The next morning, I was once again escorted to the courthouse with the same pomp and ceremony, accompanied by squads of cavalrymen and gendarmes who acted as if they were part of an honor procession. And also, just as the day before, the courtroom was packed, but this time, a nervous tension could be sensed. Yesterday had been spent formally administering the oaths, but today the real drama was expected to begin. The audience wanted a show.
The examination of witnesses began. The first called to the stand were the carters and drivers, those who had carted the bricks from the factory. The testimony from these witnesses was expected to be relevant to a crucial part of the trial.
According to the indictment, the lamplighter at the factory, Schakhovsky, had sworn to the Prosecuting Attorney that on Saturday, March 12, at nine o’clock in the morning, he had seen me standing in my house with two tzaddikim who were dressed in their long caftans and skullcaps, wrapped in talleisim and absorbed in prayer. After the prayers were finished, I was alleged to have chased Yustchinsky around the factory yard, caught him and carried him away to the kiln where the bricks were baked. Schakhovsky said he didn’t know exactly what had taken place after that, but it was quite clear that Andriusha had not escaped my hands alive. Schakhovsky also testified that no one was around the factory at that time, not even the workers.
Zhenia, Tchebiriak’s little boy, had told the same story to Fenenko. When the prosecutor asked me at the time what I had to say in regard to Schakhovsky’s testimony, I explained to him that there was a receipt book system in operation at the factory. The receipts showed who the drivers and carters had been that day and to whom the bricks had been delivered. The carter who loaded the bricks and delivered them to the customer had to enter this information into the book and sign his name. The log thus revealed that on the twelfth of March, fifty drivers and carters had been engaged to deliver ten thousand bricks that day. It took the entire day to complete the order. It was, therefore, preposterous for anyone to assert that the factory yard was empty or that I had nothing better to do than chase after Andriusha Yustchinsky.
When one of the drivers was summoned to testify, he declared, “We were always at the factory. We even slept there. Beilis lived on the upper floor, and we lived on the lower one. We all know that Beilis is an honest man.”
Another driver had more to relate on my behalf. “Beilis used to get up very early, about three in the morning. Whenever we would knock on his door, he was always ready. He was a very diligent, faithful employee, and he used to watch us closely to make sure we also got up early and went to work on time. Very often, he would have to leave his table in the middle of a meal to come and supervise us to see that we were not loafing. He never had even an hour’s rest from his responsibilities. All of us Russians were always around, day and night.”
The simple, modest testimony of these drivers, who were plain, unpretentious peasants, made a strong impression on the entire assemblage.
The next witness was a woman whom I had never seen before. The Presiding Judge asked if she knew me.
“Yes, sir, I do know him,” she replied. “He is Beilis, and it is his fault that my life has been ruined. I lost my husband because of him. My husband was a locksmith, and one day, he needed a short piece of metal that he could not find anywhere. He noticed a similar piece of metal at Zaitzev’s factory, so he took it, thinking that Zaitzev would not notice the loss of that one little piece since he was such a rich man. However, Beilis did not let the matter drop and brought charges against my husband. While in jail, my husband became infected with typhus and died. Even though he destroyed my happiness, I must admit that Beilis is an honest man who is true to his employer and carries out all his duties honorably.”
One witness after another was summarily brought forward, each giving testimony that tore to shreds the charges contained in the indictment. For those who were really interested in the truth, nothing could have been clearer than the straightforward, unadorned testimony of these plain people. Unfortunately, there was no way to tell how the jury had reacted, and they were the ones who counted.
The next witness to appear before the judge was an elderly Polish man by the name of Vissimirsky. He was a neighbor who lived three houses away from me. His story was so fascinating that the audience sat spellbound throughout his entire testimony. He made such a powerful impression that a hubbub erupted when he finished.
Vissimirsky was a cattle trader. Every time I needed a cow, I bought one from him. He was also a daily visitor at my house and, as such, knew all there was to know about my family. Vissimirsky knew that at the time of the murder I did not own a cow. Since Vera Tchebiriak and her children had testified that they had come to my house on March 12 for the purpose of buying milk, his testimony to the contrary was a blow to the prosecution.
