Not long before Pesach, at about 7:00 a.m. on Shabbos, March 12th, 5671/1911, a thin, short boy, Andrei Yushchninsky, left his impoverished Kiev home and set off to school. He never arrived. Eight days later, his body was discovered in a deserted cave. Although no one had the faintest idea how the boy had met his death, there were some people who thought they knew the answer, beyond all doubt. At the funeral on March 27th, Nikolai Pavlovich, a member of the violently anti-Semitic “Union of the Russian People” and “Double-Headed Eagle” groups, handed out inflammatory fliers with a dire warning:
“The Jews have tortured Andryusha Yushchninsky to death! Every year before their Passover, they [kill our children]… in order to get their blood to mix with their matzos… If your children are dear to you, beat up the Jews… until there is not a single Jew left in Russia. Have pity on your children.” No one paid much attention to the leaflets because this kind of accusation was endemic. Every time a child went missing for a few hours, or a maid ran away from her Jewish employers, the old blood libel canard would be dragged out until the person was found. In fact, Russia was less anti-Semitic than usual at the time because a huge wave of pogroms, starting with the Kishinev Pogrom in 5663/1903 and lasting until 5666/1906, had raised so much disgust that the anti- Semites had temporarily backtracked to less obtrusive methods.
However, violently anti-Semitic organizations, like the “Union of the Russian People,” were longing to get back to the good old days. They automatically held the Jews responsible for the murder, and right-wing members of the Duma (Russian parliament) criticized the government for not putting their hand on “the guilty Jewish parties.”
JUSTICE MADE TO MEASURE
Detective Mishchuk, head of the Kiev secret police, was given the job of finding the culprits. His prime suspects were the boy’s own family; he had a number of relatives arrested and brutally interrogated for two weeks. But his final conclusion was the boy had been slain by a gang of criminals connected with Vera Cheberyak, who disposed of stolen goods. Mishchuk suspected that the murderers had hoped this would spark off a pogrom and give them a good opportunity to loot the homes of the Jews.
Extremists were so incensed that no Jews had been rounded up that, at the end of April, the rightist deputies of the Duma put the following resolution to vote, “Are the Minister of Justice and Minister of the Interior aware that there exists in Russia a criminal sect of Jews who use Christian blood in their religious ceremonies? If the Ministers are aware of this fact, what measures are they taking to suppress this sect and bring to justice the murderers of this boy?”
The Duma broke into pandemonium. “The Caucasian deputy, Gegechkory, a Social Democrat, amid yells of defiance from the Right-wing benches, denounced the ‘real Russians’ as ‘a band of robbers and murderers.’… The interpellation (resolution) was finally defeated by a vote of 108 to 93… The powerful voice of the liberal press kept the people sane and quiet in spite of the incitements to violence in “Zemschina” and “The Double- Headed Eagle” of Kiev and in countless proclamations, appeals and inflammatory leaflets, which were scattered and broadcast by Rightist deputies and the anti-Semitic societies,” (“Blood Accusation” by Maurice Samuel, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1966).
On April 17th, a political agitator, Vladimir Golubev, submitted a petition to the governor of Kiev to expel 3,000 Jews. When his petition was rebuffed, his suggestion that the populace organize a good, old-fashioned pogrom was also rejected because of practical considerations “I do not think the organization of a pogrom would serve your interests,” Lyadov of the Ministry of Justice told him.
“Because the governor-general has told me of the expected visit of the Czar for the unveiling of the monument to Alexander II. If some of your collaborators should start a pogrom, you would no more see this celebration than you can see your ears, whereas you and your union would probably appreciate very much the opportunity of having the Czar with you.”
“The thought did not occur to me. I promise you there will be no pogrom.” As a compromise, ways and means were explored to get rid of Detective Mishchuk so that someone with a “better” attitude could be put on the case and put a finger on the Jews.
To achieve this end, someone sent the detective an anonymous letter, identifying certain local gangsters as the criminals and informing him that a bundle of scorched clothing belonging to the dead boy was buried on a hillside. Falling for the bait, the detective dug up the clothes and declared the case closed. When it turned out that the clothes had been “planted” there, Mishchuk was dismissed from the case and jailed for three months for obstruction of justice.
