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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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These insults are demonstrably false. Kazin’s statement that “Beilis was not a favorite with many who knew him best” is contradicted by the view of historians, based largely on the trial transcript, that Beilis was well-nigh universally liked, even loved, by his neighbors and co-workers in Russia. As Professor Lindemann puts it,

Mendel Beilis was a modest person, but he seems to have been one of the most respected, even beloved men in his neighborhood. That neighborhood, it should be noted, was composed entirely of Gentiles, since Beilis and his family, benefiting from [his employer’s] special privileges, did not live in the Jewish districts of the city. The prosecution was repeatedly frustrated in its efforts to get hostile testimony against Beilis. Time and again, those who knew him had only praise for “our Mendel.”

Beilis’ defense attorney, in his summation, referred to Beilis’ co-workers who had testified at the trial: “You have seen these simple, earthy Christian workers, who worked alongside of Beilis day in and day out. Did they utter one derogatory word against Beilis?” Beilis’ reputation was so sterling that the prosecutor, Vipper, had to argue that a good man could commit ritual murder. The historian Maurice Samuel describes Vipper’s argument as follows:

Apart from his participation in ritual murders, argued Vipper, Beiliss [sic] might very well be an admirable character. … So many witnesses had testified in his favor, none in his disfavor. “It is entirely possible,” said Vipper, “that Mendel Beiliss is a fine family man, a virtuous and industrious worker like any other Jew living in modest circumstances, and a religious one. But does that prevent him from committing a crime?”

It might trouble the jury, said Vipper, that a man with such an excellent reputation should be capable of ritual murder, but they were not for that reason to suppose that the reputation was undeserved. On the contrary, the more Beiliss deserved the good opinion of his neighbors, the more likely was it that as a Jew he practiced ritual murder.

Kazin’s statement that Beilis “could never forgive even the many Jews and non-Jews who backed him up against the hatred that had seeped into his prison cell” is also demonstrably false. Beilis’ memoir is brimming with gratitude to the many Jews and non-Jews who aided him. His most effusive thanks went to his Gentile defenders who took up his cause outside the courtroom. In Chapter 26 of his memoir, he remarked:

For the first time during the trial, I became fully aware of the remarkable work performed by Messrs. Brazul-Brushkovsky [a journalist] and Krasovsky [a detective]; of their heroic efforts to uncover the highly-protected murderer. While in prison, I had only a vague idea of their energy and the results achieved by them in my behalf. I had already received some information about Mr. Margolin [one of Beilis’ Jewish attorneys]. I had never imagined, however, that “real” Russians, non-Jews such as Messrs. Yablonovsky [a journalist], Brushkovsky and Krasovsky, would actually sacrifice their safety and positions, all in the interest of truth. Never will I, or my family, forget, to the last day of our lives, these wonderful and enlightened men.

To similar effect is an interview Beilis gave to the Jewish Daily Bulletin in 1933, on the 20th anniversary of the trial in Kiev. The last question Beilis was asked in this interview was: “Could Mr. Beilis give one outstanding impression of the trial in Kiev?” Beilis responded:

Yes. The Russian Gentiles, who sacrificed themselves for me. There was real heroism, real sacrifice. They knew that by defending me their careers would be ruined, even their very lives would not be safe. But they persisted because they knew I was innocent.

But I lived to see the rotten Czarist regime crumble. I lived to tell the whole story, and that is a miracle.

Approximately two months before his death in 1934, Beilis sent a letter to Oskar Gruzenberg, a Russian-Jewish attorney who had been the lead defense counsel at his trial in 1913. After Beilis’ death, Gruzenberg made the letter public, and it was published in English translation by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. As published, Beilis’ April 1934 letter to Gruzenberg begins:

I can never forget you. In your works then you suffered just as I did, and your great pride and courage gave me much strength.

I remember very well when you, my dear friend, came to me when I was in the prison at Lukianov. When I saw you for the first time I was immediately comforted. I am happy. God permitted me to live and I am able to write to you. I have not lived a single day without mentioning you.

I read in an American newspaper what you wrote [on the 20th anniversary of the trial]. At each word I shed tears, and I kissed each of your words, dear friend.

This letter is, as far as we know, the last recorded utterance of Mendel Beilis.

So, where did Kazin get his false notions about Beilis? Let us quote Kazin again, this time in broader context:

Beilis … could never forgive even the many Jews and non-Jews who backed him up against the hatred that had seeped into his prison cell.

As Dreyfus was personally not liked by many who fought for his release from Devil’s Island, so Beilis was not a favorite with many who knew him best. Malamud describes Bok’s gruffness, his hatred of the deserting wife, and especially his refusal to ask God for help.

Thus, in the very next sentence after asserting falsely that Beilis was generally disliked, in the very same paragraph, Kazin goes on to describe some qualities of the fictional character Bok that made him disliked or unlikable. It is obvious, from this context, that Kazin thinks the less favorable character traits Malamud gave to Bok represent traits of the actual Mendel Beilis. This confusion, on the part of a leading literary critic, proves the worthlessness of Malamud’s blithe reassurance to David Beilis that The Fixer “makes no attempt to portray Mendel Beilis or his wife.”

***

Granting that David Beilis was right to be concerned about the memory of his parents, it might be wondered whether he or anyone else can justly complain about the debasement of a real person in fiction. Authors of novels often base their characters on real people and portray those characters in an unflattering light—and countless parents and spouses of novelists have suffered heartache as a result. Was Malamud’s transformation of Beilis any different from what novelists do as a matter of course?

We believe that false and unflattering portrayals of clearly identifiable persons in fiction do present an ethical question for writers. But Malamud is particularly subject to rebuke. It is surely worse for a novelist to portray a real person in an unflattering light when that person has come into the public eye because he or she has suffered unjustly. And Malamud’s conduct is worse still, because he plagiarized so extensively from Beilis’ memoir. Having done so, we contend, Malamud forfeited any artistic license to give his Beilis-based character, and that character’s wife, unfavorable traits that would predictably be imputed to Beilis and his wife.

We have criticized Bernard Malamud at length for his plagiarism and his debasement of Beilis’ memory. We want to make it clear, however, that the term “blood libel,” in the title of our book Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis, does not refer to anything that Malamud did. The blood libel was visited on Beilis by the “wicked, bestial hands of [the] enemies” of the Jewish people, in Rabbi Kook’s phrase, not by a novelist. We do not believe that Beilis would have wanted the term “blood libel” to be used to describe mere literary misbehavior, even when he was himself the victim of that misbehavior. To do so would minimize the blood libel that imprisoned Beilis and threatened his life and that, distressingly, is still brandished by enemies of the Jewish people.

Some may also wonder if it is worthwhile to criticize Malamud at all at this late date. After all, Malamud is dead, as are Mendel Beilis and all of his children. Yet the confusions that Malamud created persist: People continue to read The Fixer and continue to believe, falsely, that Malamud invented those parts that he copied from Beilis and then cite those passages as evidence of Malamud’s literary genius, rather than the moral genius of the man whose life the novelist appropriated without attribution, and then distorted. In order to do justice to the memory of Mendel Beilis, who behaved heroically in real life, it is necessary to clear away the fictional confusions created by Malamud.

***

This article is adapted from the authors’ 2011 book Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis. Portions of this article also previously appeared in the authors’ law review article “Pulitzer Plagiarism,” published by Cardozo Law Review de novo in 2010.

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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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