The blood libel is a centuries-old odious antisemitic canard that was used to accuse Jews of murdering Christian children and obtaining the victims’ blood in accordance with the “kosher rules” for the slaughter of animals, and using their blood in the performance of religious rituals, especially the baking of matzot for Passover. Ritual murder claims against the Jews often arose in the context of the otherwise unexplained murders of children and, in many cases, the alleged victims of human sacrifice have become venerated as Christian martyrs.
The origin of this slander against the Jewish people – which included allegations that they poisoned wells and desecrated the “host” – can be traced back to the Crusades, with the first recorded libel occurring in Fulda, Germany, in 1235. Countless recorded cases of blood libel resulted in the arrest and murder of Jews and, with the allegations against individuals often expanding to accusations against all the Jewish people, entire Jewish communities were persecuted, expelled, and murdered.
The most notorious antisemitic political trial was arguably the Dreyfus Affair in France (1894 – 1906) and, although Dreyfus was accused of treason, not ritual murder, the course of the trial and its consequences were similar in many ways to historic blood libel cases. It was in this environment that the notorious Hilsner Affair began.
Leopold Hilsner (1876 -1928) was a physically and mentally limited 23-year-old unemployed Jewish vagabond journeyman with a history of petty theft who lived with his mother in a basement of a German Jewish school paid for by the charitable Polná Jewish community in Bohemia. The Hilsner Affair was a series of antisemitic trials in which he was accused of murdering Anežka Hrůzová, a local 19-year-old Czech Catholic, and using her blood for Jewish rituals. On the afternoon of March 29, 1899, which was Ash Wednesday, Hrůzová, a seamstress, left her place of employment in Polná, a German-speaking town of about 5,000 people, including 212 Jews, in eastern Bohemia about 60 miles from Prague. She set out on her two-mile walk along her usual route running alongside the Březina woods to her home adjacent to the Jewish quarter in the Czech village of Malá Vĕžnice, but she never arrived.
Three days later – on April 1, 1899, the day before Easter – her body was discovered in the forest face down and partially clothed with her throat slit and her bloodied head wrapped in part of her torn blouse. Next to the body, investigators found clothing torn near a pool of blood, some blood-stained stones, parts of her garments, and a rope with which she had been either strangled to death or dragged post-mortem to the place where the corpse was found. Because her disappearance had taken place during Passover and very little blood was found near her body, the authorities quickly concluded that the Christian girl had been murdered by a Jew, who had taken her blood to bake matzot for the holiday. The notorious antisemitic Austrian priest, Father Josef Deckert, published one of the first pamphlets alleging that Anežka was the victim of ritual murder; the Jew-hating Vienna newspaper, Deutsches Volksblatt, piled on; and the Austrian public lost no time in perpetrating the blood libel.
The investigating detectives turned their attention to Hilsner and they focused on his alleged ritual murder motive to the extent that they ignored all other suspects and disregarded all evidence that did not fit into their pre-determined narrative. For example, they never checked out allegations that Anežka was killed by her brother, Jan, who fled to the United States. In 1961, a report spread in Czechoslovakia that Jan made a hospital deathbed confession that he had murdered his sister to put himself in position to inherit their parents’ entire estate. The Czechoslovakian-born Israeli chargé d’affaires in Prague, Eliahu Kurt Livne, gathered evidence about the report and forwarded it to Israel’s Foreign Office, but the deathbed confession story was never confirmed.
A police search of Hilsner’s house yielded no incriminating evidence, and he maintained that he had left the city on the afternoon of the murder long before it could have been committed. Nonetheless, although there was no basis at all to charge him, the local aristocracy and the seditious press urged his prosecution and he was arrested. On the very day of his being taken into custody, hundreds of protestors entered the Jewish quarter and began throwing stones at windows and attacking Jewish shops – evocative of the Kristallnacht that would take place 39 years later – and rioting against Jews throughout Bohemia and Moravia continued throughout the Affair.
At his murder trial on September 12-16, 1899, Hilsner denied all knowledge of the crime. The only alleged physical evidence against him was a pair of damp trousers on which some stains were found, which testifying chemical experts said “might” have been blood and which they said “looked like” an attempt had been made to wash it. One witness had informed the legal committee set up by the local authorities to investigate the crime (which paid for such testimony) that she had seen Hilsner from 2,000 feet away (!) together with two other Jews at the scene of the crime on the day of the murder, but when she later saw Hilsner at his trial, she admitted that she could not be certain he was the same man that she had seen. Nonetheless, the court, after denying several requests by Hilsner’s counsel to test the chief witness’s eyesight, accepted her incriminating “eyewitness” testimony.
Media coverage of the investigation, including particularly in Catholic, Czech nationalist and antisemitic newspapers, focused on Hilsner’s Judaism, the proximity of the murder to Passover, and the ancient blood libel. Similarly, the local medical examiners, emphasizing that the victim’s body had been nearly completely emptied of blood (and that, therefore, the blood had to have been removed by the killer for nefarious purposes), responded to leading questions put to them by the court by raising the blood libel. Karel Baxa, a radical right-wing nationalist politician who served as counsel for the victim’s family and was named by the antisemitic press as “the savior of Christendom,” focused obsessively on the idea of Jewish ritual murder throughout the trial. In the prosecutor’s closing argument, he left little to doubt about Hilsner’s motive: “Disgusting people, people of another race, people who have acted like animals, have murdered a virtuous Christian virgin so that they could use her blood.”
