21 May 2019

Mendel Beilis' blood-libel trial in Kiev 1913

My grandfather told me this story many times in the 1950s. Grandpa was only an adolescent in 1913, at a time when pers­ecution of Jews had never abat­ed. But he believed that immigration visas suddenly opened up for Russian Jews, in a window of opportunity during and after the Beilis trial. What the records do show is that by 1917 the Jewish Emigration Society organised and managed the outflow of endless thousands of Jewish emigres to destinations abroad, before the Society was disbanded in 1917.  Due to Expulsion Edicts, pogroms and revolution, as well as the Beilis Trial.

Beilis with his wife and 5 children, 
after the trial

The libel that Jews committed ritual murder to take Christ­ian chil­d­ren’s blood originated in C12th. In Eng­land in 1144, Norwich Jews were accused of ritual murder-crucifixion after young William of Norwich's body was found. Blood libel trials continued in Gloucester 1168, Bury St Ed­munds 1181 and Bristol 1183. And in 1190, 150 Jews were massac­red in York. Finally every Jew in England was exil­ed in 1290.

In the C19th, blood libels saw a myster­ious revival in Central Europe, with 100+ cases in Germany and Austria-Hungary. This post examines the last blood libel trial in Europe. 
Medieval image of Jews killing a Christian child for his blood

Consider the political background. In Feb 1911 the Duma-parliament began debating the abolishment of the restrict­ive Pale of Settlement. And new elections were pending in the legislature, so there were forces that wanted to prevent liberalising acts. Among them was Tsar Nicholas II, given his strongly anti-Semitic views.

The victim, 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky, was found mangled in a cave on the outskirts of Kiev in March 1911. At first the police concent­rated on Vera Cheberyak (see photo) and her underworld associates. But within days of finding the body Russian anti-Semites, known as either Black Hundreds or Union of the Russian People, began spreading the blood libel. A leaflet passed out at the boy’s funeral read: “The Yids have tortured Andrusha Yushchinsky to death!”

The accused was Mendel Beilis (1874-1934) of Kiev. This 39 year old was an ex-soldier and the father of five children, working as a midd­le level manager at Kiev’s Zaitsev brick factory. After his arrest, Beilis spent 2 years in squalid prison cells, waiting for his trial.

In Kiev, the 34-day Beilis trial in 1913 was presented to a biased jury. Of the 12 jurors, 7 were member of the notoriously anti-Semitic Union of the Russian People.

Beilis received international support. Journalists wrote that the Russian state was charging a Jewish citizen with the ritual murder of a Christian citizen, to drain his blood for the baking of Passover matzo. This Dark Ages accus­at­ion led to indignation and drew the attent­ion of leading cultural, pol­itical and religious fig­ures like HG Wells, Anatole France and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In America, rallies head­lined by social reformers like Jane Addams were huge. The New York Times headlined an editorial The Tsar on Trial.

To prove the char­ge of ritual murder, the prosecution produced a weird collection of wit­ness­es and expert testimony. Among those pres­ented to the jury were: a Catholic priest from Tashkent who testified to the real­ity of the Jewish blood rituals, alcoholics and pathologists on-the-take.  But the most sens­at­ional witness was an attractive prima donna, Vera Cheberyak, leader of an infamous criminal gang in Kiev. A few years earlier she had blinded her young French musician lover by throwing sulfuric acid at him. She was the likely mastermind be­hind the murder of Andrei, her son’s best friend, in revenge for his suspected betrayal of her criminal activity to the police. Yet she ended up as a star witness for the state against Beilis!
Vera Cheberyak 

Detective Nikolai Krasovsky found that Vera Cheberiak was responsible for the murder. 
Krasovsky paid dearly for his honesty.

The fate of a huge country was at stake, given that after the 1905 revolution, Tsar Nicholas had already agreed to a constit­ution and a parliament. Beilis’ lawyer reminded the court that already by 1913 the Tsar was constantly und­er­mining emerging democratic institutions. Tsarist autocracy was clearly even more regressive than feared.

Tsarist officials were fully aware of the obvious weakness of their case. By the end of the trial, the state had devised an ingenious insurance policy against any possible failure to convict. The issue of ritual murder would be separated from the guilt of the defendant. The jury would be asked: First, did it accept the prosecution’s desc­rip­t­ion of the crime as having been committed at the Jewish-owned brick factory? The words Ritual Murder were not used, but the implic­ation was clear: the crime had all the hallmarks of the bloody Jewish rite. Second, was the defendant guilty of committing the crime “out of motives of religious fanaticism”?

