The Charge of Ritual Murder |
One hundred years since the Chisinau pogrom
By Andrei Oisteanu
From god-killing to child-killing
In the terms of Ioan Hristostom, because of "the terrible killing of Christ", "neither redemption, nor indulgence, nor forgiveness are possible" for the Jews. However, during the Middle Ages, the charge of god-killing began to wear off. Of course, the Jew was still hated for this reason, but the emphasis was laid more on an abstract Jew, "the imaginary Jew". The mediaeval Christian found it more difficult to passionately hate the "real Jew"- contemporary and fellow-citizen - for an execution, be it even Christ's, committed by "the imaginary Jew", centuries ago. Apparently, after more than a millennium, even "the murder of all murders", "the killing of God", began to be prescribed. God-killing became history, if not legend.
In order to replace or double the charge of god-killing, the most powerful accusation brought upon the Jews was that of ritual child-killing. The efficiency of this type of accusation is obvious. The terms of the equation are turned from abstract to extremely concrete. This time, you see, the victim would be a child whom the entire community knows. The murderers would no longer be some "imaginary Jews" who might have killed "Heaven knows when and where", but "real Jews" who live "down here, in our town". Finally, it's all about an allegedly "actual" murder, instead of a legendary one, committed in immemorial times. Yet the charge of child-killing is not completely autonomous. It derives from the charge of god-killing, to which it remains endebted, its purpose being to reactivate it. This would explain why: the alleged victim is usually a boy (more seldom a girl), the "ritual murder" takes place on Passion Friday (when the death of Jesus is commemorated) and the modus operandi resumes some elements of Jesus' torture and crucifixion.
Compromising the religious foe
Over the centuries, Jews were not the only ones accused of performing such bloody rituals. This was an infallible way of compromising "the other", i.e. an religious foe. In the 2nd century, even Christians were accused by the Romans of performing the ritual human killing. The reason for this was that Christianism (religio ilicita) was then a Jewish sect that was becoming more and more popular, and therefore more and more dangerous. Such slanderous allegations were sustained by quotes from the Gospel:"Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, ye have not life in yourselves" (John, 6:53). Only a few centuries later, the Christians themselves began to use such accusations against their own enemies.
The Jews were the main victims of these slanderous allegations. The legend of the child-killing performed by the Jews was the most powerful and long-lasting (12th-20th centuries) and it brought about the bloodiest consequences. The stories about Jews who steal Christian children, savagely slaughter them and use their blood for the Easter bread gave birth to real collective psychoses in Europe. Psychoses which elevated anti-Semitism to paroxysmal levels, generating Inquisition-like trials, executions, burnings on pyres, as well as the massacre and the expulsion of entire Jewish communities.
The earliest mediaeval report of Jews being charged with the crime of ritual child-killing and haemophagy goes back to 1144 (Norwich, England). This was only the spark that lit the fire. The anti-Semitic spirit of the crusades created the proper atmosphere for a huge explosion in all the Western-European countries. The trials, the expulsions and the pogroms bearing this type of motivation came one after another in all Western Europe until the end of the 15th century. The phenomenon had gone out of control, so several emperors (such as Frederic II) and popes (Inocent IV, Gregory X) felt compelled to intervene. "The belief shared by some Christians that the Jews would secretly kill Christian boys and would offer their heart and blood as a sacrifice is completely false - stated Gregory X in 1272. The law of the Jews specifically forbids them to make sacrifices and to drink blood. They aren't even allowed to drink the blood of the animals."
Between the 12th and the 15th centuries there occured several successive waves of Jewish expulsions and mass migrations from Western and Central Europe towards the East. The legend of the ritual child-killing migrated along with these waves. The impeachment of Jews for the crime of ritual murder gradually relocated towards the East. Thus, in the 15th-20th centuries such events are reported mainly in Central, then Eastern Europe.
"The ritual murder" in the Romanian territories
The charges of child-killing across the Romanian territories were recorded relatively late, but at about the same time with the rest of the Eastern-European region, in the 18th-19th centuries. Such accusations were often followed by violent disorders. In 1710, for instance, 5 Jews were lynched and 22 were chained in Targu Neamt on the grounds of killing a Christian child:"for they need blood for Easter". This is the earliest documentary report of such a case in the Romanian territory. Seeing that the acts of violence against them were about to increase, the Jews sent emissaries to Dimitrie Cantemir in Iasi. The hospodar sent two trusted men to the scene. "The men came, searched and sought well and saw that it was false and untrue", recorded a document of the time. It was decided that "the Jews be set free" and the monk who framed the so-called ritual killing "be put into the madhouse for the rest of his life".
