The Blood Libel Against Mendel Beilis
An overview of the notorious 1913 ritual murder trial in Kiev, known as the "Beilis Affair".
In 1911, Mendel Beilis was an ordinary man working in a brick factory in Kiev, Russia, when he was suddenly thrust into the international spotlight. The accusation against him was age-old: that he had ritually slaughtered a Christian boy to use the child’s blood for Passover matzah.
Mr. Beilis was arrested and thrown into prison. Christian groups began propagating rumors that the Jews wanted him dead so that he wouldn’t compromise their “Passover practice.”
At one point his lawyer warned him that an ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic group called the Black Hundreds would try to poison the food he received daily from his family, and attempt to pin his death on the Jews. Mr. Beilis then petitioned to be allowed to eat from the “commoners’ pot,” a pail of putrid slop that was placed in the center of each cell. Inmates were forced to share the few spoons provided, and the pails were also used to clean dirty laundry.
No matter how repulsive the prospect, Mr. Beilis knew that his survival was at stake. But prison officials denied his petition, stating, “You’ll eat what you’re given, or starve. There will be no special privileges for you.”
Mr. Beilis responded by declaring a hunger strike. Given the international attention the case had already garnered, the prison authorities were forced to relent after three days, and he was permitted to take part in the communal fare.
Russian law prevented family visitation until a trial date was set. As the trial was postponed again and again, Mr. Beilis was so filled with anguish that he contemplated suicide. “Death is better than such a life,” he wrote. Yet he ultimately thought better of it, realizing that the case wasn’t just about him. “My death would leave a stain on the Jews,” he reasoned. “The Jew-haters would say I did it because I wasn’t able to prove my innocence, or that the Jews did me in so the truth wouldn’t be exposed.”
This thought sustained him through two years of imprisonment and a historic trial, from which he emerged an unlikely and reluctant hero.
Menachem Mendel Beilis was born in 1874 to an observant Jewish family. He was raised in a small village and studied at the local cheder, Jewish primary school. As a young boy he was drafted into the czar’s army, a practice intended to promote assimilation. While he knew some basics about Judaism, he wrote in his autobiography, The Story of My Suffering, “I did not have the opportunity to learn about Jewish observance in depth.”
After marrying his wife, Esther, he began working in a brick factory that belonged to her uncle in the town of Mezhgorye, Ukraine. He later became the overseer of a brick factory in Kiev. “My work was restricted to the office, where I was in charge of the selling and the shipping,” he recalled. He described living an uneventful life alongside his Russian neighbors. The young couple practiced traditional Judaism, adhering to many observances, but not all.
The Kiev factory was in a district where Jews were not permitted to live. At the factory owner’s request, Mr. Beilis was granted special permission by the local authorities to live on the factory grounds. This situation prevented him from attending synagogue services or being part of a Jewish community. The factory was open on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, and he took some part in the day’s work.
Mr. Beilis had a reputation as a compassionate, honest man. When pogroms raged across Russia in 1905, the Beilises, as the only Jews in their area, were in imminent danger, until a local priest came to their aid. Mr. Beilis had sold the priest bricks for his orphanage at a discounted rate, and now the priest went to the local police, urging them to provide a private guard for the Beilis family.
In another show of kindness, Mr. Beilis regularly allowed funeral processions to pass through the brick factory’s grounds, since that was the most direct route from the city to the district cemetery. A nearby factory—run by a Christian—did not.
He took his job seriously, and ensured his workers did the same. “We all know Beilis is an honest man,” a worker later testified at his trial.
“I thanked G-d for what I had, and was content with my life,” Mr. Beilis wrote. “After all, I had a secure, respectable position… I expected to spend the rest of my life in contentment.”
Fate had it otherwise. Mr. Beilis would become the center of a bizarre plot concocted by a group of rabid anti-Semites and promoted by some of the highest officials in czarist Russia.
Czar Nicholas II was no friend of the Jews. Under his reign, some 450 laws governed everything from where Jews could live to what types of businesses they could own. In the habit of anti-Semites, he blamed all political unrest on the Jews, and as revolution appeared on Russia’s horizon, there was plenty of blame to go around.