Now I understood why Fenenko had asked me whether I had a cow and sold milk. Vissimirsky stated most emphatically that all the stories about the cow and the milk were absolutely false, since he knew for a fact that I had not had a cow during that entire year.
When he completed his testimony, he still remained standing before the judge, as if absorbed in thought. It was clear that there was more he wanted to say. There was absolute silence in the courtroom; everyone was all eyes and ears, wondering what it was that this old gentile gentleman knew, what it was he wished to tell. Why was he hesitating so long?
I myself felt quite uneasy. I knew he had told the truth about the cow, but I also couldn’t imagine what more he had to add.
“There is something else I’d like to say,” he stammered. “I-I didn’t know I’d have to be a witness. After all, what do I know about courts and trials and things? I am over sixty years old with one foot in the grave already. I’ve lived a full life, and I never had to come to court, either as a witness or a defendant or anything, and I expected to die without ever stepping into a courtroom. But I received the summons to come, so I’m here.”
He paused, as if gathering the courage to continue and, turning to the judge, haltingly began again.
“This case has made me ill for over two and a half years. I know that it has shortened my life. I want you to know I only have one son whom I love dearly, so I wouldn’t do anything dishonest or ungodly that might cause him shame. Besides that, I am under oath, and I believe in God and fear Him. So I cannot keep silent any longer. I must tell you everything I know. You have enough proof from what I’ve testified about the cow to know that the charges against Beilis are false. But I’m going to tell you more, something that will put an end to all these tales about Mendel Beilis being a murderer, that he murdered Andriusha Yustchinsky and used his blood for the Passover matzos. I am going to prove to you once and for all that all these charges are false.”
A silence gripped the courtroom. All that could be heard was Mr. Vissimirsky struggling to control his emotions. When he finally spoke, it was with great difficulty.
“I come from the city of Vitebsk, where I had been the manager of an estate on the outskirts of town. I had an assistant, a dear friend and co-religionist by the name of Ravitch. We both moved to Kiev at the same time and lived near each other. It so happens that our homes were close to the Tchebiriak house. The Ravitches were kind, gentle people who had no children. They had a grocery store that supported them quite comfortably, and they lived an honorable life. They had made a good life for themselves and were content.
“Then one day, out of the clear blue, Mr. and Mrs. Ravitch came to see me to say good-bye! They said they were leaving the country! I was amazed. I could not imagine why they had to leave so suddenly. This had been their home for so many years, and they were so respected. Why should they have to leave such a profitable business and so many good friends? What was the matter? And not only that, but they were going to the other end of the world. They were leaving everything and going to America!
“When the Ravitches saw how shocked I was, Mrs. Ravitch started to cry. I was deeply moved because I knew something was wrong. With tears in her eyes, Mrs. Ravitch tried to speak. ‘We have to go to America,’ she said.
“‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Why in the world would you undergo such hardships in a foreign country? Do you have any friends or relatives there?’
“Mrs. Ravitch broke down and couldn’t say a word. Mr.Ravitch also couldn’t talk. It was obvious that something terrible had happened that they couldn’t speak about. I begged them to tell me what was wrong.
“‘I am your friend,’ I said. ‘You can trust me. Maybe I can help you.’
“‘You are a true friend,’ Mrs. Ravitch said sadly. ‘And if we tell you, then it will endanger your life and ours. You must promise me that you will never say a word of this to anyone.’
“Of course, I gave her my word, because I had to know the truth. What I am going to tell you,” Mr. Vissimirsky said, staring the judge straight in the face, “is what Mrs. Ravitch said to me.
“‘We were quite friendly with Vera Tchebiriak,’ Mrs. Ravitch had said, speaking in a low, mournful tone. ‘After all, we were neighbors. She would come to my house to borrow things, and I would go to hers. Sometimes, I would need a pot or some other type of utensil. One morning, I went to her house to borrow a chopping knife. We shared things so often that I knew where everything was located in her kitchen. When I saw that Vera was still in bed, I went on past her room to get the chopper myself.’”
