Bernard Malamud’s “The Fixer” (1966) was the most honored novel of this distinguished writer’s career (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize), and though as it happens I am not a party to the adulation the novel has enjoyed, finding it preachy and obvious, after 41 / 2 decades it remains perhaps the most widely read book by a writer who seems to be sinking, however unjustly, into premature oblivion. Whatever one may feel about the novel, though, relatively few readers probably know that the story of its protagonist, Yakov Bok, is based on that of an actual person, Mendel Beilis, who was tried in Russia in 1913 for the murder of a teenage boy.
The trial of Beilis was, as Edmund Levin writes in the preface to this thorough, lucid and on all counts admirable book, “the most sensational court case of its time and surely one of the most bizarre ever tried in an ostensibly civilized society.” Its putative focus was the murder of a young boy under mysterious circumstances, but it really was about “the notion that, for their demonic purposes, Jews commit ritual murder to obtain Christian blood, generally the blood of children,” the notorious “Blood Libel” that “had its origins in Western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries” and that bedevils certain areas of the continent and the Middle East to this day.
The boy, Andrei Yushchinsky, was 13 years old when his mutilated body was found in a cave outside Kiev in March 1911. He was a strange child, only 4 feet 4 inches tall, known by his nickname, “Domovoi,” which means “a kind of dwarfish, impish poltergeist.” He was illegitimate, living with a mother and stepfather who treated him indifferently at best, cruelly at worst. He attended school faithfully, but on the day of his murder was playing hooky — “the only time he was known to have done so” — in order to “visit his old neighborhood of Lukianovka.” It was there that his body was found and soon identified:
“Among the first onlookers that the police invited into the cave to try to identify the body was Vera Cheberyak, the mother of Andrei Yushchinsky’s best friend, Zhenya. Cheberyak was a notorious figure in Lukianovka. Some years earlier she had blinded her lover, a French accordion player, with sulfuric acid, yet somehow escaped punishment. She was also reputed to be the keeper of a den of thieves, a fence for stolen goods, and a sometime procuress.”
At first suspicions centered on Andrei’s family, which “did seem to harbor the essential elements required of a routine domestic tragedy: an illegitimate child, a resentful stepfather, rumors of violent quarrels and abuse.” For a time his parents were jailed, but they were eventually released. Meantime Evgeny Mishchuk, “chief of Kiev’s investigative police, or chief detective,” concentrated on Cheberyak, and not without reason: “The boy, it was clear, had seen Zhenya on the day he disappeared. Vera Cheberyak, it had been rumored, had taken advantage of the 1905 pogrom to loot fabulous amounts of property during the chaos. [Mishchuk] formulated a hypothesis that Andrei’s murder was committed ‘with the goal of simulating a ritual murder and inciting a pogrom.’ That part of the scenario could be considered wild conjecture. But he rightly believed Cheberyak had to be considered a leading suspect and that intense attention should be focused on her and her gang.”
Instead the chief prosecutor asked him, “Why are you torturing an innocent woman?” and concentrated his efforts on proving that this was a ritual murder committed by a Jew in order to obtain Christian blood to make his matzos. This was a time of intense antipathy toward Russia’s Jews, who “were subject . . . to more than a thousand discriminatory statutes and regulations” and who were routinely bedeviled by the “Black Hundreds,” the country’s “anti-Semitic movement of right-wing nationalists,” who “united all Russia’s social classes — peasants, workers, priests, shopkeepers, nobles — in defense of the tsar,” Nicholas II, whose regime was under intense pressure from many directions, especially liberals and the left.
Nicholas, naturally, welcomed the support of the Black Hundreds and, himself deeply anti-Semitic, gladly supported them as they and their sympathizers in the prosecutor’s office tried to ferret out a Jew who could be made to stand trial for Andrei’s murder. They found him in Mendel Beilis, a mild-mannered clerk at a brick factory, married with five children, “a man of solid virtues” who had little ambition and “was satisfied with his job.” There was absolutely no evidence against him, but he was rushed off to jail and kept there for two years while the state tried to trump up a case against him. The first prison in which he was incarcerated was populated by “hardened criminals,” who heard him out and decided, as he later wrote in his memoirs, “that I am innocent, and that the entire story about blood in matzo is no more than a made-up story. One of the convicts came up to me and said, ‘You are a second Dreyfus!’ ” referring to “the world-famous case of the Jewish army officer in France who, based on fabricated evidence, had been falsely accused of treason in 1894.”
Eventually the case of Beilis, like that of Dreyfus, attracted international attention. It is almost completely forgotten now, but at the time “the greatest men of the age were denouncing the Russian government,” among them Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Undeterred, the tsar’s minions pressed on, issuing first one indictment — oddly, “nowhere in it was there a direct accusation of ritual murder” — and then a second: “The prosecution made two assertions. First, it averred that Jewish ritual murder was a reality, not a myth. Second, it claimed that the murder of Andrei Yushchinsky was a hideous example of this diabolical practice.” By then the state had decided “to embrace the medieval myth fully and — although it would deny doing so — put the Jewish religion itself on trial.” By the time the trial began in October 1913, it was less about Mendel Beilis than about the pernicious notion “that killings like Andrei’s were a reality deeply rooted in Jewish history and theology.”
In hopes of getting what it wanted, the state packed the jury: Beilis “had imagined the twelve men who would judge him would be people like his attorneys — educated and respectable citizens. But before him he saw mostly simple peasants, with bowl haircuts, some even wearing caftans tied at the waist, the traditional village garb. These were the one who would decide his fate?” Yet Beilis’s defense was relentless and brilliant, destroying the prosecution’s witnesses one by one. In the end the jury voted to accept that the crime had occurred as described by the state — that it had the appearance of ritual murder — but it voted Beilis not guilty. The tsar, who five years later, in 1918, was executed along with his family by the Bolsheviks, declared with sublime hypocrisy: “It is certain that there was a ritual murder. But I am happy that Beilis was acquitted, for he is innocent.” After the trial, Beilis moved to Palestine, then to the United States, where he died in 1934, under straitened financial circumstances
“A Child of Christian Blood” was researched almost entirely from primary sources by Levin, a television writer-producer and freelance writer. He has done a superb job, marred only minimally by a slight tendency to repeat himself, and he has kept his indignation over this incredible tale to a discreet minimum. This may well be the definitive book on its subject, and it is to be hoped that it finds a wide readership.
Odds are its readership will be nowhere as great as that enjoyed over the years by “The Fixer,” which has probably been revered less for its merits as fiction than for its right-mindedness, a quality always fashionable in literary circles. But it should be noted that Jay Beilis, Mendel’s grandson, has long argued that Malamud plagiarized significantly from his grandfather’s memoir, “The Story of My Sufferings” (1926); and in collaboration with two lawyers, Jeremy Simcha Garber and Mark S. Stein, Jay wrote “Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis” (2011). The authors discuss the possibility of Malamud’s plagiarism in an extensive article at tabletmag.com; it’s highly recommended to anyone interested in either the Beilis case or the Malamud novel.
A CHILD OF CHRISTIAN BLOOD
Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel
By Edmund Levin
Schocken. 377 pp. $29.95