A Child of Christian Blood
By Edmund Levin
In March 1911, shortly before Passover, Andrei Yushchinsky, a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy, was found murdered in an industrial district of Kiev. The police botched the investigation and, then, under pressure from the Black Hundreds, an ultra-nationalist group that organized pogroms, they charged Mendel Beilis with the crime.
Beilis was a clerk at a Jewish-owned brick factory located near the cave in which the child’s body was found. The case was framed as one of ritual murder. Jews had murdered the boy to drain his blood to make matzo – the traditional blood libel.
It took three years to bring Beilis to trial. For much of that time, in accordance with the Russian legal system, he was unable to communicate with his family or even his lawyers.
A Child of Christian Blood, Edmund Levin’s book about the case, is well researched and vividly written. The case was sensational at the time, and Levin shows how it played into international politics. Imperial Germany was the first foreign government to protest. It had an interest in straining the Russian alliance with Britain and France. The United States preferred silence, because of a pending trade treaty with Russia. Jewish groups in the west wavered.
Four years after the trial, the Russian Empire collapsed. The Soviet government had a commission study the Beilis trial. In 1989, the Soviet state collapsed, and much original material, including the case files at the Kiev courthouse, became available. Levin, apparently, was the first author to use these materials to write a history. He also uses a trial transcript commissioned by a newspaper, contemporary newspaper accounts, interviews with Beilis, and memoirs by Beilis and others, including some of his lawyers.
Levin’s narrative actually begins centuries earlier, in 1150, in England, when a monk named Thomas of Monmouth published a monograph in which he claimed to solve the murder of a 12-year-old boy, which happened some years before. Levin says Thomas’ book is the precise origin of the blood libel that soon spread all over Europe. As the epigraph to his book, Levin uses an excerpt from The Prioress’ Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer, which tells the story of a ritual murder.
Even in medieval times, European governments rejected the blood libel myth. The papacy denounced it and Levin connects its revival at the beginning of the 20th century in Russia to the autocracy of Czar Nicholas II, who believed he had divine right to govern the Russian Empire and a mystical bond with his people. Anti-Semitism was an organizing principle of his rule, and officials seeking the czar’s favour promoted framing the Beilis case as a blood libel. Other officials, though also anti-Semitic, opposed it, but were overruled. They seem to have thought it would give anti-Semitism a bad name.
The centrepiece of the book is Levin’s day-by-day narrative of the trial. Beilis was well represented by strong lawyers, including Oskar Gruzenburg, Russia’s most prominent Jewish attorney. The prosecution’s case consisted largely of trumped-up expert evidence that Chasidic Jews engaged in ritual murder, along with hearsay evidence against Beilis. Under Russian procedural rules, the judge put two questions to the jury: was the crime consistent with ritual murder; and did Beilis do it?
The jury of Ukrainian peasants answered “yes” to the question of whether it was a ritual murder, but “no” to the question of whether Beilis did it. Apparently, the jury determined he was the wrong Jew. The czar, though, considered the outcome a victory.
Beilis and his family were able to move to the United States after the First World War and he wrote a book, The Story of My Sufferings, originally published in Yiddish in 1925, about his experience. Beilis’ story was also the basis of Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer, which also became a film.
Levin closes A Child of Christian Blood with examples of how the Nazis made use of the blood libel, and then describes the post-Holocaust pogroms in Poland, which were sparked by ritual murder stories (the most notorious was in Kielce, where 42 Jews were killed in 1946).
If Levin publishes a second edition, he can mention Wolf Blitzer’s CNN interview on August 4 with Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan.
“We remember how the Jews killed Christians to use their blood for their holy matzo,” said Hamdan.
Challenged by Blitzer, he neither retracts nor substantiates what he said, but makes long complaints about Israeli politicians.
A century after the Beilis case, the blood libel remains a propaganda weapon. It doesn’t have to be proved, or even believed, only repeated.