Beilis Libel 1

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.” 

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.” 

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.

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