The Beilis Affair, as it became known, was a classic blood libel, a fabrication sourced back to a Welsh monk, Thomas of Monmouth, who wrote a book in the year 1150 investigating the murder of a twelve-year-old boy in Norwich, England. Desperate to prove that the boy was a martyr, he introduced the idea of ritual murder as a Jewish Passover rite. He also pioneered the sophistry and calculated obtuseness that would mark all subsequent accusations of Jewish ritual murder.
Mendel Beilis in prison garb.
In 1235, after five Christian boys were killed in Fulda, Germany, residents and traveling Crusaders accused the town’s Jews of ritual murder and burned thirty-four people at the stake. Historians surmise that the accusation sprang from the imaginations of those who knew of Thomas’s original slander.
Almost seven hundred years later, on March 20, 1911, the body of thirteen-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky, a student at the Kiev Religious School, was found by two children playing in a warren of caves that was a popular destination for treasure hunters. One of the boys ran to his stepfather, who summoned the police. Word spread quickly, and “crowds of the curious surrounded the cave in a thick circle,” one newspaper account noted. Much of the evidence was disturbed by initial gawkers.
Several suspects were taken into custody, including the mother, stepfather and other family members of the victim.
Student Vladimir Golubev, leader of Black Hundred organization Double-Headed Eagle, who fabricated the guilt of Beilis.
Despite the lack of any evidence to support their claim, the Black Hundreds immediately accused the Jews of murdering Andrei for ritual purposes. At the funeral, held a few days before Passover, small white leaflets floated over the cemetery that read, “Orthodox Christians! The Zhids [Jews] tortured Andrusha Yushchinsky to death! Every year before Passover, they torture several dozen Christian children to death in order to mix blood into their matzah…”
A young man named Nikolai Pavlovitch was arrested on suspicion of incitement to violence for distributing the inflammatory leaflets. Mr. Pavlovitch was not only a member of the Black Hundreds, but was also associated with the Union of Russian People and the Double-Headed Eagle, all fanatical right-wing groups.
Even while the Yushchinsky family was still suspect, allegedly motivated by a promissory note for a large of sum of money that had been left to the boy by his estranged father, another possible suspect was being investigated. Vera Cheberyak was the mother of the dead boy’s best friend, Yevgeny, who had been the last person to see Andrei before he vanished. Mrs. Cheberyak was the leader of a violent gang of thieves who lived in the neighborhood where the body was found.
When a local newspaper published an article fueling the charge of ritual murder, Vasily Feneko, Kiev’s “investigating magistrate for especially important cases,” posted an appeal for calm: “Neither the circumstances nor the motive of the crime have been established. The Investigating Magistrate requests all persons who have any information about this case to inform him of such, verbally or in written form.”
After the official investigation came to a dead end, the Black Hundreds criticized the police for their failure. They insisted that the Jews be investigated immediately, but the prosecutors were still reluctant. Chief Prosecutor Nikolai Brandorf and Mr. Feneko believed the claims were absurd. The coroner’s findings suggested that the act was one of revenge, not bloodletting.
The first mention of Mendel Beilis occurred in a May deposition given by Vladimir Golubev, a Kiev University student who headed the Double-Headed Eagle youth group. Mr. Golubev decided to investigate on his own, beginning with the Jews.
He told the police that near the cave where the body was found was a Jewish estate, and “the manager of the estate and brick factory is a certain Jew named Mendel… who, after the discovery of Yushchinsky’s body, behaved somewhat strangely, giving out candy to children and asking them not to say anything to the police.”
Mr. Golubev was relentless in fabricating evidence, bringing forward numerous “witnesses” and concocted testimony. Pressured by the fact that the investigation had otherwise failed, and the public outrage over the arrest of Andrei’s mother and relatives, the lead prosecutor, Grigory Chaplinsky, made the momentous decision to arrest Mr. Beilis on July 22, 1911.
Beilis in court
Mr. Beilis recalled the event in his autobiography: “Suddenly I heard knocking on the door, such knocking that I thought there was, G-d forbid, a fire at the factory. I jumped out of bed and ran barefoot to open the door. As soon as it opened, approximately twelve men stormed in screaming loudly, ‘Are you Beilis? You are arrested, arrested!’ They surrounded me on all sides, standing firmly as if they were afraid I would break away from their hold and escape. I tried to ask them: ‘Why? What?’”
