When the call came in to do a media junket in Kiev I could hardly believe it. Generally, I try to avoid leaving the land of Israel, except to do kiruv work, but I had been chalashing to go to the Ukraine for a few years and finally my opportunity had arrived. Two catalysts caused my yearning to visit Ukraine: family roots in Kiev and Odessa, and a wish to see the graves of the righteous, especially the Baal Shem Tov’s tomb. I guess you could say that I was seeking my physical and spiritual forefathers in the Ukraine.
But the hook that finally got me there was a conference about antisemitism. Yes, it is ironic, and maybe bold: a conference about antisemitism in Ukraine, home of places like Babi Yar, events like the Khmelnysky Massacre, and modern-day neo-Nazism in the form of the Svoboda Party.
In fact, the whole conference was premised on canonical piece of antisemitism – the 100 year anniversary of the infamous blood libel trial of Mendel Beilis. The following are some of the images that caught my eye and which, I hope, tell the story and the spirit of the Ukraine:
Mendel Beilis was a father of five and a clerk and dispatcher in a brick factory that was run for charitable purposes owned by the Zaitsev family who were beet sugar magnates. All the factory profits went to support a hospital for the indigent of the city of all faiths. The saga began in March of 1911 when the mutilated body of 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky was discovered in a cave not far from the Jewish-owned brick factory on the outskirts of Kiev, where the 39-year-old Beilis worked. Beilis was arrested in July of 1911 in the middle of the night and they also took his son who was 8 years old.
They put him in the secret police prison and kept him and the boy for a few days and then let the boy go but held Beilis for over two years in the horrible conditions. Beilis told a Yiddish newspaper that he considered suicide but he remembered the Torah injunction to be a hero and resist the evil inclination. If the authorities would find him dead, he thought, it would be a proof of his personal guilt, and would substantiate the accusation of the blood libel against the Jews at-large. In the end, Beilis was exonerated, but the murder was still deemed to be of a Jewish ritual nature.
Jay Beilis, the grandson of Mendel Beilis, was on hand at the conference. In his talk he remarked that over the years, many have told him that their grandparents were motivated to leave antisemitic environments, like Ukraine, due to the Beilis Trial and in this way he had actually saved their lives. As he finished speaking, a man came up to him and confirmed that assertion – his grandfather had told him that it was the Beilis Trial that changed the course of his life.