In 1726 a similar impeachment occured in the town of Onitcani (Orhei), in Basarabia. It was then said that "the faithless Jews (as they were called by Ion Neculce in his chronicle Letopisetul) would have stolen a Christian child about 5 years old on Easter day" (The Ghiculesti Chronicle). "They divided the boy's blood into little casks and sent it to the great haham in Krakow and to the haham in Dubasari". The trial of the four accused Jews was held in Iasi and was conducted with a lot of fuss by hospodar Mihai Racovita himself, who tried to blackmail the Jews and to "leave them short of money", wrote the chronicler. Eventually, the defendants were acquitted. "Because of his greed for money", goes The Ghiculesti Chronicle, hospodar Racovita Voda "was banned from office" by the authorities in Istanbul right after the judicial farce was over. The event had a strong impact on society, as the story was resumed in no less than three Moldavian chronicles of the 18th century.
Under the Turkish domination such events occured repeatedly in the Romanian territories. On studying this period, Pompiliu Eliade wrote in 1898:"People blame the Jews for all sorts of strange things: during the Jewish Easter week and during the Christian Easter week, people keep their children locked up inside, for fear the Jews don't steal them and drain their blood and use it to make bread; and if a child happens to disappear, the whole community demands that all Jews be tortured".
The massacre in Galati
In the 19th century several accusations of this type reported in cities of Moldova (Iasi, Roman, Galati, Bacau, Piatra Neamt etc.) brought about serious consequences. The violent events that took place in Galati (Easter 1859) are typical: dead and wounded people were reported, synagogues were destroyed, rolls of the Law were burnt, houses were destroyed, shops were pillaged and the authorities, instead of punishing the instigators, arrested the Jews. The banker Rothschild himself pleaded with prince Cuza Voda asking that the Jews of Galati be protected.
Terrified by these events and not knowing whom to defend first, "the Jews massacred on Romanian soil or Romanians' honour itself", the scholar Ion Heliade-Radulescu wrote in an article entitled "Massacre in Galati": "The people found fault in order to pillage, kill and commit the most cruel crimes; many Jews were murdered and more still were assaulted and beaten; their houses were broken into and pillaged. Two synagogues were broken into and looted, the holy pots, the Law or Torah were vandalized. The Jews don't eat children in England, France, Germany, nor in any other places where people are the least bit civilized. Where else in this world are they accused of such a cruel deed? Where people are still barbarians or semi-barbarians. It is my most intimate belief that Jews are not and never have been known to eat people or children of any race or religion; their faith does not prescribe such an inhuman and barbaric principle; since the very beginning, their race was anything but a race of savages and cannibals."
"Not even in Russia do Jews eat children", wrote Ion Heliade-Radulescu in 1859. The Romanian scholar was wrong because in Russia, in the 19th century and even in the first decades of the 20th century, it was believed that Jews performed ritual child-killing. This was, in fact, the cause of the 1903 pogrom in Chisinau (a Russian city at the time) and of Mendel Beilis' trial in Kiev (1911-1913).
The pogrom in Chisinau
The moral responsibility for this pogrom was attributed to the extreme right-wing politician Pavalachi A. Crusevan, a russified Moldavian. For several years, he had been using his newspaper (Bessarabetz) to support a campaign for the expulsion and extermination of the local Jews. Crusevan even invited to Chisinau the Romanian ultra-nationalist parliamentary A. C. Cuza, professor at the University of Iasi, who delivered several inflammatory conferences presenting his anti-Semite doctrine. They both proclaimed that the massacre would take place on Easter (April 6th-8th, 1903). Indeed, right before Easter, Crusevan's newspaper informed that the Jews had committed a ritual murder against a Christian boy in the town of Dubasari (on the Nistru river). Those who reacted (and this is a symptomatic fact) were not the people of Dubasari, but those of Chisinau and the surrounding areas (previously instigated) who rose up in arms against Jewish neighbourhoods. Worried about the course of the events, the great rabbi of Chisinau asked the Christian bishop to publicly deny the absurd rumour. But "this high priest - wrote a Russian journalist - publicly stated he himself believed that Jews used Christian blood for ritual purposes". Thus the bishop only made things worse. The soldiers did not intervene on the grounds that the governor "was still waiting for orders" from tsar Nikolai II, and the policemen, instead of taking measures to protect the Jews, pointed out their houses to the rebels. The Jews found themselves completely abandoned to the enraged mob. The outcome was disastruous: 50 dead, hundreds badly injured, 800 houses and 600 shops destroyed and pillaged etc.