He was told that he would soon find out, and was led on a two-mile walk to the local jail. Thus began two grueling years of incarceration on the charge of being part of a “fringe group” of Jews, the chassidim, who had murdered Andrei Yushchinsky.
In truth, Beilis did not know what a chassid was. Founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer in the 18th century, the Chassidic movement was initially opposed by many scholarly Jews, who called themselves mitnagdim, “opposers.” By the time of the trial, these differences were, for the most part, history.
When asked by the interrogators if he was a chassid or a mitnaged, Mr. Beilis answered: “I am a Jew and I don’t know the difference between these two groups. We are all Jews.”
On October 25, 1913, Mr. Beilis was led into a courtroom surrounded by guards. The proceedings were open to the press, with some 150 news organizations, mostly foreign, covering the daily events. Many did so prominently on their front pages.
At the time, the Russian judicial system was held in high esteem by the Western world. Russian trials were rather freeform, and less systematic than Western ones. People were permitted to interject with questions at any time, including the judge and the accused.
Legal procedures were mostly observed. There were depositions, and the judge was seemingly prejudiced in favor of the prosecution. Their case, however, was mindboggling and absurd, which becomes obvious from reading transcripts of the trial.
Mr. Beilis was represented pro bono by four renowned lawyers with experience in the area of incitement against minorities. The prosecution, by contrast, had a mediocre team, one of whose members was Alexei Shmakov, a notoriously proud anti-Semite who famously decorated his study with pictures of Jewish noses.
The proceedings began with the judge questioning Mr. Beilis:
What is your name? Menachem Mendel Tevye Beilis.
How old are you? Thirty-nine.
How many children do you have? Five.
Your place of permanent residence? Kiev.
Are you a Jew? Yes, a Jew!
This last answer was delivered in a shout. As he noted in his autobiography, “I did not recognize my own voice when I answered.”
The proceedings were very tiring for Mr. Beilis, who repeatedly wept during the testimony. His emotions clearly made the judge uncomfortable, and moved many of the spectators, but as one reporter wrote, “It is obvious that Beilis is not a broken man. [He had an] expression of suffering, not of a timid or submissive person, but an indignant one.”
As the days wore on, however, it appeared that the case was not really about Mr. Beilis, whose name was hardly mentioned. As one journalist wrote in the Kiev Opinion, “We must inform our readers of an exceptionally interesting piece of news: Beilis has ceased to be a defendant.”
Historians note that the trial’s focus was to vindicate Mrs. Cheberyak by fabricating that it must have been Beilis who did it. The female gangster, who had given numerous depositions, and only in the last one named Mr. Beilis, was one of the prosecution’s star witnesses.
She claimed that her son, who was deceased by the time of the trial and could not testify, had told her that he had been playing with Andrei Yushchinsky on the clay grinder in the brick factory, and that Mendel Beilis had seen and chased after them. Only her son had been able to escape.
Unable to recall her web of lies, Mrs. Cheberyak asked that the court reporter read her previous depositions aloud before she began to testify. The judge refused her request, and she repeatedly stumbled over her own conflicting testimony, often saying that she couldn’t remember.
An obvious lie was exposed when she was presented with her husband’s testimony. Her husband, whom she had blinded years earlier by throwing acid in his eyes, testified that his stepson had told him about the incident with Mr. Beilis immediately after it occurred. The defense lawyer inquired whether this information was shared with Mrs. Cheberyak as well, and if so, why she had not mentioned Mr. Beilis in her first deposition.
“I didn’t pay it any attention and didn’t attach any significance to it,” she replied, severely damaging her credibility.
On the eleventh day of the trial, Mrs. Cheberyak claimed that her son had recently gone to buy milk from Mr. Beilis, who at one time owned a cow, and seen two strangely attired Jews in long black garments. The prosecution’s claim was that these were chassidim, Mr. Beilis’s accomplices in the murder. Mrs. Cheberyak, however, was unaware that the cow had been sold in September of 1910, and witnesses were brought to testify to that fact.
The testimony of several lamplighters further undermined Mrs. Cheberyak’s claims. Called by the prosecution, their depositions contained many conflicting versions of the same events. The judge interrupted and began questioning them himself:
Did the detectives tell you to testify against Beilis?
