Once again, Mendel Beilis found himself at the mercy of events beyond his control. Most of the world was either embroiled in World War I or caught up in its aftermath, and Palestine did not prove to be the safe haven Beilis so desperately sought. In 1920, at the age of forty-six, Beilis emigrated to America and settled in New York City, where he lived until his death in 1934.
In New York, Beilis wrote his personal memoirs, The Story of My Sufferings, which were published in 1926 by Beilis himself. Originally composed in Yiddish but published in English, the original edition contains two articles written by Beilis’s first attorney, Arnold Margolin, in which he pays tribute to those Russian gentiles who valiantly assisted the effort to free Mendel Beilis. There is also a special memorium honoring Rabbi Jacob Mazeh for his extraordinary performance at the trial and his lifelong dedicated service to Russian Jewry. Also of interest at the end of the book is an “Honor List” of individuals and workers’ organizations that financed the publication of the book by paying thirty cents for each of twenty-three hundred copies.
This personal memoir provides posterity with a rare inside view of a martyr’s ordeal, but it by no means tells the whole story of the Beilis trial, either from the prosecution’s side or the defense’s. It does, however, form an invaluable addition to the large body of records and literature pertaining to this sensational trial. In addition to the actual stenographic record of the trial, which fills three immense volumes, the archival materials also contain a voluminous collection of articles that appeared in Russian and foreign newspapers. But the most remarkable body of correspondence concerning the Beilis trial was discovered after the Revolution of 1917 in the Czar’s secret papers.
It is here that the criminal complicity of the Czar and his officials is factually detailed. Goluboff, Tchaplinsky and Schtcheglovetoff were all conspirators who, with the full knowledge of the Czar, carried out their scheme to make an innocent Mendel Beilis the quintessential scapegoat. These incriminating papers reveal the extent of their involvement in the falsification of documents and testimony. There is included the original medical report, as well as the “altered” versions. Receipts were found for payments to Kossovsky, Zamyslovsky and others for “services” rendered. At the time of the verdict, however, the general public was totally unaware of the government’s treachery. Ironically, the verdict of acquittal actually allayed some of the criticism of the Czar, for it showed that the Russian justice system was still capable of freeing an innocent man.
Even after the trial, the governmental agitation did not cease. In an effort to repair the government’s image abroad, the Minister of Justice paid a member of the Duma named Zamyslovsky, an original organizer of the trial, seventy-five thousand rubles to publish a work entitled, The Murder of Andrei Yustchinsky. Defending the Czar’s persecution of the Jews, he wrote, “The fanatic murder committed by the Jews in order to obtain Christian blood is not a legend even in the twentieth century; it is not a blood libel. It is a terrible reality, and many who doubted and hesitated about it became convinced after the Kiev trial.”
After the Revolution of 1917, the Provisional Russian Government immediately set about the task of prosecuting former Czarist ministers for crimes against the Russian people. The Beilis case was the first case submitted for investigation. In the summer of 1919, although the archives of the Czar had not yet been researched and the commission was only allowed to investigate illegal acts done in an official capacity, the Moscow Revolutionary Tribunal convicted Minister of Justice Shtchedlovitoff, Ministers of the Interior Makaroff and Maklakoff and Director of Police Bielezky. They were all executed. Zamislovsky and Shmakoff died in the interim. Prosecutor Viper had died awaiting trial following his indictment in 1919. Vera Tchebiriak was shot in Kiev in 1918.
While this new edition of Beilis’s memoirs will undoubtedly stimulate new interest in this dark chapter of history, it will hopefully also correct certain misconceptions about Beilis that may have arisen after the publication of Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer in 1966. The Fixer was a highly acclaimed work of fiction whose plot was contructed around a twentieth century Russian blood libel trial strongly reminiscent of the Beilis trial. The resemblance, however, ends there. Malamud’s Yakov Bok was never meant to be a representation of Mendel Beilis. Bok was an obscure little handyman fleeing from his heritage, while Beilis, manager of a huge factory, was not “a little man,” and he certainly was not fleeing from his heritage. In an era of rampant assimilation, even in the totally hostile, gentile environs of the factory where he lived and worked, he was conspicuous as “the Jew with the beard.” Throughout his memoirs, Beilis proudly and repeatedly portrays himself as a religious Jew. The first words he spoke at his trial were “I am a Jew.”
Mendel Beilis was an honorable man, a man of great courage and dignity. Even his accusers confessed that they could find no flaws in his character. His industriousness and integrity were beyond reproof; he had served loyally in the army of the Czar, and he had broken no laws, violated no rules. And above all, the faith and courage he displayed throughout his ordeal was truly remarkable. Had he at any time “confessed” or succumbed to his tormentors, the history of the Jews of Kiev, and perhaps of all Russia, would have contained an additional tragic chapter. Yet Mendel Beilis endured and, in the end, prevailed.
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