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by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


The "ordinary" persecutions under which the Jews in Russia were groaning were accompanied by afflictions of an extraordinary kind. The severest among these were the ritual murder trials which became of frequent occurrence, tending to deepen the medieval gloom of that period. True, ritual murder cases had occurred during the reign of Alexander I., but it was only under Nicholas that they assumed a malign and dangerous form. In the year 1816, shortly before Passover, a dead body was found in the vicinity of Grodno and identified as that of the four year old daughter of a Grodno resident, Mary Adamovich. Rumors were spread among the superstitious Christian populace to the effect that the girl had been killed for ritual purposes, and the police, swayed by these rumors, set about to find the culprit among the Jews. Suspicion fell on a member of the Grodno Kahal, Shalom Lapin, whose house adjoined that of the Adamovich family. The only "evidence" against him were a hammer and a pike found in his house. A sergeant, named Savitzki, a converted Jew, appeared as a material witness before the Commission of Inquiry, and delivered himself of a statement full of ignorant trash, which was intended to show that "Christian blood is exactly what is needed according to the Jewish religion"--here the witness referred to the Bible story of the Exodus and to two mythical authorities, "the philosopher Rossie and the prophet Azariah." He further deposed that "every rabbi is obliged to satisfy the whole Kahal under his jurisdiction by smearing with same (with Christian blood) the lintels of every house on the first day of the feast of Passover." Prompted by greed and by the desire to distinguish himself, the sergeant declared himself ready to substantiate his testimony from Jewish literature, "if the chief Government will grant him the necessary assistance."

The results of this "secret investigation" were laid before the governor of Grodno and reported by him to St. Petersburg. In reply, Alexander I. issued a rescript in February, 1817, ordering that the "secret investigation be cut short and the murderer be found out" intimating thereby that search be made for the criminal and not for the tenets of the Jewish religion. However, all efforts to discover the culprit failed, and the case was dismissed.

This favorable issue was in no small measure due to the endeavors of the "Deputies of the Jewish People," [1] in particular to Sonnenberg, the deputy from Grodno. These deputies, who were present in St. Petersburg at that time, addressed themselves to Golitzin, the Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs, protesting against the ritual murder libel. The trial at Grodno and the ritual murder accusations which simultaneously cropped up in the Kingdom of Poland made the Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs realize that there was in the Western region a dangerous tendency of making the Jews the scapegoats for every mysterious murder case and of fabricating lawsuits of the medieval variety by bringing popular superstition into play. Golitzin, a Christian pietist, who was nevertheless profoundly averse to narrow ecclesiastic fanaticism, decided to strike at the root of this superstitious legend which was disgracing Poland in her period of decay and was about to fall as a dark stain upon Russia. He succeeded in impressing this conviction upon his like-minded sovereign Alexander I. In the same month in which the ukase concerning "the Society of Israelitish Christians" was published [2] Golitzin sent out the following circular to the governors, dated March 6, 1817:

[Footnote 1: See Vol. I, p. 394.]

[Footnote 2: Compare Vol. I, p. 396.]

  In view of the fact that in several of the provinces acquired from   Poland, cases still occur in which the Jews are falsely accused of   murdering Christian children for the alleged purpose of obtaining   blood, his Imperial Majesty, taking into consideration that similar   accusations have on previous numerous occasions been refuted by   impartial investigations and royal charters, has been graciously   pleased to convey to those at the head of the governments his   Sovereign will: that henceforward the Jews shall not be charged with   murdering Christian children, without any evidence and purely as a   result of the superstitious belief that they are in need of   Christian blood.

One might have thought that this emphatic rescript would suffice to put a stop to the efforts of ignorant adventurers to resuscitate the bloody myth. And, for several years, indeed, the sinister agitation kept quiet. But towards the end of Alexander's reign it came to life again, and gave rise to the monstrous Velizh case.

In the year 1823, on the first day of the Christian Passover, a boy of three years, Theodore Yemelyanov, the son of a Russian soldier, disappeared in the city of Velizh, in the government of Vitebsk. Ten days later the child's body was found in a swamp beyond the town, stabbed all over and covered with wounds. The medical examination and the preliminary investigation were influenced by the popular belief that the child had been tortured to death by the Jews. This belief was fostered by two Christian fortune-tellers, a prostitute beggar-woman, called Mary Terentyeva, and a half-witted old maid, by the name of Yeremyeyeva, who by way of divination made the parents of the child believe that its death was due to the Jews. At the judicial inquiry, Terentyeva implicated two of the most prominent Jews of Velizh, the merchant Shmerka [1] Berlin, and Yevzik [2] Zetlin, a member of the local town council.

