The blood libel which still stains Czech history 125 years on

Leopold Hilsner was found guilty of ‘Jewish ritual murder’ but unlike Alfred Dreyfus he was never pardoned


During Passover 1899, the body of 19-year-old Anezka Hruzová was found in the woods outside the small town of Polná in rural Bohemia — then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the Czech Republic.

Despite suspicion that a serial killer had been at work in the area for some time, right-wing agitators jumped at the opportunity to use this murder to promote their antisemitic programme. This was a time of social unrest in Austria-Hungary, and the Jews were, as in other such times, a convenient target.

Anezka was immediately declared to be the victim of “Jewish ritual murder”, the notorious blood libel of Jews needing Christian blood to drink or for making matzot.

A scapegoat was not hard to find — a local drifter named Leopold Hilsner, a person with poor social skills who had been abandoned by his mother to the care of Polná’s Jewish community, at that time presided over by my grandfather, Siegfried Heller. A show trial was set up and Hilsner was found guilty.

Unlike the more famous, contemporaneous case involving Alfred Dreyfus, the French army captain who was exonerated in 1906, 12 years after being found guilty of treason, the Hilsner case stands unresolved to this day and remains a stain on Czech history.

My grandfather, Siegfried, was Hilsner’s legal guardian. My father told me a detail that he had heard from his mother: at the time of the accusation, Siegfried told Hilsner not to be afraid, just tell the police the truth and there would be nothing to worry about — echoing the famous motto of the first Czech president, TG Masaryk, now inscribed on large posters at the entrance to the presidential palace in Prague: “Don’t be afraid, don’t lie and don’t steal”.

Hilsner was found guilty after a show trial that even Monty Python could not have scripted: witnesses were bribed, antisemitic pamphlets were distributed to the community and a key witness for the prosecution claimed to have seen Hilsner at the time and place of Anezka’s disappearance, despite being 700 metres away and suffering from an eye injury.

Although the charge did not mention “Jewish ritual murder”, this was indeed presented to the court as the motive for the murder. Hilsner was charged as an accomplice to murder, ie part of a Jewish conspiracy.

Anezka was repeatedly referred to as “the sacrificial lamb” (Anezka=Agnes=Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God), murdered at Eastertide; and her body described as being drained of blood, despite there being no forensic evidence for such a claim.

My father never told people that he came from Polná, as he did not want to hear the automatic response: “That’s where the Jews murdered Anezka Hruzová.” This was a comment he heard right up until he fled for the UK in 1939.

In fact, most of the Jews in Polná left the town soon after the Hilsner Affair, and the synagogue was closed in the 1930s.

My grandmother Bozena was one of the last to remain; she mercifully died of natural causes in 1940 before she could be taken to the death camps with the other few remaining Polná Jews.

Because the community was officially closed before it could be destroyed, Polná is not mentioned in the huge “memorial to destroyed communities” at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Hilsner was sentenced to death, but there was an international outcry. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, at that time a law professor in Prague, became involved. In an interview the JC described him as “the bold champion for right and justice, the profound thinker”.

Masaryk wrote pamphlets defending Hilsner and pointing out flaws in the trial. He was motivated by a simple philosophy: the Czechs were civilised people who would not be swayed by primitive instincts. For his trouble he was attacked by his students and forced to take leave of absence.

As a result of these appeals the case was reopened and a retrial was held. The case became known as “the Czech Dreyfus case”, since at that very time the Dreyfus case had also been reopened.

Hilsner took the role of the falsely accused Dreyfus, and Masaryk the role of the Jews’ champion Emil Zola. The charge was again “Murder together with persons unknown” (ie still a Jewish conspiracy), but this time the name of another unsolved murder victim was added to the accusation.

Hilsner was again found guilty and imprisoned, but he was released during the First World War, along with violent criminals needed as cannon fodder. He moved to Vienna, supported by a state pension quietly arranged by Masaryk. He died in 1928, his death certificate stating: “Occupation: Beggar”.

It is possible that Hilsner was denied an adequate defence due to the Jewish community itself turning their back on the case. Perhaps they didn’t want to publicly defend a disreputable character.

Mahler and Freud supported Dreyfus but ignored Hilsner, even though during this time Mahler was hissed at concerts and critics compared his conducting gestures to those of someone strangling a baby.

The guilty verdict remains in the records, and has encouraged antisemitic slurs ever since: In 1996 a Czech school textbook stated that “Jews are known to have committed ritual murder”; in 2010 Baroness Tonge called for an inquiry into allegations of organ-trafficking by Israeli humanitarian workers in Haiti; in 2012 the Islamic leader Raed Salah, who reportedly promoted the blood libel, was welcomed in the UK by Jeremy Corbyn as “an honoured citizen”; and just this summer the BBC allowed a reporter to claim that Israel “is happy to kill children”. Jenny Tonge apologised for the “offence caused” but denied her remarks were antisemitic.

The Hilsner Affair slipped from memory during the Communist era, when writing about Masaryk, who had been an opponent of the Communists, was suppressed. To this day, people who have contacts with old party members are nervous about discussing it.

But as Communism faded, there was revived interest in Masaryk and Hilsner. Many articles on the subject by scholars Bohumil Cerny and Petr Vasicek were published, and Czech media began to take an interest as well.

Czech television produced a gripping mini-series (available with English subtitles under the title An Innocent Man), and there is now a prominent display about the case in the newly renovated National Museum in Prague.

The town of Polná received a huge grant from the EU and has magnificently restored the centuries-old synagogue. It is now an exhibition hall, but ready to be used for Jewish worship once again if anyone is willing to rustle up a minyan and make a trip out to this beautiful rural location.

In 1999 the Polná town council made a public proclamation of regret for the actions of their predecessors in the Hilsner Affair, and is working steadily to restore the old cemetery.

I was just in the Czech Republic, interviewed for the Czech Radio website about the affair.

Very recently lawyer Lubomir Muller has suggested two legal arguments for reopening the case and expunging the guilty verdict: one argument is that there is a living person directly affected by the case, namely me (Hilsner later changed his name to Heller, and so it appears on his tombstone); another argument is that despite changes in national borders throughout the 20th century, there are legal precedents that demonstrate that today’s Czech Ministry of Justice indeed has the legal authority to handle this case, despite earlier claims that it is a matter only for the Austrian courts.

Incidentally, the Austrian Minister of Justice in 2008 declared the Hilsner case to be a “gross miscarriage of justice”.

But the Czech government is not in a hurry to resolve this case once and for all. In 2020, then-President Milos Zeman dismissed an appeal, remarking that people should “pay less attention to cases 120 years old”. And in early August of this year, the Czech Ministry of Justice once again declared, despite these most recent legal arguments, that there were no reasons to reopen the case.

Charles Heller is a consultant editor for the Cantors Assembly of America and the European Cantors Association. His most recent book is Shul Going: 2500 Years of Impressions and Reflections on Visits to the Synagogue.

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