The detectives gave us vodka to drink. They told us to say this and that.
Why were there so many changes in your testimony? Did they coach you?
Did they give you liquor until you were drunk?
Yes, until we were drunk.
When Mr. Golubev, who had originally fabricated the blood libel, was called to testify, he passionately declared that Mr. Beilis came from a long line of righteous people, tzaddikim. He was referring to the Chabad dynasty, whose third leader was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. Not only did Mr. Beilis have a distinguished lineage, Mr. Golubev claimed, but he was himself a tzaddik. At this, Mr. Beilis burst out laughing.
As the trial drew to an end, the prosecution began calling so-called experts to explain Jewish practices and rituals. One such person was Justin Pranaitis, a Catholic priest who was introduced as an authority on Judaism. In a humorous exchange, the defense asked him, “Where did Baba Batra live, and what was she famous for?” The word “baba” in Russian means an elderly woman. It was presumed that Mr. Pranaitis would not know that Baba Batra is a Talmudic tractate, on which he claimed to be an expert. “I don’t know,” he responded, causing the courtroom to erupt in laughter. One spectator had to be escorted out.
Life in Prison
Life in prison was miserable. Mr. Beilis longed to hear from his family, and initially felt completely abandoned. The future tormented him. “When will there be an end to my misfortunes?” he wrote.
He was once hospitalized when his feet became swollen and infected from walking without shoes on the cold cement floor of the prison. The prison physician treated his feet without anesthesia, telling him: “Well, Beilis, now you know for yourself how it feels to be cut up.”
He was indicted after eight months, and only then given clearance to meet his lawyers. Learning that he was being defended by several successful Russian lawyers, he grew optimistic that he might be released.
He soon learned from a cellmate, whom officials interrogated, that the case against him was weak. “They are looking for yesterday’s snow,” the man told him.
Mr. Beilis’s heroism and sacrifice continued throughout his imprisonment. He had been in prison for one year when a visiting general informed him that he would soon be free. “On what grounds?” Mr. Beilis asked. The general responded, “The three-hundredth anniversary jubilee of the reign of the Romanov dynasty is soon to be celebrated. There will be a manifesto pardoning all convicts.”
Mr. Beilis declared that he would not leave, even if ordered to do so. “Even if you threaten me with shooting, I shall not go without a trial. I am strong enough to suffer until then,” he said.
On another occasion, a prison guard told him that if he would only confess “the truth,” that he had murdered the boy, he would be given everything he wanted, and even granted permission to leave Russia.
The prisoner was quick to respond. “You are right,” Mr. Beilis said. “The world is waiting to hear the truth. The real truth will come out during the trial.”
Though his Torah education had been cut short when he was drafted into the army, he wrote: “I still remembered some words from my days in cheder, such as ‘Eizehu gibor? Hakoveish et yitzro (‘Who is mighty? He who conquers his evil inclination’). This verse would constantly float in front of my eyes when the thought of suicide arose. I had to be a hero and restrain the evil inclination and live.”
At the end of the exhausting trial, the judge asked Mr. Beilis if he had any final remarks. “I could say much in my defense,” he declared, “but I am tired and have no strength. You can see that I am innocent, and I ask to be acquitted so I can see my poor children who have been waiting for me for two and a half years.”
Mr. Beilis was taken back to prison.
The following morning, the jury was tasked with resolving two charges. Did the case have the characteristics of a ritual murder, and was Mendel Beilis the murderer?
An hour and twenty minutes later, the jury had reached its verdict. Mr. Beilis recalled his fear as he looked at the somber faces of the jury, certain that their composure pointed to a guilty verdict. He consoled himself with the thought that the entire world was observing the spectacle, and that the truth was known. “This gave me the courage I needed to hold out until the end,” he wrote.
The jury ruled that while the death had the characteristics of a ritual murder, Mr. Beilis was “not guilty,” and all charges were dropped. “You are a free man,” the judge told him. “You may take your place among the public.”
A gasp of relief was heard in the courtroom, followed by tears of happiness and joyful embraces. Mr. Beilis wept openly.
