A Jewish factory worker is falsely accused of ritually murdering a Christian boy in Russia in 1911, and his trial becomes an international cause célèbre.
On March 20, 1911, thirteen-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky was found stabbed to death in a cave on the outskirts of Kiev. Four months later, Russian police arrested Mendel Beilis, a thirty-seven-year-old father of five who worked as a clerk in a brick factory nearby, and charged him not only with Andrei’s murder but also with the Jewish ritual murder of a Christian child. Despite the fact that there was no evidence linking him to the crime, that he had a solid alibi, and that his main accuser was a professional criminal who was herself under suspicion for the murder, Beilis was imprisoned for more than two years before being brought to trial. As a handful of Russian officials and journalists diligently searched for the real killer, the rabid anti-Semites known as the Black Hundreds whipped into a frenzy men and women throughout the Russian Empire who firmly believed that this was only the latest example of centuries of Jewish ritual murder of Christian children—the age-old blood libel.
With the full backing of Tsar Nicholas II’s teetering government, the prosecution called an array of “expert witnesses”—pathologists, a theologian, a psychological profiler—whose laughably incompetent testimony horrified liberal Russians and brought to Beilis’s side an array of international supporters who included Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells, Anatole France, Arthur Conan Doyle, the archbishop of Canterbury, and Jane Addams. The jury’s split verdict allowed both sides to claim victory: they agreed with the prosecution’s description of the wounds on the boy’s body—a description that was worded to imply a ritual murder—but they determined that Beilis was not the murderer. After the fall of the Romanovs in 1917, a renewed effort to find Andrei’s killer was not successful; in recent years his grave has become a pilgrimage site for those convinced that the boy was murdered by a Jew so that his blood could be used in making Passover matzo. Visitors today will find it covered with flowers.
(With 24 pages of black-and-white illustrations.)
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Edmund Levin is a Writers Guild and Emmy award–winning writer/producer for Good Morning America. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Atlantic, and Slate, among other publications, and was included in The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“Why Should I Be Afraid?”
Two boys were looking for buried treasure.
Early in the afternoon of March 20, 1911, a pair of gymnasium students of twelve or thirteen set off to explore the Berner Estate, a scruffy piece of wilderness adjoining the Lukianovka neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Kiev. A dozen or so acres in size, strewn with mysterious mounds, ruts, and ravines and dotted with brush, the Berner Estate had an outstanding feature irresistible to adventurous boys: its numerous caves. The caves had been uncovered accidentally by road workers some six decades earlier, causing considerable excitement among archaeologists and would-be treasure hunters. According to legend, treasure grounds were distinguished by unusual rock formations such as the ones found on the estate. A local landowner, convinced that the caves harbored the lost trove of an early eighteenth-century Cossack leader, ordered an intensive search back in the 1850s.
Treasure was said to be watched over by vengeful guardian spirits, but if the men obeying the landowner’s command were at all fearful of supernatural forces, they were also thorough; by the time archaeologists arrived, every cave but one had been scraped clean of every human artifact. In that sole untouched cave, however, they found the earliest known traces of Kiev’s first Neolithic inhabitants. These were remarkable discoveries—a flint blade, pottery shards, and a burned-out granite hearth so brittle from repeated firings that a trespasser could pulverize the stone to powder just by gripping a piece of it with his fingers. Further excavation of the area unearthed some two thousand human skeletons. The Berner Estate had been a burial ground.
By that spring day in 1911, the archaeologists were long gone, and the area had become a no-man’s-land, a local newspaper branding it “a place for the Lukianovka children’s games, where local hooligans and derelicts have convenient refuge.” But the lore persisted of lost Cossack treasure, hidden by a leader or “hetman,” or by the rebellious eighteenth-century plunderers known as the Haidamaks. In the imaginations of the two young boys that March afternoon, somewhere within this broad, bleak slope, only a thousand feet from their neighborhood’s crooked streets, vast riches lay hidden. Standing at the crest of the slope, which was rather steep, the boys could see the brownish ribbon of the Dnieper River, which marked Kiev’s upper boundary. To the right, about halfway down, they could see the awnings and chimneys of the brick factory owned by the Jew Zaitsev. The neighborhood children liked to sneak onto the factory grounds and play there until the watchman chased them off.
The boy in charge of the expedition, Peter Elansky, led his friend Boris Beloshchitsky downhill to a cave dug into the side of a small mound. At either end of the mound were two trees, standing like sentries, their roots intertwined above its black mouth. On the ground near the cave lay something that caught Peter’s eye—a torn-up school composition book. He read the name inscribed on the cover, but it meant nothing to him.
Boris was afraid of entering the cave. Treasure, everyone knew, could be guarded by the Haidamaks’ angry ghosts. But Peter did not hesitate. This cave was a perfect place for a Cossack to have stashed his gains, with an entrance about three and a half feet high and two and a half feet wide—small enough to discourage adults, but big enough for a boy to scuttle through in a crouch.