[Footnote 1: A popular form of the name Shemariah.]

[Footnote 2: The Russian form of _Yozel_, a variant of the name Joseph.]

Protracted investigations failed to substantiate the fabrications of Terentyeva, and in the autumn of 1884 the Supreme Court of the government of Vitebsk rendered the following verdict:

  To leave the accidental death of the soldier boy to the will of God;   to declare all the Jews, against whom the charge of murder has been   brought on mere surmises, free from all suspicion; to turn over the   soldier woman Terentyeva, for her profligate conduct, to a priest   for repentance.

However, in view of the exceptional gravity of the crime, the Court recommended to the gubernatorial administration to continue its investigations.

Despite the verdict of the court, the dark forces among the local population, prompted by hatred of the Jews, bent all their efforts on putting the investigation on the wrong track. The low, mercenary Terentyeva became their ready tool. When in September, 1825, Alexander I. was passing through Velizh, she submitted a petition to him, complaining about the failure of the authorities to discover the murderer of little Theodore, whom she unblushingly designated as her own child and declared to have been tortured to death by the Jews. The Tzar, entirely oblivious of his ukase of 1817,[1] instructed the White-Russian governor-general, Khovanski, to start a new rigorous inquiry.

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 74.]

The imperial order gave the governor-general, who was a Jew-hater and a believer in the hideous libel, unrestricted scope for his anti-Semitic instincts. He entrusted the conduct of the new investigation to a subaltern, by the name of Strakhov, a man of the same ilk, conferring upon him the widest possible powers. On his arrival in Velizh, Strakhov first of all arrested Terentyeva, and subjected her to a series of cross-examinations during which he endeavored to put her on what he considered the desirable track. Stimulated by the prosecutor, the prostitute managed to concoct a regular criminal romance. She deposed that she herself had participated in the crime, having lured little Theodore into the homes of Zetlin and Berlin. In Berlin's house, and later on in the synagogue, a crowd of Jews of both sexes had subjected the child to the most horrible tortures. The boy had been stabbed and butchered and rolled about in a barrel. The blood squeezed out of him had been distributed on the spot among those present, who thereupon proceeded to soak pieces of linen in it and to pour it out in bottles.[1] All these tortures had been perpetrated in her own presence, and with the active participation both of herself and the Christian servant-girls of the two families.

[Footnote 1: According to her testimony, the Jews are in the habit of using Christian blood to smear the eyes of their new-born babies, since "the Jews are always born blind," also to mix it with the flour in preparing the unleavened bread for Passover.]

It may be added that Terentyeva did not make these statements at one time, but at different intervals, inventing fresh details at each new examination and often getting muddled in her story. The implicated servant-girls at first denied their share in the crime, but, yielding to external pressure--like Terentyeva, they, too, were sent for frequent "admonition" to a local priest, called Tarashkevich, a ferocious anti-Semite--they were gradually led to endorse the depositions of the principal material witness.

On the strength of these indictments Strakhov placed the implicated Jews under arrest, at first two highly esteemed ladies, Slava Berlin and Hannah Zetlin, later on their husbands and relatives, and finally a number of other Jewish residents of Velizh. In all forty-two people were seized, put in chains, and thrown into jail. The prisoners were examined "with a vengeance"; they were subjected to the old-fashioned judicial procedure which approached closely the methods of medieval torture. The prisoners denied their guilt with indignation, and, when confronted with Terentyeva, denounced her vehemently as a liar. The excruciating cross-examinations brought some of the prisoners to the verge of madness. But as far as Strakhov was concerned, the hysterical fits of the women, the angry speeches of the men, the remarks of some of the accused, such as: "I shall tell everything, but only to the Tzar," served in his eyes as evidence of the Jews' guilt. In his reports he assured his superior, Khovanski, that he had got on the track of a monstrous crime perpetrated by a whole Kahal, with the assistance of several Christian women who had been led astray by the Jews.