Nevertheless, radical groups celebrated the ambiguous verdict, which had given legal legitimacy to the blood libel, and threw a bash for the prosecution in Moscow.
Historians have attributed Mr. Beilis’s acquittal to the many people, Jews and gentiles, who came to his defense during the trial.
Mr. Beilis himself expressed his gratitude to the Russian gentiles who defended him. “There was real heroism, real sacrifice,” he wrote. “They knew that by defending me their careers would be ruined; even their very lives wouldn’t be safe. But they persisted, because they knew I was innocent.”
Two months before his death in 1934, Mr. Beilis wrote to his attorney: “I can never forget you. In your work, you suffered just as I did, and your great pride and courage gave me much strength. I remember very well when you, my dear friend, came to me when I was in the prison at Lukianov. When I saw you for the first time, I was immediately comforted. I am happy. G-d permitted me to live, and I am able to write to you. I have not lived a single day without mentioning you.”
Father Alexander Glabolev, a Kiev professor and authority on Jewish religion, also defended Mr. Beilis. When asked if there was a Jewish ritual to take the blood of a young boy for religious practice, he denied it absolutely, noting that Jewish law clearly prohibits the ingestion of blood, and that the practice is not mentioned in any Jewish texts. “[It is] counter to the principles of Judaism, ancient and modern,” he said.
Investigative Magistrate Vasily Feneko also tried to stop the prosecution, insisting that there was no evidence to indicate that Mr. Beilis, or anyone else associated with the factory, was involved in the murder.
He later recalled, “In order to prove the insufficiency of the basis for charging Beilis, I scribbled down on a piece of paper all of the arguments laid out by [Prosecutor] Chaplinsky, and it added up to some kind of unbelievable assortment of suppositions and guesses, but no logical framework of a pattern of evidence. When I read aloud this shameful—from my point of view—indictment, and expected that it would convince him of the impossibility of charging a person with murder, let alone for a ritual purpose, the effect was the opposite.”
Former detective Nikolai Krakovsky also defended Mr. Beilis. He completed an independent investigation and concluded that Mrs. Cheberyak was at the very least an accomplice to the murder, and published his findings in a major newspaper. He was jailed for undermining the prosecution.
Mr. Beilis felt forever indebted to these individuals.
Fame without Fortune
The first night after his acquittal, Mr. Beilis could not sleep. “This was my first night of freedom. Who could sleep on such a night? Who could waste such precious moments for sleep?” he wrote.
The next morning, thousands of people massed around his house. They had all come to congratulate him.
Mr. Beilis wanted to return to normal life, but could not; he had become a celebrity. As people continued to flock to his home, he decided to admit himself into a hospital so he could recuperate from his imprisonment, but even there the crowds found him. So he gave up and returned home.
He had little money to his name, and his savings were running out. Yet initially he decided to remain in Kiev in order to prove to the Black Hundreds that they couldn’t force him to run.
He later moved to the Land of Israel (then Palestine), where he was extremely happy. However, he was soon forced to escape when World War I broke out and Palestine became unsafe. He immigrated to America and settled in New York, where he was given a rent-free apartment in Hunts Point, Bronx. He began to sell insurance for a living, and eventually wrote and published his memoirs.
Twenty years after his release, he told the Jewish Daily Bulletin: “I am still living it over. It never leaves my mind. Awake, I think of it, and at night my sleep is troubled with it. It seems as if it were only yesterday that the nightmare ended and I became a free man once more.”
While it was reported that he was a wealthy man, he was not. He refused offers of money from across the globe. One banker offered him a large salary just to sit in his bank for a few hours a day, but Mr. Beilis responded that he would not exploit his life story for personal gain.
“All these offers involved exploiting myself as a Jew and as a Jewish victim of a cruel and unjust persecution,” he told the reporter. “So I refused. And I would still refuse today. Even now I am occasionally approached by those who would like to use my name.”
Mr. Beilis never enjoyed his life in New York, saying that the pace was too fast and that he preferred Palestine.
Perhaps what brought him the greatest satisfaction was the downfall of the regime that persecuted him. “I lived to see the rotten czarist regime crumble,” he said. “I lived to tell the whole story, and that is a miracle.”
Mendel Beilis passed away on July 7, 1934 (Tammuz 24, 5694).