beilis’s memoir.

In Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, Malamud’s biographer Philip Davis does take note of our plagiarism claims. Davis acknowledges that we had made “a case for plagiarism against Malamud, quite properly and carefully detailing some close verbal parallels.” Davis also offers a justification of Malamud’s conduct, however; he argues that “[w]hen it mattered most, [Malamud’s] sentences offered a different dimension and a deeper emotion.”

Yet we believe that unauthorized copying is plagiarism, whether or not the plagiarist uses his undeniably literary talent to improve on his source. We also believe, and argue in our book, that, in this case, Malamud did not improve on his source: Beilis’ memoir, in its truth and directness, is a better book than the often-labored fictionalized version produced by Malamud.

***

The differences between the historical Mendel Beilis and Malamud’s character Yakov Bok have caused considerable confusion. As drawn by Malamud, Bok is angry, foul-mouthed, cuckolded, and childless. Also, he is not at all religious; indeed, he is anti-religious. A penniless shtetl Jew just arrived in Kiev, Bok has virtually no friends and virtually no family save his father-in-law Shmuel. His faithless wife Raisl has deserted him. Bok appears to bear much or most of the responsibility for the breakup of their marriage: He treated her poorly, blaming her for their failure to have children.

When his father-in-law implores him not to forget his God, Bok replies: “Who forgets who? … What do I get from him but a bang on the head and a stream of piss in my face. So what’s there to be worshipful about?” On the way to Kiev, Bok admonishes his horse: “I’m a bitter man, you bastard horse. Come to your senses or you’ll suffer.”

While Bok is in prison, his wife Raisl visits him. She exclaims: “Oh, Yakov, what have they done to you? What did you do to yourself? How did such a terrible thing happen?” He responds: “You stinking whore, what did you do to me? It wasn’t enough we were poor as dirt and childless. On top of that you had to be a whore.” During this meeting, Yakov’s wife informs him that she has had a child as a result of a relationship with another man, evidently one of several such relationships. He thinks: “There’s no bottom to my bitterness.” (However, in a moving scene, Yakov does agree to sign a paper stating, falsely, that the child is his.)

The actual Mendel Beilis was very different: a dignified, respectful, fairly religious man with a faithful wife and five children. When arrested, Beilis had been working as superintendent of a brick factory for about 15 years. By all accounts he was good at his job and was extremely well-liked by his co-workers and neighbors (as discussed further below). Beilis was not a totally observant Jew. He worked on Saturday—fortunately for him, as he was signing shipping slips and dealing with co-workers during the time when he was alleged to have kidnapped the Christian boy. Nevertheless, Beilis was fairly observant. Here is how he describes his first Friday night in the Okhrana (secret police) jail:

As night came on, I remembered that this was the first Friday night in all my life that the evening was spoiled. I thought of my usual Friday nights with the candles on the table, with the children dressed in their Sabbath best, and everybody so warm and friendly. And now? The house in disorder. My poor wife alone at the cheerless table. No light, no joy. And all of them weeping their eyes out. I almost forgot my own troubles, thinking of my unfortunate boy [David Beilis, then 8 years old, who was briefly imprisoned in the Okhrana jail] and my mourning family.

The New York Times story on Beilis’ funeral, dated July 10, 1934, begins: “Orthodox Jewry paid tribute yesterday to one of its leaders when more than 4,000 attended funeral services for Mendel Beiliss [sic].” This was inaccurate in that Beilis was not a leader of Orthodox Jewry; a more accurate statement would have been that “Orthodox Jewry paid tribute to one of its honored figures.” Still, the Times story is an indication that Beilis was broadly part of the world of traditional Judaism. Another indication is the 1930 letter of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate, which Beilis included in the 1931 Second Yiddish edition of his memoir (the letter is also reproduced, in translation, in our own edition of Beilis’s memoir).

***

David Beilis, one of Mendel Beilis’ five children (and the father of Jay Beilis), complained to Malamud soon after The Fixer was published. David Beilis was upset about Malamud’s plagiarism, but far more upset about the debasement of his father’s memory and that of his mother, Esther Beilis. In a letter to Malamud dated Dec. 11, 1966, David Beilis criticized The Fixer as “lousy” and as “an unkind view” of his father. David Beilis felt that Malamud’s portrayal of Bok as a God-despising Jew demeaned his father’s crucial role as surrogate for the Jewish people and its holy texts, which were collectively accused of ritual murder by the Russian Black Hundreds. David Beilis wrote, “Everybody knows that in the defendant’s dock at the trial with my father sat fifteen million Jews with the glorified book the Bible which we are proud of for centuries before, and to come.”

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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