The new man put on the case was Nikolai Krasovsky, known as the “Sherlock Holmes of Russia.” Unfortunately for the conspirators, Krasovsky, too, became convinced that Vera Cheberyak, the fence, was behind the crime and even had her arrested. But the state prosecutor, Chaplinsky, who was in cahoots with the anti-Semites, ensured that nothing came of it.
“My investigations led me to the conviction that the murder had been committed by an organization of thieves, led by Vera Cheberyak,” Krasovsky testified later. “When I reported this to Chaplinsky, he ignored the material I had collected along these lines.”
To get their plot moving, the conspirators needed a flesh-and-blood scapegoat and this is how a quiet, anonymous Jew suddenly found himself in the center of an intrigue that altered the course of Russian history.
In the middle of the night of July 22nd, a force of fifteen policemen arrived at Mendel Beiliss’ door. They had been empowered to arrest him by Article 21 of the State of Reinforced Protection Act that suspended certain civil rights. After a thorough search of the premises, Beiliss and his oldest son were dragged off to a local jail. No one knew why they were arrested.
“The Kiev newspapers reported that a certain Jew, Mendel Beiliss, an employee of the Zaitsev brickworks had been arrested without a warrant because of some misunderstanding about his right of residence in Kiev,” his attorney recalled. “At the time, nobody paid any attention to [a type of] case which was common practice with the police authorities of that period.”
Only after being stuck in jail for over a week was Beiliss informed that he was charged with the murder of Andryusha Yushchninsky.
To make the accusation stick, two illiterate lamplighters, Kazimir and Yuliana Shakhovsky, had been prodded to implicate the Jew. They had actually come forward to testify against Vera Cheberyak. In the course of their evidence, they mentioned that Cheberyak’s house was next to the brickworks. At a later stage, Yuliana testified that an old friend of hers claimed to have seen a man with a black beard seize the boy and drag him to the kiln.
Kazimir, too, stated in his third deposition that he had forgotten to add an important fact: “About Tuesday of the week following the Saturday on which I saw Zhenya (Vera Cheberyak’s young son) and Andryusha, I ran into Zhenya… and he told me that a man with a black beard chased them away from the kiln at Zaitsev’s and they ran off in different directions. I feel sure that Andryusha was killed in the kiln at Zaitsev’s.”
A shoemaker, Nakonechny, testified that the lamplighter hated Beiliss because he once caught the lamplighter stealing boards from the brick kiln and, after Beiliss’ arrest, the lamplighter revealed the truth:
“Zhenya told me that he and Andryusha rode on the clay mixer (of the kiln) but they couldn’t explore any further because they were chased away by someone. Zhenya said nothing about a bearded man. I added that myself because no one but Mendel could be on the factory premises. I did this because I was coached and pestered by the detectives. I admit that I said to Nakonechny (the shoemaker) that I would implicate Beiliss because Beiliss said I had stolen wood.”
THE STOOL PIGEON
But it was too late. The anti-Semites had their victim safely under lock and key. After spending a few weeks in a vermin- infested cell, shared by forty prisoners, Beiliss was transferred to a smaller cell with only a dozen men and befriended a fellow prisoner, Kozachenko, who smuggled out the following desperate letter to Beiliss’ wife:
“The man who will bring you this note was in prison with me… Please, dear wife, treat him as nicely as possible – if not for him, I would have perished in prison… Tell him about those who gave false testimony against me. Everybody knows I am not a thief, I am not a murderer. Is there anyone trying to get me out on bail? Those enemies of mine who gave false testimony want to take revenge because I did not let them walk through the factory grounds. I send my best wishes to you and the children.” Beiliss did not know that this friend was a planted stool pigeon. The whole point of the letter was to prove that Kozachenko had a close relationship with Beiliss, in order to give credence to Kozachenko’s claim that Beiliss had revealed incriminating information to him.
“Beiliss had a talk with me without witnesses,” Kozachenko testified before a magistrate. “He asked me to see the factory manager and one of the owners. These people were supposed to collect money among the Jews, enough to pay me for poisoning two witnesses, a lamplighter whose name he did not give me and another one called ‘Frog’… According to Mendel Beiliss, ‘Frog’ and the lamplighter could not be bought.”
And so begins the tangle of lies that enmeshed an innocent Jew.