Several Russian writers (Leo Tolstoi, Maxim Gorki, V. Korolenko etc.) publicly expressed their strong opposition to those responsible for the pogrom. In the aftermath of the pogrom, Haim Nahman Bialik, a poet from Odessa, wrote The City of Carnage, a poem in which he did not lament over the violence of plain folks or the indifference of the authorities, but over the passivity and resignation of the Jews. "What do these shadows on the wall want?", God asks Himself in Bialik's poem. "Why do they stretch their arms towards Me?/Does any of them not have a fist?" (Not to mention that the writer and reporter F. Brunea-Fox used the same title, The City of Carnage, when writing a book about the legionary pogrom in Bucharest, in January 1941.) The 1903 pogrom in Chisinau shocked the Jews from this region of the Continent, causing an increase in Jewish emigration to America, Western Europe and Palestine. "Zionism is the daughter of anti-Semitism", noted Adolphe Stern in 1910, resuming one of Theodor Herzl's ideas.
Those who stood behind founded and organized Jewish self-defense units. This was an action that launched a historical process, bringing about a change in the century-long Jewish mentality. A typical example lies in this episode from an autobiographical account (First Love) written in the 1920's by Isaac Babel. During the 1905 pogrom that took place in Nikolaev (on the Bug river), an 11-year old child watches in humiliation his father crawling on his knees in the mud and begging for mercy at the feet of a Cossack officer's horse. The grandfather had been killed and the father's shop had been devastated. Closing his eyes, the child pictures himself amidst a Jewish self-defense group, shooting at the mob of the pogrom.
This new mentality really asserted itself through the creation of defense forces in Palestine (Haganah), after 1920, as well as through the Jewish rebellion in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. In Romania, the first effective Jewish self-defense units were organized in the Jewish quarter in Bucharest, during the disorders of November, 1918.
Remnants in the political sphere
No more bloody disorders or trials on ritual murder charges were recorded across the Romanian territories after the Chisinau pogrom. However, especially between the wars, this legend was perpetuated with a certain success in the books, articles and speeches of some Romanian extreme right-wing journalists and politicians. For centuries, this stereotype had been too deeply embedded in the popular mentality not to be speculated for political purposes.
In 1922, every issue of The National Defense newspaper - edited by A. C. Cuza and Nicolae Paulescu - contained "real-life cases" of ritual murders performed by Jews over the centuries. The conclusion that ended this series was: "There are countless other cases proven and described by authors based on nowadays testimonies. Almost all of them prove the same thing: the murder is committed in a barbaric way, the victim is tortured - most often in immitation of the tormenting of Christ -, the victim's blood is poured into pots and used for all sorts of savage rituals. We could go on for ever with these episodes from history." At the same time, the same people re-printed a book called Confronting the Jews (1803), written by a self-proclaimed converted rabbi who "demonstrated" that the child-killing performed by Jews was true. This determined the Jewish deputy Adolphe Stern to address the Romanian Parliament in 1922. Ten years after, the Jewish parliamentaries protested against the accusation of ritual child-killing brought to Jews by A. C. Cuza in The Students' Trend newspaper edited in Iasi by The Christian Students' Association led by C. Z. Codreanu.
For Nicolae Paulescu, the alleged cases of "ritual murder" performed by the Jews were not only real-life "episodes from history", but also a metaphor of the way Romanians were "strangled by an infamous race of malefactors". Trying to persuade the readers of The National Defense that "the expulsion of the Jews [from Romania] is urgently needed", Paulescu wrote in 1923 that "the Jews' off-spring", "leeches stuffed with Romanian blood", wanted "the Romanians to die silently (like in the ritual murder)". The same metaphor, centred upon the image of the murderous, haemophage Jew, could be often found in the marches of the Romanian legionaries: "Behold the claws of Judah/Go deep into my body,/Behold, my blood is spilled/Behold the Jews who drink it!"
A strange attitude was the one shown by Nae Ionescu, in the foreword to Mihail Sebastian's novel, For Two Thousand Years..., published in 1934. The philosopher admits that the story about the "ritual murder" performed by the Jews is just "a fairy-tale". "But why do Jews complain?", he asks himself rhetorically. Were there not similar fairy-tales about the Christians? "And do the Jews not have any responsibility, did they not play any part in propagating these fairy-tales? Thus history only repeats itself." Apart from the fact that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who first used such "fairy-tales" against the Christians, the cynicism proven by Nae Ionescu in this paragraph and in the entire foreword remains. In a way, Sebastian replied to Nae Ionescu in the very novel that the latter had foreworded: "What I would primarily accuse anti-Semitism of - says the novel's hero -, is its lack of imagination:«freemasonry, usury, ritual murder». Is that all? But it's so little! And so meager!"