In communicating his findings to St. Petersburg, the White Russian governor-general presented the case as a crime committed on religious grounds. In reply he received the fatal resolution of Emperor Nicholas, dated August 16, 1828, to the following effect:

  Whereas the above occurrence demonstrates that the Zhyds[1] make   wicked use of the religious tolerance accorded to them, therefore,   as a warning and as an example to others, let the Jewish schools   (the synagogues) of Velizh be sealed up until farther orders, and   let services be forbidden, whether in them or near them.

[Footnote 1: Compare Vol. I, p, 320, n. 2.]

The imperial resolution was couched in the fierce language of the new reign which had begun in the meantime. It rose in the bloody mist of the Velizh affair. The fatal consequences of this synchronism were not limited to the Jews of Velizh. Judging by the contents and the harsh wording of the resolution, Nicholas I. was convinced at that time of the truth of the ritual murder libel. The mysterious and unloved tribe rose before the vision of the new Tzar as a band of cannibals and evil-doers. This sinister notion can be traced in the conscription statute which was then in the course of preparation in St. Petersburg and was soon afterwards to stir Russian Jewry to its depths, dooming their little ones to martyrdom.

While punishment was to be meted out to the entire Jewish population of Russia, the fate of the Velizh community was particularly tragic. It was subjected to the terrors of a unique state of siege. The whole community was placed under suspicion. All the synagogues were shut up as if they were dens of thieves, and the hapless Jews could not even assemble in prayer to pour out their hearts before God. All business was at a standstill; the shops were closed, and gloomy faces flitted shyly across the streets of the doomed city.

The stern command from St. Petersburg ordering that the case be "positively probed to the bottom" and that the culprits be apprehended gladdened only the heart of Strakhov, the chairman of the Commission of Inquiry, who was now free to do as he pleased. He spread out the net of inquiry in ever wider circles. Terentyeva and the other female witnesses, who were fed well while in prison, and expected not only amnesty but also remuneration for their services, gave more and more vent to their imagination. They "recollected" and revealed before the Commission of Inquiry a score of religious crimes which they alleged had been perpetrated by the Jews prior to the Velizh affair, such as the murder of children in suburban inns, the desecration of church utensils and similar misdeeds.

The Commission was not slow in communicating the new revelations to the Tzar who followed vigilantly the developments in the case. But the Commission had evidently overreached itself. The Tzar began to suspect that there was something wrong in this endlessly growing tangle of crimes. In October, 1827, he attached to the report of the Commission the following resolution: "It is absolutely necessary to find out who those unfortunate children were; this ought to be easy if the whole thing is not a miserable lie." His belief in the guilt of the Jews had evidently been shaken.

In its endeavors to make up for the lack of substantial evidence, the commission, personified by Khovanski, put itself in communication with the governors of the Pale, directing them to obtain information concerning all local ritual murder cases in past years. The effect of these inquiries was to revive the Grodno affair of 1818 which had been "left to oblivion." A certain convert by the name of Gradlnski from the townlet of Bobovnya, in the government of Minsk, declared before the Commission of Inquiry that he was ready to point out the description of the ritual murder ceremony in a "secret" Hebrew work. When the book was produced and the incriminated passage translated, it was found that it referred to the Jewish rite of slaughtering animals. The apostate, thus caught red-handed, confessed that he had turned informer in the hope of making money, and was by imperial command sent into the army. The confidence of St. Petersburg in the activity of the Velizh Commission of Inquiry vanished more and more. Khovanski was notified that "his Majesty the Emperor, having observed that the Commission bases its deductions mostly on surmises, by attaching significance to the fits and gestures of the incriminated during the examinations, is full of apprehension lest the Commission, carried away by zeal and anti-Jewish prejudice, act with a certain amount of bias and protract the case to no purpose."

Soon afterwards, in 1830, the case was taken out of the hands of the Commission which had become entangled in a mesh of lies--Strakhov had died in the meantime--, and was turned over to the Senate.

Weighed down by the nightmare proportions of the material, which the Velizh Commission had managed to pile up, the members of the Fifth Department of the Senate which was charged with the case were inclined to announce a verdict of guilty and to sentence the convicted Jews to deportation to Siberia, with the application of the knout and whip (1831). In the higher court, the plenary session of the Senate, there was a disagreement, the majority voting guilty, while three senators, referring to the ukase of 1817, were in favor of setting the prisoners at liberty, but keeping them at the same time under police surveillance.

