KIEV – The Ukrainian Jewish Committee held a memorial gathering in Kiev over the weekend to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the infamous trial of Menahem Mendel Beilis, with his American grandson, Jay Beilis, as the guest of honor.
A century ago, hundreds of people anxiously awaiting the verdict in the Beilis trial packed Saint Sophia Square in Kiev, then part of the Russian Empire. Beilis, a 39-year-old father of five, was arrested on July 21, 1911, and spent two years in prison leading up to a 34-day trial in the fall of 1913.
The false charge: ritual murder, killing a 13-year-old Christian boy to drain his blood for the baking of matza. Although he was ultimately acquitted, the Beilis trial unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in Russia, and he later moved to Palestine and then New York.
The Ukrainian Jewish Committee, under the auspices of Ukrainian MP Oleksandr Feldman and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, hosted the two-day International Conference on Anti-Semitism at Kiev’s Fairmont Grand Hotel to discuss the legacy of the Beilis affair and reflect on anti-Semitism today.
Jay Beilis, a 60-year-old native of the Bronx, spoke about what his grandfather’s trial meant for him and for the Jewish world, then and now.
“I’m not sure what my grandfather would think about this [conference] and the applause he just received, that I received for him, because after the trial he didn’t want any notoriety, he just wanted to return to his family,” Beilis said.
He said that when his grandfather died in 1934, almost 4,000 people showed up at his funeral, held at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side.
“Often I’m asked what it means to be the grandson of Mendel Beilis, and that’s a very easy question to answer: At a very young age, some 50 years ago, adults would come up to my father and many times openly weep at his feet almost.”
Jay described at the opening plenary of the conference how his grandfather’s trial caused many Jews to leave Ukraine and surrounding countries, saving them from ending up in places such as Babi Yar, the site of a series of massacres carried out by the Nazis in Kiev, with the notorious massacre of over 30,000 Jews in a single operation.
“I believe that my grandfather’s trial was a warning to many Jews. Perhaps we even have survivors among the people in this room, that were able to leave some of these countries, saving them from the Shoah,” he said.
Getting off a tour bus that took conference participants to the sight of the Babi Yar massacres that Jay’s ancestors had unknowingly escaped, the grandson found himself standing at Saint Sophia Square in front of the court house where his grandfather’s trial took place 100 years ago.
“This is a very moving moment to stand on the ground where my grandfather stood 100 years ago. It is a very historic moment for me to represent my family and my grandfather’s memory, and just take in the spirits and maybe the spirits of him are around,” he said.
Mendel Beilis died 20 years before Jay’s birth. Many of the details of his grandfather’s trial came to Jay through the work of historians such as Edmund Levin, a writer and producer at ABC News, author of A Child of Christian Blood – Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel.
In his book, Levin explains that the Beilis case was the last blood libel trial in Europe, and the only one to be fully backed by a central government.
Levin says the blood libel has been undoubtedly linked to the rise of modern anti-Semitism, and in the decades that followed the trial, Mendel Beilis was consistently mentioned in anti-Semitic propaganda as example of Jewish ritual murder.
The Beilis affair was commemorated with speakers, activists, historians and politicians, both Jews and non-Jews, convening in Kiev to discuss the current forms of blood libel and what can be done to prevent expressions of anti- Semitism today.
When asked how an event that happened 100 years ago is still relevant today, Feldman, a Jewish member of Ukrainian Parliament, and the financial backer of the conference, said that anti-Semitism remains in “our life, in our country, and in the world.
“I believe the young nations, the emerging democracies, like Ukraine, Russia and former Soviet Union countries, have a direct link between anti-Semitism and the well-being of the country,” Feldman said, adding that staying silent and doing nothing is not an option.
Kiev’s chief rabbi, Moshe Reuven Asman, said the Beilis affair was still relevant because Jews in Ukraine as well as in Israel were still being accused of all kinds of crimes. “Now it’s anti-Semitic as well as anti- Israel, and we have to present the public with the truth,” he said.
Asman pointed to the recent calls to outlaw circumcision and Jewish ritual slaughter in Europe.
Dr. Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in France gave examples of blood libel since the Beilis case, and how they are also directed against Israel.
“The State of Israel is the target of such blood libels. For example the IDF medical team, the field hospital in Haiti after the  earthquake, being accused by a Swedish newspaper of harvesting the body organs of Haitians. That type of thing is very pernicious and dangerous, so it has to be exposed and acted against,” he said.