Eszter Solymosi, after an original painting by Ludwig Ábrányi. From Tisza-Eszlár in der Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, by Géza von Ónody (Budapest: Grimm, 1883). (Jewish National and University Library)

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Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel

An accusation of Jewish ritual murder in the Hungarian village of Tiszaeszlár (before 1918, in Szabolcs county) led to the arrest, imprisonment, interrogation, and eventual trial of 13 Jewish defendants, April 1882–August 1883. The Tiszaeszlár affair began with the disappearance of a 14-year-old Christian girl named Eszter Solymosi on 1 April 1882. Over the next few days—partly in response to an ambiguous conversation that they had with one of the eventual defendants and partly inspired by their own preconceived notions—the girl’s mother and aunt came to the conclusion that she had been kidnapped and murdered by local Jews. At first, officials responded with incredulity to the women’s claims, advising them instead to “put such thoughts out of [their] mind[s].” Indeed, for several weeks the Tiszaeszlár affair was nothing more than a case of a missing person. Eventually, though, a series of factors led to a serious accusation of Jewish ritual murder.

In the context of late nineteenth-century Hungary, there was little reason to suspect that an accusation of ritual murder would be taken up and acted upon by local and state authorities. The fact that, in the end, it was taken seriously resulted from a combination of factors. These included the production over a period of time of a narrative of kidnapping and murder by a widening circle of women in the village; the fact that one of the rare political antisemites in the country—Géza Ónody, a follower of Győző Istóczy—was Tiszaeszlár’s representative in parliament, where he and Istóczy were able to apply public pressure on the government; the assignment of a ruthlessly ambitious judge magistrate to the case in the person of József Bary; and the coerced testimony of an apparent eyewitness, Móric Scharf, the 13-year-old son of the synagogue sexton, József Scharf.

It was only after the women of the village had woven together an account of the crime, based on what they claimed was information volunteered by a five-year-old boy (Móric’s younger brother), that the criminal court in the county seat of Nyíregyháza ordered a formal investigation into the matter, led by the magistrate Bary. Barely two weeks later (end of May 1882), a significant portion of the male Jewish population of the village was placed under arrest on the charge of Eszter Solymosi’s murder. Reports of this novel event began to be disseminated in the national press; antisemitic deputies interrupted proceedings in parliament with interpellations of the Tisza government (which, up to this time, had not taken notice of this provincial affair); and the actions of the magistrates and police in both Nyíregyháza and Tiszaeszlár came under the close scrutiny of the Ministry of Justice in Budapest. It was at this time, too, that a team of defense attorneys, which included the prominent liberal politician Károly Eötvös, was appointed to represent the accused. Almost everything was in place for a full-scale investigation and trial. All that was missing was a body: Eszter’s corpse had not turned up.

When the body of a young woman was found floating on the Tisza River on 18 June 1882, the affair took a dramatic turn. Because there were no obvious wounds on the corpse, establishing the identity of the woman assumed enormous importance for each side in the case. All parties appeared to agree however, that the body was dressed in Eszter’s clothing. What eventually ensued was a struggle over legal and forensic procedure, the interpretation of scientific evidence, and presumed knowledge regarding Jewish religious identity and practice. The medical examiners declared that the body was that of a mature woman of comfortable means (based on the softness and smoothness of the skin), married (and hence sexually active), and Jewish—the last two conclusions based on a “cultural” reading of the absence of hair on the woman’s body. Later, the defense team would offer forensic evidence concerning bone and tooth measurements together with testimony from their own experts that the victim could have been much younger. At this stage, however, to bolster his claim that the corpse of a Jewish woman had been dressed in Eszter Solymosi’s clothes and planted in the river, Bary ordered the arrest and interrogation of the raftsmen who had come upon the body (among whom were both Jews and gentiles).

The six-week trial of the Tiszaeszlár defendants opened in Nyíregyháza on 19 June 1883. Four Jews (Salomon Schwarcz, Ábráham Bukszbaum, Lipót Braun, and Herman Vollner) were charged with first-degree murder; five were charged with complicity; and four (including the Jewish raftsmen Amsel Fogel, Jankel Smilovics, and Dávid Herskó) with aiding and abetting a conspiracy. The course of the trial—which, like the long investigation that preceded it, was carried out in an atmosphere made tense by antisemitic propaganda and agitation—revolved around the competing expert testimonies and the contested validity of coerced confessions. Its most dramatic moments involved the testimony of a self-declared eyewitness to the abduction and ritual murder of Solymosi given by Móric, the now 14-year-old son of the synagogue sexton, József Scharf, who had been sequestered from his family for more than a year. The young Móric stood by his earlier testimony that his father had enticed Solymosi to his home on the pretext of needing to move a candelabrum on the Sabbath. From there she was induced by a beggar to enter the synagogue, where she was murdered by the ritual slaughterer, Salamon Schwarcz, and two others. Under Hungarian criminal procedure, defendants in a trial were allowed to cross-examine witnesses, and the Nyíregyháza trial showcased dramatic confrontations between Móric Scharf and a number of defendants, most movingly his own father.

