Menahem Mendel Beilis (1874-1934) was a Russian Jew accused of ritual murder in the “Beilis Affair,” an infamous Russian anti-Semitic trial reminiscent of the better-known Dreyfus Affair. The case was unusual in that this particular blood libel – the fabrication that originated in Western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries claiming that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood in baking Passover matzah – was the only one supported by, if not directed by, a national government; the prosecution was endorsed by Tsar Nicholas II and by the Czarist government at every conceivable level.
The Black Hundreds, a notorious Russian anti-Semitic movement, distributed leaflets proclaiming that Beilis had committed a ritual murder and urging a massive revenge pogrom against the Jews. Russian politicians, including particularly the Minister of Justice, quickly joined the conspiracy, and the government proceeded to manipulate every aspect of the trial to facilitate Beilis’ conviction.
Documents declassified after the 1917 Russian Revolution conclusively prove the depth and scope of the plot to convict Beilis and to defame Judaism and the entire Jewish community, including rigging the jury and bribing and threatening witnesses. The Russian press was especially reprehensible, as it launched a resolute and scandalous anti-Semitic crusade.
Ironically, Beilis ultimately proved almost incidental to his own trial, as he served essentially as merely a bit player in a broader battle fought over the blood libel; as one Russian correspondent wrote: “We must inform our readers of an exceptionally interesting piece of news: Beilis has ceased to be a defendant.”
Little is known about Beilis before the Affair other than that he was raised in a Russian village, served in the Russian military, settled in Kiev, and was the father of five at the time of his arrest. Though born into a chassidic family and educated in cheder until he was conscripted into the Czar’s army as a youth, he was largely indifferent to his Jewish faith. He worked at his factory job on Shabbat which, as we shall see, played an important, albeit ironic, role in his trial defense.
Nonetheless, he expressed great pride in being a Jew; asked by the judge at the beginning of the trial if he was Jewish, Beilis roared: “Yes, I am a Jew!” and, as he later explained in his autobiography (see below), “I did not recognize my own voice when I answered.”
The Affair began on March 12, 1911, when 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky, a Ukrainian boy, disappeared on his way to school, and his mutilated body was found eight days later in a cave near a brick factory where Beilis served as superintendent. Beilis was arrested on July 21, 1911, after a street lamplighter testified that Yushchinsky had been kidnapped by a Jew.
Midway into a two-year period where Beilis sat rotting in his cell awaiting trial, a Russian delegation entered his cell and, in an attempt to get him to incriminate himself and the Jewish community, advised that he would be freed under a pardon to be issued on the 300th anniversary of the reign of the Romanov dynasty.
Beilis heroically refused the “pardon,” saying that he would never play a part in having false charges being brought against his fellow Jews, and insisted that he would remain in his cell until he received a fair trial and was cleared of all charges.
The first Russian detective assigned to the case was fired, prosecuted, and jailed after he concluded that the murder had been committed by a Russian gang and that Beilis was innocent. The second chief investigator was Nikolay Krasovsky, the foremost detective in the Kiev Police Department, who persisted in his investigation in the face of significant government pressure to railroad Beilis.
The Russian government not only fired Krasovsky, one of the true heroes of the story; it prosecuted him for stealing eight cents from a prisoner nine years earlier (he was ultimately acquitted) and also fired the prosecutor and the investigating magistrate, both of whom were determined to handle the Beilis Affair objectively and lawfully.
Beilis was represented by some of Russia’s most prominent defense lawyers, including lead attorney Oscar Gruzenberg and Vasily Alexievitch Maklakov. Exhibited here is a 1914 correspondence written (in Russian) to Maklakov by the representatives of the Vilnius Jewish Congregation thanking him for defending “law and truth and the honor of the Jewish people and of Russia during these sad times, when people full of hatred spread libels against the Jews.”
Among the prosecution “experts” who testified at Beilis’ 34-day trial (which took place from September 25-October 28, 1913), was Justinas Pranaitis, a Catholic priest well-known for his anti-Semitic work, Talmud Unmasked (1892). He was presented as a “religious expert in Judaic rituals,” and testified that Yushchinsky was the victim of a Jewish ritual murder.
In one of the more amusing developments at the trial, Beilis’ lawyers destroyed Pranaitis and proved that the priest was ignorant about even the most basic precepts of Jewish law. Asked on cross-examination by counsel where “Baba Batra lived” [“baba” means “elderly woman” in Russian], Pranaitis testified that he did not know; trial attendees laughed uproariously when Beilis’ lawyers explained to this “great Talmudic expert” that Baba Batra is a Talmudic Tractate.