Mr. Vissimirsky had paused frequently to catch his breath, as he was greatly distressed. Raising his voice and his head at the same time, he almost shouted to the jury, “Mrs. Ravitch told me that when she passed by the bathtub, she saw a dead child lying there. She said that she was so frightened, she ran out of the house!”
It took a few minutes for Mr. Vissimirsky to regain his composure. The secret that had eaten away at him for two and a half years was finally out. There was a murmur throughout the chamber that ceased the moment he resumed his tale.
“Obviously, Vera realized that Mrs. Ravitch had seen the body. Vera went to see Mrs. Ravitch and told her that since she had seen the dead child, she had to leave Russia right away. Vera came to warn her because of their friendship, and she said that if they did not leave, they would be killed.
“Mrs. Ravitch said she had started sobbing and cried to Vera, ‘My friend, what are you saying? Leave the country? Where can I go? Why?’
“Vera had retorted, ‘I will give you the money you need to get away, but you have to go to America. I know you would not report me, but once the investigators start putting pressure on you and the police send out their spies, it will be impossible for you to conceal the truth. They will be able to get the information out of you one way or another. You must disappear.’
“So what could Mr. and Mrs. Ravitch do? They fled to New York just a couple of days later.”
A veritable storm arose in the courtroom when Mr. Vissimirsky ended his testimony. Vera Tchebiriak had been sitting there, awaiting her turn as a witness. She had looked like the picture of a lady, bedecked in fancy finery with a gay hat. Now she was gesticulating frantically with her hands. The Presiding Judge, Judge Boldirev, was apparently a close acquaintance, and he tried to calm her down. However, instead of calling her Mrs. Tchebiriak, as the official regulations for addressing a witness prescribed, he called her Vera Vladimirovna, as if she were a prominent person or a dear friend. The people who were sitting close to her began to move away, shunning her as if she suddenly filled them with fear.
I could see that the jury was quite taken with the whole spectacle. When Vera Tchebiriak realized that everyone, the jury included, was staring at her, she took off the hat and pulled a shawl over her head. She was visibly trembling and white as a sheet. The Presiding Judge, who was apparently quite shaken himself, confronted the witness.
“If you knew all of this, then why have you kept silent for such a long time?”
“I didn’t thinkI’d ever be called as a witness,” Mr. Vissimirsky somewhat ashamedly confessed. “Besides, I was testing my religion. I wanted to see whether our God is a righteous God, and if he would let an innocent man suffer. I really believed the truth would come out on its own.”
It was clear the Presiding Judge did not want to prolong this witness’s testimony for one moment longer. In fact, he wished he had gotten rid of him a long time ago.
The next witness was a ten-year-old boy. His account dealt yet another blow to the prosecution’s case. He also further implicated Vera Tchebiriak. I must note that several times during the trial, not only was my innocence being heralded, but Vera Tchebiriak’s complicity was proclaimed. More than one witness stated, with absolute certainty, that Vera Tchebiriak had committed the murder. The grim irony of the situation was that she had been summoned as a witness against me.
When the boy took his place on the stand, he glanced at me and smiled.
The Presiding Judge addressed him, “Do you know Mendel Beilis?”
“Yes, I know him.”
“Did he ever chase you away from the factory?”
“No, I never had to be chased away, and besides, that wasn’t his job. They had a dvornik, a janitor, for that. Mr. Beilis had other business to take care of.”
The judge repeatedly asked that question throughout the trial, because the prosecution was trying to prove that I was in the habit of chasing Christian children out of the factory yard. Then they could say that one time I caught Andriusha Yustchinsky and killed him.
The boy continued his testimony. “Yes. We used to play around the factory; but Yustchinsky was never there, and Beilis never chased us away.” He then added the following statement. “Your honor, before you called me up to the stand, I was sitting near Vera Tchebiriak. She told me that I shouldn’t forget to say that Andriusha Yustchinsky had been playing at the factory with us. She said that maybe I had forgotten since it was such a long time ago. I told her not to tell me what to say. I told her that Andriusha never played with us at the factory, that it was a lie. I told her that I was going to tell the truth.”
