On the day following Tisha B’Av in the year 1911, Menachem Mendel Beilis was suddenly arrested and carted off to the Kiev headquarters of the tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana. After more than two years of imprisonment, he was tried for the false charge of ritual murder in a case that attracted international attention. The trial began two days before Yom Kippur, on the 25th of September (old style), 1913. Here we recount the story of the trial, in 20 pictures.
For more on the background to the case, read The Tsar’s Scapegoats: Beilis, the Chassidim and the Jews.
The cave in which the mutilated body of thirteen-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky was found. He had been killed by members of a criminal gang led by Vera Cheberiak, who suspected that Andrei had betrayed them to the police.
Vera Cheberiak, the criminal who was responsible for Yushchinsky’s murder, became the main witness against Beilis. State prosecutors and investigators collaborated with her to fabricate false testimony and evidence.
Zhenya Cheberiak, Vera’s son, and a playmate of Andrei Yushchinsky. He was likely the last person to see Andrei before he was murdered. He took ill a few months later, and when he attempted to convey what he knew to investigators, his mother treacherously covered his mouth with kisses. After his death, she was only too eager to falsify testimony in his name.
The home of Mendel Beilis, situated in the grounds of the Zaitsev brick factory, and a short distance from the cave. As one of the few Jews permitted to live in the area, local anti-semites determined that Beilis was the easiest target for the blood libel.
Gregory Zamyslovsky, a member of the imperial Duma and a key player in the conspiracy to frame Mendel Beilis. It was he who falsely accused the Schneersohn tzaddikim, the leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch stream of Chassidism, of being behind every case of Jewish ritual murder in the Russian empire.
Nikolai Krasovsky, the police detective labeled “Russia’s Sherlock Holmes.” After refusing to pin the murder to Beilis, Krasovsky determined that it was Vera Cheberiak who was really responsible for the murder. Krasovsky paid dearly for his honesty: he was removed from his post and himself prosecuted by the government.
Mendel Beilis, in prison garb, is escorted from the courthouse after receiving his second indictment, which he carries in a roll. The first indictment was dropped after legislators concluded that there was no chance of convicting him on such a flimsy basis. The second was issued when they determined that it would be too embarrassing to drop the case after so lengthy a period of imprisonment and investigation.
Ivan Sikorsky, a famous and well-regarded psychiatrist who lectured at the University of Kiev. His reputation soured when his late-blooming anti-semitism caused him to abandon scientific principles, violently skewing his analysis of Yushchinsky’s wounds to support the accusation of Jewish ritual murder.
Faivel Shneerson, a hay and straw dealer, who may or may not have been related to the famous Schneersohn family of chassidic leaders. Prosecutors used his name and his acquaintance with Beilis to tie the accusation to the chassidic movement, presenting Faivel himself as a chassidic tzaddik. In doing so they sought to disguise their wholesale anti-semitism, claiming to target a barbaric fringe sect rather than the entire Jewish nation.
A stack of Jewish religious books entered as evidence by the defense. It fell to Rabbi Yaakov Mazeh of Moscow to refute the bogus claims of the “experts” who propped up the prosecution. Rabbis Mendel Chein, Avraham Chein and Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn assisted him in his research, helping him locate and familiarize himself with a very wide range of relevant sources.
Interior Minister Nikolai Maklakov was a party to the conspiracy against Beilis. Prior to the trial, he allocated money to bribe witnesses from the tsar’s secret Ten-Million-Ruble Fund. During the trial he ordered the secret police to illegally monitor the deliberations of the jury, and received regular reports from his agents. Maklakov’s estranged brother, Vasily, was a liberal lawyer who defended Beilis at the trial.
Four members of the defense team. From left to right; Dmitry Grigorovich-Barsky, one of the most prominent attorneys in Kiev; Nikolay Karabchevsky, chairman of the St. Petersburg Council of Barristers; Oscar Gruzenberg, nominal leader of the defense, and the only Jew on the team; and Alexander Zarudny, a prominent liberal lawyer and politician who served as minister of justice in the provisional government of 1917.
Oskar Vipper, the state prosecutor who was largely eclipsed by his civil confederates Gregory Zamyslovsky and Alexander Shmakov. Following the trial he—along with Justice Minister Ivan Shcheglovitov—was fêted by the leading anti-semites of St. Petersburg, who celebrated the conspirators as “incorruptible and independent Russian men.”
The court in session: To the far right, Beilis is seated in the dock. The judges—led by Fyodor Boldyrev, whose chief identifying marks were his forked beard and his extreme anti-semitic bias—are seated on the dais. Facing each other across the room are the defense attorneys to the right, the prosecutors and the jury to the left. An expert witness stands between them, addressing himself to the judge.
Vasily Shulgin, an avowed anti-semite who served as the editor of the right-wing newspaper Kievlianin during the trial. After a meeting with Jewish leaders, the paper’s editors determined that despite their prejudices they could not in good faith support the blood libel. Instead they became vocal advocates on Beilis’s behalf, and decried the travesty of Russian justice.
Mendel Beilis under guard during the trial. After two years of being subject to appalling conditions in prison, the start of the trial came as a relief to Beilis. He was allowed to dress in his own clothing, was conducted to the courthouse in a horsedrawn carriage, and was treated to a square meal.
Justin Pranaitis, a Catholic priest from Tashkent, was the only religious authority the government could find to back the charge of ritual murder. A thoroughly unscrupulous plagiarist who claimed to be an expert Hebraist, the defense unmasked him as a fraudulent ignoramus.
Rabbi Yaakov Mazeh, the government rabbi of Moscow, was renowned for his scholarship and his eloquent Russian oratory. In the last days of the trial, he delivered a resounding defence of Jewish moral values and demonstrated that the chassidic movement had never perverted Jewish tradition or its precepts.
The jury had been screened to ensure that their “ignorant nature” combined with “ethnic enmity” would tip the balance further towards injustice. In the course of the trial, however, they expressed concern that it would be difficult to decide Beilis’s fate considering that no evidence was presented against him. Ultimately their verdict was ambiguous: Beilis was acquitted, but it was yet implied that Yushchinsky had been the victim of a Jewish ritual murder.
The Beilis family, photographed after the trial. Freed from jail, the family was afforded the luxury of putting their misfortune behind them. Living with the threat of anti-semitic retaliation was not an option; the family moved first to the Holy Land and later to New York. But while the Jewish community welcomed them and celebrated his freedom, Beilis was unable to secure a permanent means of livelihood or peace of mind.
Despite the mixed verdict, the Beilis trial remains a poignant example of a conspiracy of power and hate frustrated by unity and truth.
To read more about the trial, and to view more pictures, click here.
My thanks to Edmund Levin for providing me with high-resolution versions of some of these images.