● A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel
By Edmund Levin
Schocken, 362 pages, $28.95
A little more than 100 years ago, an innocent man was about to go on trial. His alleged crime: the murder of a 13-year-old boy two years earlier, found dead of multiple stab wounds in a Kiev cave. The man was Jewish. The boy was not. The crime, as portrayed by many with a larger, cynical agenda, carried echoes of the Middle Ages, when Crusaders accused Jews of blood libels on a disturbingly regular basis. Those who protested publicly, and the many more who did so privately, knew full well the man had not killed the boy. But the fix seemed in. And even the not guilty verdict brought with it a permanent, anti-Semitic sting.
So goes the rough outline of the case of Menachem Mendel Beilis, a 30-something, unassuming father of five charged with the murder and ritual blood draining of Andrei Yuchinsky, even though there was no direct or circumstantial evidence linking Beilis to the murder. The obvious injustice attracted international attention akin to the Dreyfus case, and when Beilis died in 1934, a free but poor man in America, more than 4,000 people attended his funeral.
And yet, the Beilis case hasn’t resonated with younger generations as has Dreyfus or another parallel example of egregious judicial error, the murder accusation and lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta. The controversy arising from Bernard Malamud’s rewriting of the case as fiction for “The Fixer” — which rankled many for its mean and crude portrayal of Beilis’s stand-in — is nearly 50 years old. To the surprise of Edmund Levin, a writer and producer for “Good Morning America,” the last book on Beilis had been written in the 1960s, and the last one that relied on primary sources was written 30 years before that.
The result of Levin’s research, which involved mining newly accessible archival materials (with the help of two Russian translators) is “A Child of Christian Blood,” a thorough and necessary account of the ins and outs of the Yuchinsky murder. It shows how “the corrupt and decadent Russia of Tsar Nicholas II was pervaded by a violently paranoid fear of ‘Jewish power’” — and how, in the face of a child murder that would shake the Empire to its core, Czarist Russia needed an easy scapegoat.
Levin’s retelling of the Beilis case shows the reader the venal mentality that permeated Czarist Russia, from Kiev street gangs to opportunistic government agents looking to curry favor with their superiors, to the Czar himself whose “obsession with a pure Russia foretold a monarchy that was losing all sense of reality and becoming susceptible to fantasies of the darkest kind.”
At first, Yuchinsky’s murder was looked upon as a family affair, in keeping with police beliefs, regardless of country, that family members are the most likely suspects. But Evgeny Mishchuk, Kiev’s chief of police, was so blinded by this theory that it negated his ability to investigate the crime, and opened the door for talk of ritual murder and blaming the Jews.