I could see by the expression on their faces that the jury members were moved by the boy’s words. Vera Tchebiriak’s condition was deteriorating by the moment. Even though the Presiding Judge kept calling her Veritchka, or Vera Vladimirovna, she was almost in a faint. My witnesses made it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that they believed she was the one who had murdered the boy.
During the first few days of the trial, a series of important witnesses appeared. Several workers were summoned to tell about the fire that had broken out at the factory. I didn’t know about the fire, but I learned about it during the trial.
Apparently, some time after my arrest, there had been a fire at my house. It had been caused by arson, and the culprit was never discovered. I have no doubt that Vera’s gang was involved. The anti-Semitic newspapers, however, began printing stories to the effect that it was my relatives who had set the house on fire, allegedly in order to destroy any evidence I might have left behind. The witnesses were therefore asked many specific questions about where the fire had broken out and when. This was important, because the anti-Semites were insisting that the fire had not been started until all the furniture had been removed from the house.
The employees stated that the fire had broken out at midnight, and if they had been asleep, they would all have perished in the flames. It was only due to a fortunate coincidence that they happened to be awake at this time of the night. One of the workers was drunk that Sunday night, and he was so sick that he began to scream and cause a commotion around midnight. He made such a racket that everyone woke up. All of a sudden, someone saw smoke and then fire coming from my part of the house. My family was fast asleep, and as one of the workers avouched, “If we hadn’t rescued the Beilises, they all would have been burned to ashes.”
Two young sisters by the name of Dyakonova were called up next. The testimony from one of the girls proved to be highly informative.
“My sister and I,” she began, “used to spend the night at the Tchebiriak house all the time because we were very good friends with her children. One night, Mrs. Tchebiriak invited us over because her husband had to be on duty as an orderly at the telegraph office and she didn’t want to be at home alone. Around midnight, after Vera fell asleep, I was walking around and noticed something on the floor that was large and wrapped in a bag. I was curious and wanted to see what it was, so I uncovered the bag. I saw a dead child lying there. I was frightened almost to death and ran to wake Vera. I started yelling, ‘There’s a dead child lying in there! And it looks like Zhenia!’ But instead of answering me, Vera began to snore and pretended she didn’t hear me. I was too afraid to stay in that house any longer, so I woke my sister immediately and we ran home in the middle of the night.”
The Prosecuting Attorney and the other lawyers for the prosecution were making wry faces throughout the girl’s testimony. They also tried to confuse her and make her look ridiculous. The Presiding Judge even intervened with a question. “Why didn’t you tell anyone about this before?”
Undaunted, the girl replied, “We were afraid. Vera is quite a dangerous person, and she could have easily murdered us, too. Until this point we had to keep silent, but now we can tell the truth.”
I could see that both the audience and the jury were deeply moved by the girl’s story. The jury had exchanged sympathetic glances throughout the testimony.
Yet another witness, a barber, was called up to the stand. He recalled that one night, when he had been arrested and taken to the Outchastok, the police station, three other prisoners were brought in from Moscow. They turned out to be Vera’s chief gangsters, Rudzinsky, Singayevsky and Latischeff. The barber overheard Rudzinsky call Latischeff a brainless beast who was stupid for “throwing him near the factory yard, near the Jew’s house.” He said he hadn’t heard anything else. He also testified that he had told this story to Fenenko.
I would like to note that I learned of things during my trial about which I had previously had no idea. I had been kept in isolation for over two years, so it was with the greatest curiosity that I listened to the testimony presented in court. I was thus becoming informed of all that had taken place around me while I was locked behind bars. Only then did I begin to realize what powerful evidence the authorities actually had against Tchebiriak. And yet I was the one sitting on the defendant’s bench. How ironic!
Another witness was a Mrs. Malitskaya. She was in charge of a government dram shop, which is what the government liquor dispensary was called. This liquor store was located on the same premises as the house where the Tchebiriaks lived. The Tchebiriaks lived on the second story, and the dram shop was on the ground floor. Mrs. Malitskaya told the court that on the night of March 12, she heard something heavy being dragged across the Tchebiriak’s floor. She listened closely and heard a child screaming. She said she didn’t know what was going on, but she did know what she had heard.
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