April 1, 1882, is the date on which the ugly drama of the Tizsaeszlar blood-libel case – a modern playing-out of an ancient anti-Jewish act– began unfolding in Hungary. Although the case ended with a complete refutation of the charges, and the acquittal of the Jews who were implicated, it unleashed a venomous strain of Jew-hatred in Hungary, one that refuses to die.
The affair began, as these cases usually do, with the disappearance of a child – Eszter Solymosi, a 14-year-old Christian peasant girl, in Tizsaeszlar, a village in Szabolcs county in Hungary’s northeastern corner. Passover was to begin three days later, and rumors began to spread that Eszter had been kidnapped by Jews who planned to kill her and take her blood to bake into their holiday matzohs.
Eszter’s mother approached the police with her suspicions, and was told that the idea was ridiculous, and sent away.
The suspicions, however, turned into a case when Samuel, the 5-year-old son of Jozsef Scharf, the sexton of the Tizsaeszlar synagogue, told neighbors that his father and other members of the Jewish community had been present when Eszter had been sacrificed and decapitated. Samuel’s 13-year-old brother, Moric, then claimed to have watched the act via the keyhole of the synagogue door.
On June 18, 1882, more than two months after Ezster’s disappearance, the body of a young woman was found floating in the Tizsla River. The body bore no signs of violence, and appeared to belong to someone more mature than a 14-year-old. But combined with the Scharf boys’ testimony, and the efforts of several public figures motivated by anti-Semitism, the authorities were pressed to pursue legal steps.
Son's word vs. his father's
Thirteen Jews were arrested: Four were charged with the actual murder, and the other nine with varying degrees of complicity in the crime. In the meantime, Moric Scharf was taken from his family and sequestered until the trial, which began a full year later, on June 19, 1883.
Indeed, Moric was the key witness, and his appearance in court included a dramatic confrontation between him and his defendant-father. Moric stood by his story, describing how his father and his accomplices had lured Eszter into the synagogue, where the local shochet, the ritual slaughterer, had killed her, and drained her blood into a bowl.
The defense was led by Karoly Eotvos, a well-known writer and a liberal member of parliament, who was not Jewish.
The turning point in the trial came when the court traveled from Nyiregyhaza to Tizsaeszlar, in order to study the scene of the alleged crime. It was then that it became clear that the keyhole did not open onto a view of building’s interior, and that Moric could have not have seen what he claimed to have observed.
The judges immediately announced that Moric was not a credible witness, and when the deputy prosecutor rose to deliver his concluding remarks, he asked the court to find the defendants not guilty.
The verdict, which was announced on August 3, 1882, and later upheld by the country’s supreme court, vindicated all the defendants, and they were released.
The ruling, however, just seemed to stir up anti-Jewish feeling in Hungary. When Jozsef Scharf – who, like the other defendants, felt unsafe returning to live in Tizsaeslar – moved with his family to Budapest, their arrival elicited several days of demonstrations there, and a spate of anti-Jewish riots across the country. A rash of similar cases then occurred in other countries in central and east-central Europe, while in Hungary, the country’s first organized anti-Jewish political force, the National Anti-Semitic Party, came into existence.
As recently as 2012, a member of Hungary’s parliament from the extreme right-wing Jobbik party alleged that justice had been perverted 130 years earlier in Tizsaeslar. He charged that the all-powerful Jews had blackmailed the judge in the case, forcing him to make an improper verdict.
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