Most courtroom observers believed the uneducated, peasant-dominated jury would vote with the prosecution on both quest­ions. But the jury voted Yes on the first question and found Beilis not guilty of the crime. 

Beilis had been starved and unwashed for 2 years, before he won his freedom. He warmly thanked the Russian gentiles who risked sacrificing their careers for him – the barristers, phil­osophers, detectives and professors who stood up for him in court and the journalists outside court. The Beilis family moved to Palestine, then to America in 1921.

Recent History 
The case maintained the myth of Jewish ritual murder. In 1926, the official Nazi Party newspaper devoted a series to the Beilis affair. In the 1930s, Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi weekly Der Sturmer, propagand­ised for Jewish ritual murder charges, devoting special issues to the subject. In May 1943, head of the SS Hein­rich Himmler sent a book on Jewish ritual murder, which included an entire chapter on the Beilis trial, to the Einsatz­gruppen-death squads.

After WW2 the Beilis case in Kiev survived in the collective memory. The worst post-war pogrom in Poland occurred in July 1946 in Kielce, where a mob killed 42 Jews & wounded 80. A Jewish del­eg­ation wanted a state­ment from Bishop Wyszinski of Lublin, condemning anti-Semitism. He wouldn’t con­d­emn blood libel anti-Semitism, writing that “during the Beilis trial, the matter was not definitive­ly set­t­l­ed.”

100+ years after the trial, the Beilis case remains a rallying point for the extreme right in Russia and Ukraine; Andrei Yushchinsky's gravesite is their place of holy pilgrimage.

Robert Weinberg, 
Blood Libel in Late Imper­ial Russia, 2003

Bernard Malamud used the trial for his great 1967 novel, The Fixer. Read Robert Weinberg’s Blood Libel in Late Imper­ial Russia, 2003.  And Ritual Murder in Russia, Eastern Europe and Beyond, edited by Eugene Avrutin et al. Thank you to Chabad.Org for the photos. 


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I have always thought that the "blood libel" was a strange form of attack, since it has zero basis in fact, evidence or even logic. Matzo is not dark, and the consumption of blood contradicts every Kosher and Jewish religious principle. Even if the common people did not know this (although the slightest iota of common sense would have told them), religious scholars like that bishop who would not refute the idea certainly did.

Consumption of blood is perhaps not exactly cannibalism, but is closely allied to it. I recommend a book called The Man-Eating Myth, by W. Arens, in which the author states his opinion that most instances of ritual cannibalism never happened, but were instead a way of putting down the group accused. E.g., the South American Indians were 'cannibals' so the Spanish had a clear right to annihilate them and take their gold--just what such non-Christians deserved. It is amazing how worked up people can get over issues with no evidence, provided their agendas are being fulfilled.

LMK said...

I agree with Parnassus. The Torah forbids the consumption of animal blood such that kosher meat must be totally drained of blood. If any blood is accidentally dropped on a plate, that plate must be thrown out. If Jews took anything from Christian children to use in Jewish rituals, it could have been their shoes, hats, hair or toys, but it could not have been their blood.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I read The Fixer and saw the film, both very good. The really weird thing is, the blood libel hasn’t completely gone. I have heard of someone asking a Jewish woman quite politely how she managed to get blood for matzah these days, and another who said no thanks to matzah because they were vegetarian!

Actually, I read somewhere that the Romans thought the same thing about Christians because of the “eat my body and drink my blood” thing. Ironic, if so.

Hels said...


using an extreme libel is a VERY effective way of putting down whichever group is being accused, yes. But only if the accusation is believable. Can you imagine if you said that, rather than South American Indians being cannibals centuries ago, Buckingham Palace cooked small children for the royals' dinner every night. People would laugh at the stupidity of the suggestion! So the accused group must be outsiders .. and the accusation must be at least remotely possible.

What is the most fearful thing that Jews and Muslims do? They circumcise their boys! I think that was the basis of medieval Christian fears.

Hels said...


agreed. Touching blood in the kitchen would be unacceptable in Jewish homes, and using blood in the manufacturing of Jewish food is even sillier. But blood is so explosive and scary, the medieval libel writers could not have found a better symbol.