The entrance to the cave was partially blocked with melting snow. With the temperature now barely above freezing, Kiev was three days into the spring thaw that each year turned the city’s dirt streets into muddy rivers and aroused fears that the great Dnieper would brim over in another disastrous flood. A small stream of water trickled into the cave, but inside it was dry. After creeping six feet in, Peter could see that the cave forked at right angles into two niches. He could stand up easily now—inside, in places, the cave was more than five feet high. He looked first into the left-hand niche. He saw a figure, slumped against the wall. At first he thought it was a doll. Then he thought it was a woman. He had surely seen innumerable drunks passed out on the streets of Lukianovka, which had drinking establishments on nearly every corner. But this was motionlessness of a more peculiar and scary sort.
Peter ducked out of the cave and ran to get his stepfather, Leonty Sinitsky, who happened to be a police department paramedic. He was skeptical—surely, he thought, the boy was imagining things. But at about two p.m., he went with his stepson to the cave to check. He wriggled halfway in. There was not much light, but he could see there was a human figure, which looked to him like a man with a beard. He was seized by a fear that someone might be waiting within the cave to stab him. He squirmed out and ran with Peter to a nearby church, where he knew a policeman ought to be on duty.
A few moments later a policeman’s whistle rang out, rousing a beat cop who, informed of the situation, went with Sinitsky and his stepson to the cave. The officer squeezed in and lit a match. The body belonged to a boy, he said, not a man or a woman, and he was dead. Clad only in a shirt and knee-length underwear and a single threadbare sock, it was lying in a semi-upright position, its hands tied behind with twine. Directly above the body, five school composition books were wedged into a crevice in the cave wall. A belt lay on top of the half-bare legs, which were bent and crossed. When the belt was turned over, it revealed an inscription: Andrei Yushchinsky Kiev-St. Sophia Religious School.
Sinitsky and the police officer stood over the body, its image flashing out of the gloom with each new match the officer struck. The policeman wanted to take the belt out of the cave, but Sinitsky stopped him—he knew that nothing should be removed from the scene until investigators arrived. Sinitsky, present by happenstance, would turn out to be the only person who tried to prevent the disastrous mishandling of the crime scene. When reinforcements arrived, a certain Officer Rapota, a stout fellow, found he could not squeeze himself into the cave. A shovel appeared. The snow was cleared away, and with it any clues it might have contained.
Just three hundred yards away from the cave, a Jewish clerk, Mendel Beilis, was sitting at his desk in his office on the edge of the Zaitsev brick factory, where he had been working since before dawn. “As I looked through the window,” he later recalled, “I saw people hurrying somewhere, all in one direction. It was a usual thing to see individual workers coming to the factory, or passers-by. But now there were people in large groups, walking rapidly from various streets.” When he stepped outside to find out what was going on, he was told that the body of a boy had been found nearby. He considered this disturbing news for a moment, and then went back to filling out receipts for the endless convoy of horse-drawn carts leaving the factory laden with bricks.
Soon it seemed all of Lukianovka was streaming into the Berner Estate, with a local newspaper reporting that “crowds of the curious surrounded the cave in a thick circle.” Many of the onlookers wanted to get into the cave; reinforcements arrived but the officers had a hard time holding back the crowd. Everything should have been left undisturbed until the arrival of the lead detective; instead, the belt, the five notebooks (on which were also inscribed the same name, Andrei Yushchinsky), and some pieces of newspaper smeared with blood were sent back to the precinct house. The boy’s jacket and cap, found lying in the right-hand niche, were placed outside the cave, free for people in the gathering crowd to pick up and examine.
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. For years, somewhat incongruously, she had been married to a respectable civil servant, with whom she had three children. When she saw the body, Vera Cheberyak told the police that the child did resemble a friend of her son’s but the name on the belt was not familiar to her. She knew the boy only by a nickname, “Domovoi” or “Goblin.” Later that day, she returned to the cave with Zhenya, who had told her his friend’s real name was Yushchinsky. Mother and son were led through the cave’s well-cleared entrance and into the left-hand niche. When the boy saw the body, he said, “Yes mama, that’s definitely him. It’s Goblin.”
Nearly everyone in Andrei Yushchinsky’s world seemed to have a nickname. “Honeybunch,” “Frog,” “Wolfie,” “Snub-Nose,” “Crooked Arm,” “Crosseyed,” “Sailor.” The provenance could be obvious or obscure. But once a Russian child was given a nickname, there was no outgrowing it. It followed you to the brink of the grave, where it was finally left behind, and a proper Christian name and surname etched on the nameplate affixed to the simple cross. Andrei, though, would be denied even that small dignity. His grave marker would always tell a half -truth. Andrei was legally barred from bearing the name of the father who had sired him and then abandoned him and his mother, when he was less than two years old, to serve in the tsar’s army, it was said, somew...
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Buchbeschreibung Schocken Books Inc, Usa, 2014. Hardcover. Buchzustand: Very Good. Zustand des Schutzumschlags: Very Good. Good to very good in dust jacket -clean copy -no markings; B&W Illustrations; 9.29 X 6.22 X 1.50 inches; 400 pages. Artikel-Nr. 52276