Exhibited here is the Kol Koreh against the blood libel issued by the Rabbis of London in December 1899 during the Hilsner Affair:
A SOLEMN DECLARATION TO ALL THE NATIONS:
We have learned, with grief and indignation, that the most hideous calumny which malice and hatred ever invented, is now being again revived against our people. The terrible accusation is made by evil-disposed persons, and industriously circulated by the antisemitic press, that Jews require human blood for their Passover ritual, or for some other religious rite, public or secret, and that Christian children are consequently entrapped and slaughtered for that purpose.
We should have hoped that no person of sense would attach the slightest credence to this fable, which, though published against us in olden times of persecution and intolerance, has never been supported by a tittle of evidence. It is, moreover, directly at variance with all the well-known laws and customs of Judaism, as handed down to us by our books and traditions, and its falsehood has been acknowledged by eminent heads of the Church and proved by non-Jewish scholars. But as, unfortunately, there are still people who seem to believe this legend of Ritual Murder, and as this belief has lately led to acts of violence and other persecutions being inflicted on Jews in many parts of Austria, and to the spread of ill-will and hatred in many other places, we deem it right to publish this our Solemn Declaration, however painful the necessity for such action on our part.
We solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm that in no book ever written by any man professing the Jewish religion, is there contained any ordinance or direction relating to the use of human blood at the Passover festival, or at any of our celebrations or rites, whether public or domestic. We, the undersigned, holding Rabbinical offices, are the disciples of Rabbis, who have been conversant with every detail of Jewish usage and history, and who have communicated to us all the knowledge of Hebrew law and tradition which they possessed, and we have never heard of such ordinance, direction, custom or usage, whether public or secret, as existing among any community or section of Jews. And whenever our teachers have spoken to us about this allegation of “ritual murder,” they have denounced it as foul and unfunded slander, as we ourselves declare it to be.
And we, will all solemnity, and in the presence of Almighty G-d and man, make our Declaration, as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Although testimony at trial established that Hilsner was incapable of such a violent act – indeed, the doctors believed him too weak to fight alone against the much more vital Anežka – he and two unidentified coconspirators (no attempt was ever made to find these alleged accomplices and to bring them to justice) were convicted of aggravated murder and Hilsner was sentenced to death by hanging. The ramifications of the conviction were felt throughout the Austria-Hungarian empire, but most particularly in Vienna, where an antisemitic assembly, attended by Mayor Karl Lueger, presented the Jews as an international, “interconnected power that could destroy states” and that the Hilsner trial proved that the Jews “have set their foot on our necks; perhaps they want our blood as well.”
On September 20, only a few days after his first trial, Hilsner was confronted by hostile fellow prisoners, who pointed to carpenters working in the prison courtyard, informed him that gallows were being constructed for his hanging, and demanded that he name his “accomplices.” They promised him a commutation of his death sentence if he identified his collaborators and, beyond terrified, he named two Jews, Joshua Erbmann and Solomon Wassermann, as his fellows-in-crime. Perhaps due to his diminished mental capacity, fear and confusion, he reversed course several times: On September 7, he retracted his allegations against the other two Jews; on October 7, he reiterated his accusations against them; and on November 20, he again maintained that he had incorrectly named Erbmann and Wasserman. Fortunately, the alleged collaborators had airtight alibis: one had been incarcerated on the day of the murder, and the other was visiting poorhouses in Moravia at the time.
Hilsner’s counsel appealed to the Supreme Court in Vienna to overturn the verdict, but it received little attention until Tomáš G. Masaryk (1850-1937), the future first president of Czechoslovakia and then a professor of sociology at the Czech University in Prague, intervened forcefully on Hilsner’s behalf and spearheaded the appeal in the Supreme Court. He cited numerous technical errors made at trial, and he argued that the forensic work, the witness testimony, and nearly every other aspect of the case against Hilsner had been a set-up. In an 1899 pamphlet, The Need to Review the Polná Trial, he urged a complete review of the case and demanded a retrial, and in 1900, he authored The Meaning of the Polná Trial for the Blood Superstition, in which he presented a comprehensive attack on the allegation of ritual murder.
Masaryk’s involvement in the case was a gutsy and unpopular move, as he put his reputation, his career, and his future on the line to defend the Jewish people in general, and Hilsner in particular, against the loathsome blood libel. Standing virtually alone in the face of overwhelming hostility, he was vilified by the Church and the Czech media; his pamphlets were banned, and officials at the Czech University forced him to take a leave of absence from his teaching. Known as the “George Washington of Czechoslovakia,” Masaryk proved to be a good friend of the Jews, not only during the Hilsner Affair, but also during his term as president of Czechoslovakia (1918 – 1935).