The C12th introduced this new charge against the Jews, proving to most Christians that the Jews should be converted, ostracised, abused or killed. See: http://www.newantisemitism.com/antisemitism/the-blood-libel-a-twenty-first-century-medieval-myth-against-the-jews

Hels said...


Christianity Today focuses on your exact point. The reference Jesus made to "eating his flesh" and "drinking his blood" is a metaphorical way of describing the person who draws on of the reality of his atoning sacrifice by putting personal faith in him. When we realise that Jesus is confronting us through his word, then we have to respond to him. The flesh and the blood are words which point to Jesus' death as a sacrifice, receiving him as he confronts us as Savior and Lord.

My question is: why was this clearly a metaphor... whereas the blood libel regarding matzah was taken literally?

dercy lyne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...

dercy lyne

I don't do advertising, especially if the advertising has nothing to do with the post in question. Do you have a comment about Russia, the pre-WW1 era, blood libels or anything relevant?

Andrew said...

I had an attack of the Dercy Lynes this morning, on my recent ten posts. I had to delete seven and the unpublished three oldest ones were sent to spam. My suggestion is to delete the comment forever and your own. Don't engage.

Now, as if Jewish people would drink blood, let alone Christian blood. I wonder how aware the jury was of local and international public pressure. It is hard to believe that the matter is still taken seriously by the extreme right, no doubt for propaganda purposes to draw in the less educated and worldly.

Hels said...


the blood libel _trial_ might have ended with Mendel Beilis in 1913. But the issue has been raised many times since. Here are just a few examples:

In 1928, the Jews of Massena, New York, were falsely accused of kidnapping and killing a Christian girl in the Massena blood libel.

After WW2 finished, anti-Jewish violence in Poland killed hundreds of Jews accused of blood libel, especially during the 1946 Kielce pogrom.

In Jan 2005, 20 members of the Russian State Duma publicly made a blood libel accusation against the Jewish people. They asked the Prosecutor General's Office to ban all Jewish organisations because the Jews were anti-Christian, inhumane and practised ritual murders.

A 2003 TV series broadcast in Syria and Lebanon based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion shows the Jewish people as engaging in a conspiracy to rule the world, a people who murder Christian children and drain their blood to bake matzah.

The old book "Matzah of Zion", which has been reprinted often in Damascus and translated into many languages, became an influential authority on how Jews constantly perpetrate cruel ritual murders. The Egyptian government-sponsored Al-Ahram newspaper published a full-page article called "Jewish Matzah Made from Arab Blood" in Oct 2000.

bazza said...

Antisemitism has never really gone away and, indeed, it seems to be on the rise again.
The large foyer of Tottenham Court Road station in London has a piano that any member of the public can play (if they are able). I met up with my Sunday morning walking group who I was leading to Fitzrovia and about 30 of us were gathering. There was a middle-aged black man playing the piano and I started chatting to him. "Are you all going to church?" he asked. "No" I replied "We are a Jewish charity-raising walking group." He stopped playing and looked at me. "Why did you kill Jesus?" he asked. I told that he must have meant the Romans and he became acutely embarrassed having realised what he said. I resisted slamming the piano lid on his fingers!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s powerfully pervasive Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


if it is that easy to be automatically and mindlessly anti-Semitic, imagine how vicious people were when they were drunk as skunks, and politically/religiously urged to kill adults and children in pogroms. The more I read about the White Russian Fascists, for example, the more I think nothing could have protected those poor children.

Jenny Woolf said...

I have lost any inclination I ever had to belong to an organised faith, I am afraid.

Hels said...


I am writing a lot of material this month about White Russian Fascists i.e various groups that started up in 1905 in Ukraine and spread to Manchuria. As much as I love Russian culture and Russian history, I too have lost the will to live :(

mem said...

Well The czar and cogot what they deserved didn't they ? i am so sick of this mindless hatred and the never ending need to combat the mindless prejudice around.I just feel so tired of it . Why cant we just be nice to each other and live and let live ????? :(I had no idea of the 1946 massacre in Poland . That is truly horrendous after people has survived the holocaust .

Hels said...


nothing changes! Ever!

Of the 60 million European soldiers who were mobilised during The War to End ALL Wars, 8 million were killed, 7 million were permanently disabled and 15 million were seriously injured. And another 5 million civilians died from war causes. If humans were ever going to learn from this mindless hatred, there would have been no more massacres after WW1.