This Day in Jewish History / A Blood Libel Trial That Captures the World's Attention

The age-old blood libel accusation was thrown against Menachem Mendel Beilis in Kiev in 1911, despite clear evidence that he committed no crime.

On March 20, 1911, the body of 13-year-old Andrei Yuschinski was found in a cave outside Kiev, Ukraine, eight days after the boy disappeared on the way to school. His murder was the impetus for the blood-libel accusation and trial of Menachem Mendel Beilis, as part of an anti-Jewish conspiracy that apparently was directed from the highest levels of czarist Russia, and that engaged the attention of the entire world.

Mendel Beilis, born in 1874, was a traditional Jew who had served in the Russian military and settled in Kiev in 1897, where he managed the Zaitsev brick factory. He was arrested for the killing of Yuschinski on July 21, 1911, after a lamplighter testified against him. By that stage, the police already suspected the mother of the victim’s friend, Zhenya Cherberyak, with whom Andrei had apparently decided to skip school on March 12, the day he went missing. Vera Cherberyak was known as an associate of local criminals, for whom she worked as a fence, selling stolen goods. Police suspected that Vera’s gang had killed Yuschinski because he had overheard incriminating discussions. (Zhenya himself died a short time after the murder, of dysentery.)

By the time of Andrei Yuschinski’s funeral, however, material was being distributed by the virulently anti-Semitic organization Union of Russian People, also called the Black Hundreds, charging that the killing had been a ritual murder carried out by Jews in anticipation of the approaching Passover holiday – the classic blood libel that posits the use of the blood of Christian children in the making of Pesach matza. The organization called for retaliatory pogroms.

In the background was a February 1911 vote by the Duma, the Russian parliament, to begin debating the possible abolishment of the Pale of Settlement, which restricted where Jews could settle in the empire. At the time of Beilis’ arrest, new elections were pending in the legislature, and there were forces that were interested in preventing such liberalizing acts. Among them was the czar, Nicholas II, who was known for his strong anti-Jewish sentiments; the officials who orchestrated the case against Beilis may have been attempting to placate him.

Beilis was held in jail for more than two years before trial, which began only on September 25, 1913. Although an investigation led by Kiev’s top police detective, Nikolay Krasovsky, had gone so far as to name the people suspected of the murder – all colleagues of Vera Cherberyak – the prosecution refused to accept the detective’s conclusions. When Krasovsky persisted with his investigation, he was fired and later tried on charges of misconduct connected to an earlier case, for which he was acquitted.

About a year into Beilis’ custody, he was approached by a military delegation that offered him the opportunity for clemency. He turned down the offer, saying that accepting a pardon would imply an admission of his guilt on his part, and that he demanded to go to trial.

When it took place, the trial went on for a month, until October 28, and despite a seemingly well-constructed case on the part of the prosecution, the defense, assisted by Krasovsky’s investigation, was successful in refuting most of its witnesses and their testimony.

For starters, Beilis had an alibi, as he had been working on Saturday, the day of Yuschinski’s murder, and could prove it. For another, on the stand, the lamplighter recanted his eyewitness testimony. Additionally, the prosecution depended on the testimony of a Catholic priest who delineated the practice of Jewish ritual murder. The defense brought both Christian and Jewish experts who demonstrated the priest’s ignorance of basic principles of Jewish law, including the simple fact that Jewish dietary laws forbid the consumption of blood. The prosecution’s case also depended on the claim that the victim’s body had been pierced 13 times, a supposedly meaningful number in a ritual killing, when in fact, Andrei’s corpse had 14 wounds on it.    

Beilis’ case was heard by a jury, half of whose members, it has been reported, were members of the notorious Black Hundreds. Yet after just a few hours’ deliberation, the jury acquitted the defendant, in a vote of six to six.

Mendel Beilis became an international celebrity as a result of his ordeal, but instead of taking advantage of this to begin traveling the world on a speaking tour, his dream had been to settle in Eretz Israel, and he and his family moved there a short time later.  He had a hard time making ends meet in Palestine, but still resisted leaving. According to a version of his story, published first in Yiddish in 1925, and retold by his grandson Jay Beilis in 2011, he said: “Before, in Russia, when the word ‘Palestine’ conjured up a waste and barren land, even then I chose to come here in preference to other countries. How much more, then, would I insist on staying here, after I have come to love the land!”

Nonetheless, conditions forced him to resettle – with reluctance -- in the United States in 1921. There he wrote his memoirs, but otherwise had a hard time finding work. According to his grandson, he was willing to take any job that would pay, but as an international Jewish celebrity, employers would basically reject him for being “overqualified.”

Menachem Mendel Beilis died in Saratoga Springs, New York, on July 7, 1934. He was buried in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, in Queens, New York, in a funeral attended by some 4,000 mourners.

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