Trial of Menahem Mendel Beilis Begins, 1913
On This Day in Jewish History: September 25, 1913.
On this day in 1913, the trial of Mendel Beilis began in Kiev in the Russian Empire. It would become an international spectacle, displaying on the world stage antisemitic forces in that country but also fierce opponents of the enemies of the Jews. On March 20, 1911, the mutilated body of a Ukrainian boy named Andrei Iushchinskii (often spelled Yushchinky) was found in a cave not far from a brick factory. Beilis was employed at the factory as a superintendent and was implicated in the boy’s murder when a lamplighter told authorities the boy had been killed by a Jew. The Russian legal system went into operation aiming to please the antisemitic Czar Nicholas II. But investigations into the murder revealed that Beilis had an airtight alibi. He had been working on Saturday morning, the Sabbath notwithstanding, and his Gentile co-workers testified to his being on the job that day. Furthermore, documentary evidence in the form of bills signed by Beilis at the factory that morning further supported his claims of innocence.
Without hard evidence to support their indictment, the government prosecution turned to the centuries-old antisemitic canard of the blood ritual, namely, that as a Jew, Beilis had murdered the boy to use his blood in a religious ceremony. Their efforts were reinforced by the notoriously antisemitic organization known as the Black Hundreds who called for a pogrom against the Jews in retaliation for the boy’s death. While in prison awaiting trial, Beilis steadfastly maintained his innocence, even refusing to be released as part of a program that would have tacitly implied his guilt. The trial lasted one month and drew world-wide attention. The prosecution called on the alleged expert testimony of a Catholic priest who claimed deep knowledge of Jewish practice and texts. The defense challenged the priest with Moscow Rabbi Iakov Maze, whose testimony about Jewish customs exposed the prosecution’s witness as totally ignorant about the Talmud and Jewish religious ritual. Jewish and non-Jewish lawyers worked on the Beilis defense and an international outcry condemned the antisemitic prosecution of a man Russian authorities knew was innocent. Investigations had already found substantial evidence that the murder of Iushchinskii had been the work of a criminal outfit known as the Cherbiak Gang. The all-Christian jury found Beilis not guilty. The trial illuminated the virulent antisemitism that informed the Russian government at the time but also the outrage it provoked among Jews and non-Jews around the world.
After his exoneration, Beilis moved to Palestine but after his economic fortunes suffered, he reluctantly emigrated to the United States in 1921. In 1925, Beilis published a memoir in Yiddish, its English title being The Story of My Sufferings. He died in 1934 at the age of 59. His story would loosely form the basis for The Fixer, Bernard Malamud’s prize-winning novel published in 1966. And while the novel would bring the Beilis Affair to the attention of a whole new generation, Malamud acknowledged that his work of fiction radically altered the events and historical personages who played a role in the Beilis Affair.