The activity in the courtroom resembled a holiday fair. It was all over; nothing remained but the finale. With proper solemnity, the Presiding Judge turned to me and asked, “Mendel Beilis, what do you have to say in your defense?”
I rose weakly to my feet. “Gentlemen, I can only say that I am innocent. I am too weary for anything else. The prison and the trial have left me bereft of speech. I only ask that you scrutinize all the evidence that you have been listening to for thirty-four days. Examine it carefully, and deliver your verdict, so that I can go home to my wife and children who have been waiting for me these two and a half years.”
The Presiding Judge then delivered his charge to the jury. “Gentlemen, it is my duty to say nothing, either good or bad. I must remain impartial. But this trial has been an exceptional one. It has touched upon a matter which concerns the existence of the whole Russian people. There are people who drink our blood. There are many things that have happened here that you must not take into consideration, neither the witnesses who wanted to whitewash Beilis, nor the experts who stated that the Jews do not use Christian blood. And you certainly must not take into the account any of the stories about Vera Tchebiriak’s guilt. You must disregard all this testimony and remember just one thing: a Christian child has been murdered. It is Mendel Beilis who is accused of this crime, and it is Mendel Beilis who stands before you on the defendant’s bench. It is Mendel Beilis you must try!”
The judge said this and much more in his “impartial” tone. His summation astounded not only me but a great many people in the courtroom as well. Everyone was amazed to hear the Presiding Judge speak as though he were the Prosecuting Attorney. He continued his summary sermon until sunset.
It was about five o’clock in the afternoon when the questions were finally delivered to the jury. First, they had to decide where the child had been murdered. Then they had to determine who was the murderer. At last, I was living in actuality the moment I had already lived through in my mind a thousand times. This was the moment when the peasants who comprised the jury, in whose hands my fate rested, rose from the jury box and retired to resolve these questions. I was led to my room.
It is not possible to describe the anxiety I experienced in knowing that in a few minutes my years of waiting would come to an end. In a matter of minutes, my fate would be decided. Was I to be doomed to an eternal agony and my wife and children sentenced to a life of shame and grief? Or would I be reborn a new man, unfettered and free, with a full life before me?
I was again brought into the courtroom. It was time to read aloud the signed and sealed verdict of the jury. A deadly silence filled the chamber. People almost stopped breathing.
The Prosecuting Attorney, the lawyers for the prosecution and all the Black Hundreds looked about them triumphantly. They seemed assured of victory. Only two of my lawyers, Zarudny and Grigorovitch-Barsky, remained in the courtroom. Gruzenberg, Maklakov and Karabchevsky had left. They were afraid of an adverse verdict and didn’t feel strong enough to withstand the shock.
The jury had not yet entered the courtroom, so all eyes were directed toward the door, the door through which the “Great Secret” would soon emerge. At last, the door swung open, and the members of the jury slowly filed in.
During the thirty-four days of the trial, I had never removed my eyes from the faces of these men in whose hands lay not only my fate but the fate of all the Jews of Russia. I had wanted to gaze into their very souls. What were they thinking about, these plain Russian peasants? They had been listening for more than a month to various stories about the murder itself, about Jewish life and about our religious laws and customs. Had they believed all they were told? Did they realize that all these charges levelled against the Jews were lies and falsehoods? Did they realize that only moments earlier they had fashioned a decision that would affect the lives of millions of Jews? My life as well depended upon what they had decided. Maybe it had even depended on just a couple of jurors; maybe on just one! Dear God, can I stand it one second more?
Why is it dragging on so long? Why don’t they just read the verdict? I looked into the eyes of the jurymen, searching for a clue, a glimmer of hope. I had examined them so often during the trial, but I had never seen them like this. In the past, they had always managed a friendly smile. But now, their faces were downcast and somber. They seemed devoid of emotion. It dawned on me like a thunderbolt. Guilty! They must have decided I was guilty. I tried to pull myself together and pray to God to sustain me. Let them shoot me, let them hang me, let them do as they pleased with me. I tried to find consolation in the thought that the whole world, the world of honest men, would say I had been the victim of a flagrant miscarriage of justice. All the world would know the verdict was a colossal blunder. This gave me the courage I needed to hold out till the end.
