One hundred years ago, czarist Russia was convulsed by the “Beilis Affair” — the trial of my grandfather, Mendel Beilis, on charges that he ritually murdered a Christian child and used his blood to make matzo for Passover. Beilis was arrested in Kiev by the czarist secret police and imprisoned for more than two years, under horrible conditions.
The czarist government brought enormous pressure to bear on him, seeking a false confession, but he heroically refused to implicate himself or other Jews. In the autumn of 1913, Beilis was finally brought to trial and was acquitted by an all-Christian jury. This dramatic denouement was covered in detail by the world’s major papers.
Beilis’s acquittal was a minor miracle. The government had packed the jury, and seven of the 12 jurors were members of an anti-Semitic Black Hundreds organization.
According to Oskar Gruzenberg, Beilis’s lead defense counsel, the jury initially voted to convict Beilis by a vote of 7 to 5, which would have led to a verdict of “guilty” under Russian law at the time. However, “when the foreman began taking the final vote, one peasant rose to his feet, prayed to the icon and said, resolutely, ‘I don’t want to have this sin on my soul — he’s not guilty.’”
Beilis was forever grateful to the Jews and gentiles who helped him to escape the blood libel. He was especially grateful to his unexpected non-Jewish champions. Years later, when Beilis was asked for his outstanding impression of the trial, he answered: “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.”
After his acquittal, Beilis spent a number of years in Palestine. He then moved to New York, where, in 1926, he published a memoir, “The Story of My Sufferings.” He died eight years later, in 1934. According to a report in The New York Times, his funeral was attended by more than 4,000 people. The Times article noted that Beilis’s “fellow Jews always believed that his conduct during the… two years [of his imprisonment] saved his countrymen from a pogrom.”
The trial of Mendel Beilis was the last and most notorious of the European blood libel trials. The blood libel — the charge that Jews ritually murder gentile children — has not completely died out. In recent years, however, the term “blood libel” has been used as a political metaphor perhaps as often as it has been used to denote false accusations of Jewish ritual murder. Those who proclaim their innocence in response to politically charged accusations of complicity in injury or death sometimes refer to the accusations as a “blood libel.”
I am annoyed and a little offended by such implied comparisons, as was my grandfather when similar comparisons were made during his lifetime. In a 1933 interview, my grandfather reportedly “laughed in scorn” when told that the suspects in a politically charged murder case had referred to themselves as “Beilisites.” But on the positive side, when the term “blood libel” is used casually as a metaphor for innocence, it is at least a tribute to the complete innocence of Jews who have been accused of ritual murder over the centuries.
Though the Beilis Affair was one of the major events of the pre-World War I period, it has receded from public memory. Regrettably, many people confuse the events of the Beilis Affair with the fictionalized version presented in Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel “The Fixer” — and they confuse my grandfather’s character with that of Malamud’s protagonist Yakov Bok. The actual Mendel Beilis was a dignified, respectful, well-liked, fairly religious family man with a faithful wife and five children. Malamud’s Bok, though ultimately a heroic figure, is an angry, foul-mouthed, cuckolded, friendless, childless blasphemer.
Malamud’s novel has long been a sore spot for members of my family. Shortly after “The Fixer” was published, my father, David Beilis, complained to Malamud that his novel presented an “unkind view” of my grandfather and that Malamud had plagiarized my grandfather’s 1926 memoir.
As the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s trial has raised interest in him, I hope that it can be an occasion to remember the real Mendel Beilis and what his ordeal meant for the unfolding of 20th-century Jewish and world history.
Jay Beilis is a co-editor of the book “Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis” (CreateSpace Independence Publishing Platform, 2011). This oped was written with the assistance of Mark S. Stein.