Murder and conspiracy in Czarist Russia

Book review: 'A Child of Christian Blood,' by Edmund Levin

A Child of Christian blood


Edmund Levin

The blood libel, the ancient cornerstone of Western anti-Semitism that proclaims Jews ritually murder Christian children to obtain their blood for secret Passover ceremonies, can be fairly precisely dated. In the mid-12th century, a monk declared he had found the solution to the murder of a young boy in Norwich, England, some years earlier: The Jews did it because a prophecy warned them they had to kill a Christian child once a year if they were ever to return to Palestine. For Christians who knew anything at all about Jewish belief and practice, Thomas’s accusation was preposterous even then. Numerous medieval popes condemned the libel, especially after it evolved into a claim that the killings were done to gather the child’s blood to mix in Passover matzos. But the blood libel took root, continuing to flourish, even as anti-Semitism took a less religious and more racial, proto-Nazi form: Google the title of Levin’s book and one of the top sites listed is an English-language Chechen website that claims to have found evidence of the blood libel’s truth.

All this is essential background to Levin’s compelling recreation of an extraordinary clash of medieval and modern: Two years after the 1911 murder of a 13-year-old boy outside Kyiv, a Jew named Mendel Beilis was brought to trial, charged not just with Andrei Yushchinsky’s death, but with his ritual murder. In the dying days of the decrepit Romanov dynasty, almost the whole of Imperial Russian officialdom—including Czar Nicholas II himself—as well as the rabid Jew-haters of the Black Hundreds bands, rallied to a prosecution which, in a bow to modernity, also had numerous “expert” witnesses on its side, including a psychological profiler. In defence of rationality, there were a handful of liberal Russian journalists and skeptical police officers, and a host of international protesters—Thomas Mann, Arthur Conan Doyle and the archbishop of Canterbury among them. The jury’s split verdict—there was a ritual murder, but Beilis didn’t do it—flew in the face of the forensic evidence, but was probably the most shrewdly self-protective declaration a group of ordinary Russians could make, allowing both sides to claim a sort of victory.

Levin’s subtle, multi-level book hits the mark everywhere the author aims. The huge surviving dossier allows him to craft a detailed true-crime story; he deftly avoids foreshadowing the disaster just over the horizon—world war, revolution and civil war would soon decimate his cast of characters—and, above all, he doesn’t yield an inch to the comforting illusion that the Czarist empire and the blood libel both belong to history. The dead child’s grave, neglected for the entire 20th century, sprouted a new cross in the first decade of this millennium. The cross bore two metal plates, one of which calls him a “saintly boy-martyr,” and the other—since removed—which baldly read: “Andrei Yushchinsky, martyred by the Yids in 1911.”

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