During the Masaryk era, Czechoslovakia belonged to a small group of states that officially recognized Jewish nationality and granted Jews full civil rights. Masaryk was a strong supporter of Zionism; as he said in 1918:
The Jews will enjoy the same rights as all the other citizens of our State . . . As regards Zionism, I can only express my sympathy with it and with the national movement of the Jewish people in general, since it is of great moral significance. I have observed the Zionist and national movement of the Jews in Europe and in our own country and have come to understand that it is not a movement of political chauvinism, but one striving for the rebirth of its people.
In 1927, Masaryk visited Eretz Yisrael where, upon his arrival in Jerusalem, he was greeted with great affection by a massive crowd that included representatives of virtually every sector of the Jewish community. Heading his reception was Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, chief rabbi of the Edah HaCharedit and a staunch opponent of political Zionism, who escorted the president through the throngs and the decorated streets. In recognition of his friendship with the Jews, the kibbutz Kfar Masaryk in the Galilee was named for him.
In response to Masaryk’s filing and the publicity generated by his pamphlets, the high court ordered the medical faculty at the Czech University in Prague to review the findings of the original medical commission. In its subsequent report, the faculty issued a severe critique of the medical examiners’ criminological work, including particularly their false claim that the amount of blood at the site of Anežka’s corpse was materially less than the amount that should have been found in a violent death. Accordingly, the court nullified the original verdict and remanded the case to the Písek court for a new trial, but now Hilsner faced a second murder accusation: Marie Klímová, a servant who had disappeared on July 17, 1898. When a female body was found on October 27 in the same forest where Anežka’s body had been found, the decomposition was so advanced that the authorities could not even determine whether the girl had been murdered; nonetheless, the condition of the corpse bore some resemblance to that of the Anežka Hrůzová crime scene, which the prosecutor decided constituted sufficient basis for them to charge Hilsner with the murder.
The Supreme Court had expressly rejected the ritual murder theory, so the prosecutor, forced to find a different theory, decided to try Hilsner as a sexual predator, and the prosecution was materially assisted by the testimony of witnesses who, overnight, somehow became more certain in their testimony. For example, a witness who had previously testified that they had seen Hilsner with a knife, but could not provide any description of the weapon, was now adamant that the blade was a schochet’s knife (used by Jews in their ritual kosher slaughtering), and the “strange” Jews who a key witness had claimed she had seen accompanying Hilsner and whom she could not describe were now described in great detail. When Hilsner’s counsel showed the witnesses transcripts of their testimony at the first trial and asked them to compare with it their new testimony at the second trial, they alleged that either they had been intimidated by the judge or that their statements had been incorrectly transcribed.
After a 17-day retrial ending November 14, 1900, Hilsner was convicted of both murders and sentenced to death, but the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1901 by Emperor Franz Josef. Hilsner’s requests for a new trial were all denied and, although he was finally pardoned by Emperor Charles I on March 24, 1918 as one of his first acts upon succeeding to the Hapsburg throne, the conviction was never annulled. (In 1919, the organization for combatting antisemitism in Austria made a futile appeal for a new trial to clear his name, but the attempt failed.) Anežka Hrůzová’s killer was never found and, although suspicions have been directed at various individuals over time, no one else was ever charged with the murders.
It is interesting to note that in writing The Trial, the celebrated novel in which a man is prosecuted by an unknown authority and is tried and convicted of a crime that is never disclosed to him, Franz Kafka was inspired by contemporary historical events, including particularly the Hilsner Affair, which took place in his own country. Allegations that Anežka Hrůzová’s cut throat was consistent with schechita requirements to make an animal kosher must have hit Kafka, the 16-year-old grandson of a shochet, particularly hard, and he was also likely affected by his father’s active involvement in the Central Association for the Preservation of Jewish Affairs, which took a strong public stand in support of Hilsner and against the blood libel hoax.
According to Gustav Janouch, a Czech poet best known for his memoir Conversations with Kafka, Kafka cited the Hilsner Affair as the starting point of his awareness of the Jewish condition: “a despised individual, considered by the surrounding world as a stranger, only tolerated – in other words, a pariah.” In Kafka’s correspondence with Milena Jesenska, one of the great loves of his life, he makes a direct reference to the Hilsner affair as a definitive example of the irrationality of antisemitism: “I cannot understand how people came to this idea of ritual murder.”
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Hilsner spent the rest of his miserable life as a beggar traveling through the Hapsburg monarchy under the name Heller. He exhibited almost unimaginable ingratitude when he rebuked Masaryk after the Czech president declined to meet with him, and an almost psychotic view of his own importance when he claimed that it was he who made Masaryk famous. Hilsner’s tombstone (see exhibit) reads: “As the innocent victim of lies of ritual murder, he languished in prison for 19 years.” A plaque at his final residence reads “Here stood the house where Leopold Hilsner (1876-1928) lived before his death. As an innocent victim of a lie about a ritual murder, he suffered 19 years in jail.”
At the end of the day, the Hilsner Affair was perhaps more terrifying than the Dreyfus Affair and other antisemitic trials of the time because it revived a medieval mode of antisemitism that was theoretically incompatible with supposedly enlightened contemporary society. Jews came to understand the lesson of history, yet again, that antisemitism trumps rationality and modernism.