In the communist countries, after the Holocaust
Beside the accusation of using blood for ritual purposes, a number of other things (the particular way in which Jews slaughter animals, with ritual taboos regarding the blood, as well as other norms concerning the kosher food) turned "the imaginary Jew" into a suspicios being. To this were added the legends about Jews infesting the wells, Jewish doctors killing Christians, Jewish barkeepers poisoning drinks and so on and so forth. There is a whole hazy and blurry mythology created for centuries, that turned the Jew into a suspicios character associated with ritual child-killing, haemophagy, vampirism, cannibalism, bizarre food habits, filth, germs, infested blood, poison, witchcraft, demonic rituals etc. With a "profile" like that, one can say anything about the Jew, and plain folks will believe it. This explains the long endurance and extraordinary vitality of the legend about the ritual murder.
There are many other mental stereotypes associated to the portrait of "the imaginary Jew". But none of them seems to be as deeply rooted and long-lasting as this one. It is a prejudice whose main coordinates remain almost unchanged (they only adapt themselves), even though it crosses totally different ages and civilizations: from mediaeval England (1144) to post-communist Romania (1996). And it seems that no other stereotype is so effective and brutal and generates so much hostility. For it is one thing to say that Jews are parasites and speculators, that they are filthy and smell bad, that they are arrogant and despise the Christians, that they are cowards and traitors, that they love money and try to use it to rule the world etc.; and it is quite another thing to say they steal Christian children and kill them to use their blood for ritual purposes. No other superstition concerning Jews is as abominable and, at the same time, as specific. The inventor of this "emotional bomb" was a genius of evil. Because it is the kind of accusation that never fails to instantaneously unleashes an anti-Semite collective hysteria, a tremendeous amount of hostile emotion which, in most cases, is manifested with a maximum degree of aggressiveness. It is no wonder that, over the centuries, most accusations of child-killing were followed by bloody anti-Jewish pogroms.
But what may come as a surprise is the fact that this vicious social mechanism functioned in an out-dated manner, in the middle of the 20th century, right after the tremendeous tragedy of the Holocaust, in Eastern-European countries where left-wing regimes were emerging. After millions of Jews had been killed, what's unbelievable is that many others, newly returned from Nazi camps, were lynched at home under charges of child-killing, often implemented by communist activists. Between 1945 and 1948 about 2.000 Jews were victims of pogroms in the communist European countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovak Republic). Rumours about the alleged "ritual murder" performed by the Jews were also spread in post-war Romania (for instance, in Iasi, in 1946), but no violent movements were recorded.
These seemed to be the last resorts to this political diversion. Europe seemed to finally break loose of this nightmare which had started in the extreme West and had ended in the extreme East of the Continent.
In post-communist Romania
And yet, the legend of the ritual murder survived in different forms up until nowadays in some Central and Eastern-European countries such as Austria, The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania etc. Once in a while, some psychotic politician or some journalist in search for hot subjects bring back to life (in today's Romania) the ghost of "the ritual murder" allegedly performed by Jews. In the first years of the post-communist age (1990-1992), magazines with an ultra-nationalist and xenophobe agenda (such as The Great Romania, Europa etc.) often referred to this legend.
But the most interesting case in the media took place in 1995. Several Romanian periodicals claimed that a network of Israeli slave dealers bought babies (aged 7-12 months) in Bucharest and Iasi in order to get them illegally over the border. One baby cost $ 1.000 and was sold for $ 15.000 in Israel. Initially, they said, the purpose of this operation had not born a ritual interest: the babies were used for adoptions or as organ donors. Over this background of puzzling rumours that were never confirmed, some reporters of The Barricade magazine launched the bomb: "covered by the Mossad", "the Jewish slave dealers' Mafia" got "the little Romanians" illegally over the border. Once in Israel, they were killed "for their blood". For, as it is "already well-known, the Jewish Easter bread requires the kosher blood of an unripe Christian". "None of the little ones - pathetically ended the weekly magazine - will be brought back on Romanian soil or brought back to life". It was only the burst of diplomatic scandals that led to the retraction of this piece of news and the dismissal of the editors involved (see Michael Shafir's article in 22, 3/1996). This case shows once again the huge power of survival of this fairy-tale.
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