“Mendel Beilis.” Postcard commemorating the blood libel trial of Mendel Beilis, ca. 1911. Artwork by Mitchell Loeb. The Yiddish verse reads: “Oh! This is the martyred Jew / Now his name is known around the world / He languished for years in prison / In the dark land of pogroms . . .” (YIVO)

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Beilis, Mendel

(1874–1934), chief protagonist of the 1911–1913 Kiev blood libel case, referred to as the Beilis Affair. Little is known about Mendel Beilis beyond the fact of his association with the case. Raised in a village, he served in the Russian military and settled in Kiev around 1897. Though he was thrust into the limelight after he was indicted for the ritual murder of 12-year-old Andrei Iushchinskii, Beilis himself did not feature centrally in the affair.

Zalmen Holtz, a young man who had himself photographed with Yiddish newspapers containing articles commemorating Beilis’s acquittal, Skierniewice, Poland, 1913. Photograph by L. Karp. (YIVO)

Iushchinskii was probably murdered by members of a criminal gang associated with Vera Cheberiak, the mother of one of the child’s friends; he had likely overheard information relating to crimes the gang committed. At the boy’s funeral, members of the right-wing and antisemitic Soiuz Russkogo Naroda (Union of Russian People; URP), also known as the Black Hundreds, distributed leaflets claiming that the boy had been the victim of a Jewish ritual murder and calling for a pogrom as a form of revenge. The right-wing press and politicians soon called attention to the case; and top-level government officials—notably Minister of Justice Ivan Gregor’evich Shcheglovitov—became involved. Though there is no evidence of a full-fledged government conspiracy, Shcheglovitov and his underlings did not hesitate to manipulate every aspect of the trial in order to ensure the outcome they desired.

After a police investigation clearly linked the murder to the Cheberiak gang, the investigators in charge were dismissed and the Kiev district attorney prosecuted the case as a ritual murder. Beilis, the superintendent at a Kiev brick factory that was located near the cave where Iushchinskii’s body had been found four months earlier, was arrested for the murder in July 1911 and spent more than two years in prison in horrific conditions. Although the Kiev judges to whose remit the case fell were reluctant to review a suit so lacking in evidence, they were given to understand that persons at the highest levels of the imperial bureaucracy wished the trial to go forward. The Kiev branch of the URP also put pressure on local law enforcement officials to produce an accusation of ritual murder.

Beilis was tried over a period of four weeks in September and October 1913, amid national and international attention. The trial received official protests from both Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals, politicians, clergy, and dignitaries throughout Western Europe and North America. Even Russian society did not make knee-jerk assumptions about Beilis’s guilt; indeed, liberal and socialist camps (and even some conservatives) rallied to his defense, with public opinion evenly divided on the matter.

“In Memory of the Beilis Trial: Beilis Not Guilty, Jews Guilty.” Yiddish postcard. Artwork by Mitchel Loeb. Printed by Progress Publishing Company, New York, ca. 1913. The card depicts the “Jewish people” with a ball chain labeled “Blood Libel” and Tsar Nicholas II saying: “Go, Mendel. You’re free! Rejoice with your American friends but I won’t waste any time in getting even for your acquittal with your left-behind Russian brothers.” (YIVO)

Both legal teams included prominent attorneys and public figures. The prosecution included some of the Russian Empire’s leading antisemitic activists, while Beilis’s defenders included a number of eminent Jewish and non-Jewish lawyers. The prosecution called a defrocked Catholic priest to be a chief witness; this priest claimed to have expertise about Jewish religious practices. The defense, in turn, relied on Iakov Maze, a rabbi from Moscow, to expose the shallowness of the priest’s knowledge. Several witnesses retracted their earlier statements on the stand, while other witnesses clearly stated their conviction that Cheberiak was to blame for the murder.

That Beilis himself was not a rigorously observant Jew complicated the prosecution’s argument that ritual murder might indeed still be practiced by certain fundamentalist Jewish sects even if it were not necessarily countenanced by mainstream Judaism. Archival documents reveal that the jury was rigged and monitored, while some witnesses were bribed or threatened by officials. In its verdict, the jury found that Beilis was innocent, but that the killing had indeed been a ritual murder.

Although Beilis’s acquittal was a cause for celebration for many, it could not be ignored that the Russian legal system had, in effect, put its stamp of approval on one of the oldest antisemitic libels in history. Upon being freed, Beilis left Kiev for Palestine and eventually settled in the United States, where in 1926 he wrote a memoir of his experiences.

Commemorative postcard celebrating the role played by lawyer Oskar Osipovich Gruzenberg (right) and Rabbi Iakov Maze (left) in the acquittal of Mendel Beilis, a Jew accused of murdering a Christian boy in Kiev in 1911 for ritual purposes. Postcard printed by H. Goldberg, ca. 1920. (YIVO)

Scholars agree that government officials at the highest levels were involved in orchestrating the case, hoping to please Nicholas II, the stalwart antisemitic emperor. These officials may also have hoped that the case would discredit the left-wing opposition—especially when the Duma had voted several months earlier (in February 1911) to consider abolishing the Pale of Settlement—and rally the people to the side of the state against the revolutionary movement. With upcoming elections to the Duma, officials may have been pressured by right-wing and nationalist forces to bring the case forward. It seems unlikely, however, that the politically astute prime minister, Petr Arkad’evich Stolypin, who knew how to use antisemitism as a political tool when he wished to—would have allowed himself to be manipulated by partisan forces in such a manner. A more recent interpretation holds that the case was a somewhat desperate attempt by officials such as Shcheglovitov to brand Jews as an evil force bent on destroying Russia and its autocracy.

The very fact that the trial proceeded as far as it did—in the face of irrefutable evidence of Beilis’s innocence and the very absurdity of a ritual murder trial in the twentieth century—confirmed to Jews that the Russian government, which had for three decades pursued a reactionary course in its Jewish policy, was firmly allied with antisemitic and chauvinistic forces. Though Beilis’s acquittal was widely seen as a terrible blow for the tsarist government and its policies and, conversely, was cause for jubilation among Jewish and liberal circles, the affair could not but contribute to the general feeling of despondency among Russian Jews in the years leading up to war and revolution.

Suggested Reading

Ivan Fedorovich Kuras, ed., Sprava Beilisa: Pohliad iz s’ohodennia (Kiev, 1994), in Russian and Ukrainian, with summaries in English; Ezekiel Leikin, trans. and ed., The Beilis Transcripts: The Anti-Semitic Trial That Shook the World (Northvale, N.J., 1993); Albert S. Lindemann, The Jew Accused: Three Anti-Semitic Affairs (Dreyfus, Beilis, Frank), 1894–1915 (Cambridge and New York, 1991); Hans Rogger, Jewish Policies and Right-Wing Politics in Imperial Russia (Berkeley, 1986).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 1139, Abraham Cahan, Papers, 1906-1952; RG 116, Territorial Collection: Russia and USSR, , 1880s-1970s; RG 233, Abraham Meyers, Papers, 1931-1948; RG 348, Lucien Wolf and David Mowshowitch, Papers, 1865-1957; RG 579, Solomon Judson, Papers, 1911-1965; RG 80, Mizrakh Yidisher Historisher Arkhiv (Berlin), Records, 1802-1924.