Defense experts, including two leading Russian professors and a renowned Russian philosopher, testified to the beauty of Jewish values, and the respected Rabbi Mazeh of Moscow explained that Jewish law not only prohibits spilling blood but, indeed, bans the consumption of any blood, even animal blood.
Most ironically, some of Beilis’ lawyers’ strongest arguments were based upon the fact that he was not an observant Jew. First, his alibi: He was working, on Shabbat, with his gentile co-workers, who testified that he was with them at the factory at the time Yushchinsky was abducted; moreover, his lawyers introduced into evidence receipt slips signed by Beilis that morning for a shipment of bricks.
Second, it was common knowledge that Beilis was not a practicing Jew, making it very difficult for the prosecution to convince the jury that he was somehow part of a “fringe group” of ultra-observant Jews called “chassidim,” who performed the “traditional Jewish blood libel ritual.” (Another irony: Beilis had not a clue as to what a “chassid” was.)
One significant obstacle that the prosecution faced from the very beginning of the case was that Beilis was broadly respected, even beloved, by the gentiles in his neighborhood, some of whom referred to him as “our Mendel.” During the 1905 pogroms, even the local priest protected the Beilis family, which had sold him bricks for his orphanage at a discounted rate. Beilis later expressed heartfelt gratitude to Russian non-Jews who exhibited “real heroism, real sacrifice” in defending him and who persisted “because they knew I was innocent.”
The lamplighter – who, as it turned out, had maliciously implicated Beilis to obtain revenge against him for threatening to report him for stealing bricks from the factory – recanted in court and confessed that the Russian secret police had plied him with vodka to get him to incriminate Beilis.
Even Yushchinsky’s mother refused to incriminate Beilis. In one comical episode, after the prosecution devoted significant effort to “proving” that the 13 wounds on a certain part of the victim’s body were related to Jewish mysticism and the number 13, prosecutors were publicly humiliated when it turned out that there were actually 14 wounds there.
The case was so poor and the prosecution so inept that even in anti-Semitic Russia, the jury – which the Russian government had packed with no less than seven members of the notorious Union of the Russian People – returned a not-guilty verdict. There exists some dispute as to the vote, with some authorities claiming that the verdict was unanimous, but it is now generally recognized that the result was 6-6 which, pursuant to Russian law, resulted in an acquittal.
However, many people forget that the jury nevertheless determined that Yushchinsky had been the victim of a ritual murder; thus, even today, the Beilis Affair remains critical to Russian and Ukrainian anti-Semites, who treat Yushchinsky’s gravesite as a holy shrine and make annual pilgrimages there.
The anti-Semitic policies of the Russian Empire were harshly criticized worldwide, and the verdict was broadly seen as a black eye for the Czarist government. In fact, the trial was to be the last of its kind although, of course, the blood libel itself continues to this day. Nonetheless, even after the trial, the government doubled-down and, in an effort to repair its image abroad, the Minister of Justice sponsored the publication of The Murder of Andrei Yushchinsky, which defended the Czar’s persecution of the Jews.
As such, notwithstanding the verdict, Russian Jews were left with a feeling of hopelessness, and the Beilis Affair may have led to some Jewish support for the Russian Revolution only a few years later. After the Revolution, when the Provisional Government prosecuted former Czarist ministers for crimes against the Russian people, the Beilis case was the first case it investigated, and the Revolutionary Tribunal convicted and executed several ministers.
Due to his great fame and the reverence he received after the trial, Beilis received countless offers to make commercial appearances and the like, and he could have become a very wealthy man living off his fame. However, refusing to exploit himself as a Jew, declining to cash in on his status as a Jewish victim, and deciding that his future was in Eretz Yisrael, he and his family made aliyah and made their home on a farm purchased for them there by Baron Edmond Rothschild.
Though he fared very poorly financially, Beilis was determined to remain in Eretz Yisrael, which he had come to love, but by 1921 the situation became so dire that he was forced to leave for the United States, where he settled in New York.
In 1925, Beilis self-published The Story of My Sufferings in Yiddish (it was later translated into English and Russian), in which he presented a comprehensive account of his experiences. Exhibited here is a truly rare and remarkable item, the title page of the book and its frontispiece page featuring a formal portrait of Beilis on which he inscribed greetings to one Dr. Max Weinberg.
Ruminating on his life, Beilis marveled that “I lived to see the rotten czarist regime crumble…. I lived to tell the whole story, and that is a miracle.” His funeral was attended by over 4,000 people and, in perhaps his greatest legacy, a poignant New York Times obituary reported that Jews “always believed that his conduct saved his countrymen from a pogrom.”
Bernard Malamud later used Beilis’ story as the basis for his 1966 novel, The Fixer (some commentators make a credible case for the proposition that Malamud actually plagiarized Beilis’ memoir), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.