Edmund Levin is the author of A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia – The Beilis Blood Libel, just published by Schocken Books. The book is about the 1913 trial in Kiev of the Russian Jewish factory worker Mendel Beilis on a charge of ritually murdering a Christian boy and draining his blood to make Passover matzo. Mr. Levin wrote the book as a labor of love while working full time as a writer/producer at ABC’s Good Morning America.
As Mr. Levin recounts, the thirty-four day trial was an international cause célèbre. Many of the leading lights of the day – H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington – rallied to the defense of this completely innocent man. Those of us of a certain age may have learned of the Beilis case from Bernard Malamud’s National Book Award/Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Fixer. Now Mr. Levin has unearthed the true and incredibly timely story.
We invited Mr. Levin to write something about the book for our readers. He has graciously responded to our invitation:
My book is a work of history. I know Russian and the book is based on primary sources. But I’m not an academic historian and my primary goal is to tell an interesting story. What attracted me to the Beilis Affair was that, as a story, it has everything. It’s a murder mystery. It’s a courtroom drama. It has fantastic characters out of a Russian novel. And it’s a story of great historical importance. Largely forgotten today, the Beilis Affair was a key episode in the history of modern anti-Semitism.
But I’ve also always felt that A Child of Christian Blood is a book about Russia. It’s about the Russia of Nicholas and Alexandra and Rasputin – a country on the verge of war and revolution. And – maybe more than I realized when I began my research – you can argue it’s about Russia today.
I have a Russian friend who is an opponent of the Putin regime and, when I told him I was writing a book about the Beilis case, he read up on it. When we talked again he told me, “Things today are exactly the same.” What my friend had in mind was not anti-Semitism – there is no official anti-Semitism in Russia and the country has decent relations with Israel. But there is arguably a good deal of continuity in how the tsarist and Putin regimes operate – autocracy, absurd official lies, and a need to assert “Russianness” that we have seen all too clearly lately.
So I hope my book can be read with profit with a view to understanding Russia’s past and present.