By this time, the silence in the courtroom had become funereal. I cannot describe the rigidity with which the audience held itself, afraid to stir, lest it miss a single word. The air became so intense that we felt as if we would suffocate.
The foreman of the jury rose to his feet and began reading the decision from the piece of paper he held in his hand.
“Where had the crime been committed?” he asked aloud. “The jury has decided that it was in Zaitzev’s brick kiln.”
The jury had decided that the boy had been murdered in the factory where I was superintendent. Certainly then, they had decided that it was I who had committed the murder. I held my breath and clenched my teeth. If the boy had been murdered in my factory, and I was the only Jew there, then the jury would surely decide that I was in fact the perpetrator of the deed.
The foreman continued reading. “If it has been proved that the murder was actually committed at Zaitzev’s factory, who committed it? Was it the defendant Mendel Beilis? Was Beilis the one who took the Yustchinsky boy and inflicted forty-nine wounds upon his body, drew the blood out of the child’s veins and used it according to the Jewish religious laws? In short, is Mendel Beilis guilty or not?
“The jury had unanimously decided. Mendel Beilis is not guilty.”
I cannot adequately describe the pandemonium that broke loose in the courtroom. There were audible gasps of relief, followed by tears of elation. I myself wept like a child. My lawyer Mr. Zarudny came running and was the first to reach me. He grabbed me, shouting, “Beilis, my dear man, you are free!”
The colonel in charge of the escort guards who was standing near me, poured a glass of water and handed it to me. Mr. Zarudny snatched the glass out of his hand and didn’t let me drink it. The colonel was deeply offended.
“Why won’t you let me give him a drink,” he said. “After all, he’s under my care. I’m here to protect him.”
“No,” Mr. Zarudny screamed. I had never seen him so excited. “He is not in your hands any more. Now you have no authority over him whatsoever!” He gave me a hug and kissed me. Grigorovitch-Barsky also came over.
“Let’s all go,” Mr. Zarudny said. “We have some wonderful news to tell our friends. There are some people we need to congratulate.”
At this moment, the Presiding Judge rose again and read the official decree, which said that by order of His Imperial Majesty, I was freed and could take my place among the people in the courtroom. As a rule, this was sufficient, and after the announcement of the verdict, the guards ordinarily sheath their swords, and the defendant leaves the dock. I, however, remained seated. I did not know what to do, and the soldiers who surrounded me were still standing with their naked swords. They made no move to put them back into their scabbards.
I glanced over at the prosecution’s bench and saw Schmakov. He stood as if dumfounded and was muttering to himself. When one of his friends approached him, I heard Schmakov say, “It cannot be helped. All is lost. This is a terrible blow for Russia.”
There could be no doubt that the public was rejoicing over the verdict. People were shaking hands, kissing each other, shouting their congratulations to me and wiping their eyes. All these people, most of whom were very influential Russians, I had never known before the trial. I saw that many of them wanted to come over to congratulate me personally, but the gendarmes and police did not permit them to pass. So the public greeted me from a distance, with the women waving their handkerchiefs. The Presiding Judge finally ordered the room cleared.
The Russian soldiers were experts at that sort of thing, and the room was cleared in a matter of minutes. In the meantime, I was liberated and finally recognized by all as the innocent Mendel Beilis. I was still sitting on the defendant’s bench, surrounded by soldiers with swords in hand.
While the people were leaving the hall, an exceedingly distinguished and inordinately large Russian came over to me.
“I am a merchant from Moscow,” he said with great emotion. “I left three factories, left them almost without supervision, to come spend more than a month’s time here. I have been awaiting the moment of your liberation. I could not leave as long as your fate was undecided. I knew I could not rest at home. And now, the Lord be blessed, I can go home rejoicing. I am very happy to be able to shake hands with you. Mendel Beilis, I wish you all the happiness in the world.”
This Russian giant was whimpering like a child, energetically wiping his eyes and blowing his nose. “God bless you, Beilis,” were his last words as he was being propelled through the door.
|[Home] [Campus] [Curriculum] [Dedications] [News] [Archives] [Judaica]|