On 17 July, nearly a month into the trial, the judges, defense, prosecuting attorneys, and defendants traveled to Tiszaeszlár to inspect the alleged scene of the crime. The young witness Móric Scharf was asked to reenact the crime and also to indicate the precise spot from which he claimed to have witnessed the killing. Móric insisted that he had stood outside the synagogue door and had had an unobstructed view of the proceedings through its keyhole. Duly examined, the keyhole was shown to have afforded almost no visual access to the interior of the synagogue. One week later, the judges declined to acknowledge Scharf as a sworn witness, concluding that they had strong reservations concerning both his personal integrity and the credibility of his statements.

When Ede Szeyffert, the deputy chief prosecutor, addressed the court with his summation on 27 July 1883, he—contrary to normal practice, but not unexpectedly—urged the judges to find all of the defendants not guilty. “The eyes of the whole nation,” he warned, “indeed the whole civilized world, are turned toward us.” On 3 August, the three judges delivered their verdict: the five men charged with conspiracy were declared not guilty; as to the defendants charged with murder, the state’s case was “not proved.” On the following day, after a brief exchange of telegrams between Nyíregyháza and the Justice Ministry in Budapest, the young Móric was returned to his family.

The Tiszaeszlár blood libel played a conspicuous role in the proceedings of the first International Congress of Antisemites, which convened in Dresden in the summer of 1882. Shortly after the conclusion of the trial in 1883, Istóczy and his followers established Hungary’s first National Antisemitic Party. Tiszaeszlár also provided the occasion for the venting of popular animosities. Even before the conclusion of the trial, anti-Jewish demonstrations had broken out across parts of Hungary, most notably in Pressburg (Pozsony); in the trial’s aftermath, riots erupted in numerous cities and towns, including Nyíregyháza. Though proclaimed not guilty, it was impossible for the Jewish defendants to return to live in Tiszaeszlár. József Scharf was offered a position with a Budapest synagogue, but when his family arrived in the Hungarian capital in early August 1883, the occasion was met with a series of violent demonstrations lasting several days.

Tiszaeszlár is generally regarded as the first formal prosecution in Europe against Jews for the “ritual murder” of a Christian to take place outside of Poland or the Russian Empire after the late sixteenth century. The case was widely covered in the European press, where it was treated with incredulity, studied neutrality, or alarm at the danger posed by Jews (or at least some Jews), depending on the politics of the journal or author in question. The Hungarian case also ushered in a wave of similar public accusations against Jews in Central and East Central Europe, at least four more of which crystallized into full-fledged criminal prosecutions in which state prosecutors and justice ministries invested considerable amounts of time, labor, and prestige: Xanten in the Prussian Rhineland (1891–1892), Polná in Austrian Bohemia (1899–1900), Konitz in West Prussia (after 1918, Chojnice, Pol. [1900–1901]), and Kiev in the Russian Empire (Ukraine [1911–1913]).

Significantly, Tiszaeszlár was also the first ritual murder trial in which forensic medicine and scientific procedure featured prominently in the court’s deliberations. This factor indicated that henceforth, in order to proceed, trials against Jews for ritual murder would, if nothing else, have to speak the language of science.

Suggested Reading

János Gyurgyák, A zsidókérdés Magyarországon: Politikai eszmetörténet (Budapest, 2001), pp. 314–350; Andrew Handler, Blood Libel at Tiszaeszlár (Boulder and New York, 1980); Nathaniel Katzburg, Antishemiyut be-Hungaryah, 1867–1914 (Tel Aviv, 1969), pp. 106–155; Hillel J. Kieval, “The Importance of Place: Comparative Aspects of the Ritual Murder Trial in Modern Central Europe,” in Comparing Jewish Societies, ed. Todd M. Endelman, pp. 135–165 (Ann Arbor, 1997); Hillel J. Kieval, “Neighbors, Strangers, Readers: The Village and the City in Jewish-Gentile Conflict at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 12.1 (2005): 61–79; Paul Nathan, Der Prozess von Tisza-Eszlár: Ein antisemitisches Culturbild (Berlin, 1892); Edith Stern, The Glorious Victory of Truth: The Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel Trial, 1882–1883; A Historical-Legal-Medical Research (Jerusalem, 1998).