In 1834 the case reached the highest court of the Empire, the Council of State, and here for the first time the real facts came to light. Truth found its champion in the person of the aged statesman, Mordvinov, who owned some estates near Velizh, and, being well-acquainted with the Jews of the town, was roused to indignation by the false charges concocted against them. In his capacity as president of the Department of Civil and Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Council of State, Mordvinov, after sifting the evidence carefully, succeeded in a number of sessions to demolish completely the Babel tower of lies erected by Strakhov and Khovanski and to adduce proofs that the governor-general, blinded by anti-Jewish prejudice, had misled the Government by his communications. The Department of Civil and Ecclesiastical Affairs was convinced by the arguments of Mordvinov and other champions of the truth, and handed down a decision that the accused Jews be set at liberty and rewarded for their innocent sufferings, and that the Christian women informers he deported to Siberia.

The plenary meeting of the Council of State concurred in the decision of the Department, rejecting only the clause providing for the reward of the sufferers. The verdict of the Council of State was submitted to the Tzar and received his endorsement on January 18, 1835. It read as follows:

  The Council of State, having carefully considered all the   circumstances of this complex and involved case, finds that the   depositions of the material female witnesses, Terentyeva, Maximova,   and Koslovska, containing as they do numerous contradictions and   absurdities and lacking all positive evidence and indubitable   conclusions, cannot be admitted as legal proof to convict the Jews   of the grave crimes imputed to them, and, therefore, renders the   following decision:

  1. The Jews accused of having killed the soldier boy Yemelyanov and   of other similar deeds, which are implied in the Velizh trial, no   indictment whatsoever having been found against them, shall be freed   from further judgment and inquiry.

  2. The material witnesses, the peasant woman Terentyeva, the soldier   woman Maximova, and the Shiakhta woman[1] Kozlovsta, having been   convicted of uttering libels, which they have not in the least been   able to corroborate, shall be exiled to Siberia for permanent   residence.

  3. The peasant maid Yeremyeyeva, having posed among the common   people as a soothsayer, shall be turned over to a priest for   admonition.

[Footnote 1: i.e., a member of the Polish nobility; comp. Vol. I, p. 58, n. 1.]

After attaching his signature to this verdict. Nicholas I. added in his own handwriting the following characteristic resolution, which was not to be made public:

  While sharing the view of the Council of State that in this case,   owing to the vagueness of the legal deductions, no other decision   than the one embodied in the opinion confirmed by me could have been   reached, I deem it, however, necessary to add that I do not have,   and, indeed, cannot have, the inner conviction that the murder has   not been committed by the Jews. Numerous examples of similar   murders.... go to show that among the Jews there probably exist   fanatics or sectarians who consider Christian blood necessary for   their rites. This appears the more possible, since unfortunately   even among us Christians there sometimes exist such sects which are   no less horrible and incomprehensible. In a word, I do not for a   moment think that this custom is common to all Jews, but I do not   deny the possibility that there may be among them fanatics just as   horrible as among us Christians.

Having taken this idea into his head, Nicholas I. refused to sign the second decision of the Council of State, which was closely allied with the verdict: that all governors be instructed to be guided in the future by the ukase of 1817, forbidding to stir up ritual murder cases "from prejudice only." While rejecting this prejudice in its full-fledged shape, the Tzar acknowledged it in part, in a somewhat attenuated form.

Towards the end of January of 1835 an imperial ukase reached the city of Velizh, ordering the liberation of the exculpated Jews, the reopening of the synagogues, which had been sealed since 1826, and the handing back to the Jews of the holy scrolls which had been confiscated by the police. The dungeon was now ready to give up its inmates, whose strength had been sapped by the long confinement, while several of them had died during the imprisonment. The synagogues, which had not been allowed to resound with the moans of the martyrs, were now opened for the prayers of the liberated. The state of siege which for nine long years had been throttling the city was at last taken off; the terror which had haunted the ostracized community came to an end. A new leaf was added to the annals of Jewish martyrdom, one of the gloomiest, in spite of its "happy" finale.

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