Competing Thruths: Anti-Semitism, Blood Libel And The Maintenance Of Evil

The blood libel and anti-Semitism are analyzed as normative intrapersonal and interpersonal structures that validate and facilitate participation in Evil. Both are seen as having similarities with defense mechanisms: once triggered they function reflexively, and distort reality. The blood libel trial of Tisza Eszlar, Hungary, 1882 is used as a representative example.

In a previous work, I tried to find an explanation for the average man’s participation in evil from an evolutionary psychology point of view: identifying a specific configuration of social, cognitive, and emotional factors that are each adaptive when taken in isolation, but whose interaction allows a person to commit unspeakable acts, while retaining a sense of individual integrity and conformity with cultural and moral values (Dan 2007). Making evil the subject of scientific inquiry requires impartiality, which is a moral impossibility. However, Gergen (1994) believes that the old fact-value dichotomy is misleading, and that values hold a legitimate place in the creation of knowledge. Lifton (1986) traces the reticence of psychology to address the issue of evil to a fear that understanding the process implies forgiveness; however, he notes that if understanding includes moral issues along with psychological issues, such need not be the case.
Participation in evil is made possible by the interaction of several universal interpersonal, intrapersonal and social phenomena with adaptive value: humankind’s acceptance of symbolic reality, the function of which is to free thought from the bonds of the concrete here and now, the creation of symbolic universes that connect the individual to culture and foster socialization (Berger and Luckman 1966), the denial of mortality and the quest for symbolic immortality which shield us from anxiety and offer a sense of continuity (Becker 1976) as well the interplay of several psychological mechanisms whose function is to help the individual cope with extreme situations without experiencing guilt or shame: obedience to authority (Milgram 1969) numbing, doubling (Lifton 1986), and self deception.
The purpose of this paper is to analyze, from this perspective, a very specific and peculiar instance of evil, namely the blood libel. The emphasis is not on historical or cultural analysis, but rather on what constitutes the meaning, and what is the function, of the blood libel seen as a socio-psychological event. While I will make references to the history of blood libel, I will concentrate on the 1882 Tisza-Eszlar trial in Hungary, which is the first of these trials to be held in a “modern” country, under laws of evidence and procedure that are roughly similar to those used today in democratic societies. The trial was widely covered in press of the time, and the defender of the accused Jews, Karoly Eotvos, wrote a detailed three volume account entitled “The Great Trial” (1904).


An analysis of blood libel is impossible without connecting it to anti-Semitism, which is its cause, the context conferring it its meaning, and its moral justification. While a thorough analysis of anti-Semitism is beyond the scope of this paper, a short discussion of it is necessary.
Fein (1979) defined anti-Semitism as “a persisting latent structure of hostile beliefs towards Jews” seen as a group, and manifested at individual level as “attitudes”, at cultural level as “myth, ideology, folklore and imagery”, and the consequences of which are “social or legal discrimination, political mobilization against the Jews, and collective or state violence – which results in and/or is designed to distance, displace, or destroy Jews as Jews.”
I believe that anti-Semitism at the individual level is more than a set of beliefs and corresponding attitudes: it is a complex cognitive-emotional structure linking the individual to cultural and societal values and playing a role in identity formation and maintenance, management of aggressive behavior, interpersonal relations and general worldview. However, an analysis of anti-Semitism at the individual level requires a discussion of what made it possible: the anti-Semitism of the Church.
It should be noted that the medieval societies were closed societies. As Morar (2006) writes, Habermas and Ratzinger agreed that there is “pathology of religion”, and “pathology of reason”, which are more prevalent in closed societies. If one considers the Christian Church as a closed system akin to a state (a reasonable comparison since it promulgated laws, had the means to reinforce them and suppressed dissent), then one can look at it as an organism, with fixed traits that resist change. Such a social structure will defend its institutions, resulting in an increased fragmentation or tribalism. The relationship between the pathology of religion and the pathology of reason becomes one of reciprocity: the former causes the later, but then the pathology of religion becomes hidden from reason. In some ways anti-Semitism acquires the characteristics of a defense mechanism: it functions reflexively, mostly outside awareness. As a result, rationality is undermined, resulting in a “fragility of reason” (Morar 2006).
According to Carroll (2002) and Pagels (1996) the origins of western (Christian) anti-Semitism can be traced back to the Gospels. The expression “the Jews” is mentioned 16 times in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke but is mentioned 71 times in the Gospel of John, written 30 years later, around 100 CE.
The descriptions of Pontius Pilate become increasingly more benign in the later Gospels (the historical order is Mark, Matthew, Luke, John). He is more reluctant to crucify Jesus, while the role of the Jews in the execution of Jesus is emphasized. This is at variance with contemporary historical writings (Josephus, Philo of Alexandria) which described the brutality of Pilate’s rule. At the same time, the Jews are portrayed in an increasingly negative light, even demonized. In Mark, Jesus’ conflict is with “scribes” and “Pharisees”. Writing 20 years later, Matthew describes a much more intense conflict. Herod the evil tyrant and the Pharisees, who are called “sons of hell”, try to find and kill Jesus, who has to seek refuge in Egypt. This is a reversal of the Moses narrative, with a Jewish king playing the role of Pharaoh (Pagels 1996). In Luke 4:29, the people in the synagogue of Nazareth, upon hearing Jesus preach his first sermon, are so incensed that they want to throw him of a cliff. Satan then possesses Judas to betray and ultimately destroy Jesus. Luke squarely puts the blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews. Pilate announces three times his belief that Jesus is innocent., but faced with Jewish protest “They all cried out together ‘Away with this man’”(Luke 23:18). “Pilate ordered that their demand be granted” and then “gave Jesus over to their will” (23:25).
In John, Satan “appears incarnate, first as Judas Iscariot, then in the Jewish authorities as they mount opposition to Jesus, and finally in those John calls “the Jews” – a group he sometimes characterizes as Satan’s allies” (Pagels 1996, p. 111).
At the same time, as Ruether (1974) notes, John intends to change the nature of the charges against Jesus from a political one – claiming to be the king of the Jews – to a religious one – threatening to destroy the Temple.
The conflict is cast increasingly in Manichean terms, with the Jews being identified with Evil.
The reason for this increasing hostility is the Christian Church’s need to differentiate itself from Judaism and to attract non Jewish converts. As Erikson (1968) writes, one needs both positive and negative models to establish one’s identity. The Jews were cast in the role of the negative model – the ultimate other.
The writings of Paul reinforce and make explicit this need for differentiation. He directly accuses the Jews of having killed Jesus (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16) His admonition to Peter (Galatians 2:14) regarding non Jewish followers, his stated belief that Jesus is superior to the prophets and to Moses (1 Hebrews), his declaration that believers are freed from the need to follow the Law (Galatians 4:23-29), culminate with declaring a new, better Covenant (8 and 9 Hebrews), resulting in a definitive split between Christianity and Judaism. The Old Testament is superseded by the New Testament, the old Covenant by the new one.
Around the middle of the second century CE, Marcion (85-160) was arguing that the Old Testament should not be part of the Bible anymore because “the Jewish Scriptures no longer had validity as the revealed Word of God” (Carroll 2002, p. 146). While he was not successful, the idea of a canonic Bible prevailed. Irenaeus of Lyon, in “Against Heresies” (c.180) argued that the four synoptic Gospels were genuine and should form the canon. He dismissed as heretic other gospels (Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Philip, and Judas), which were at variance with the narrative or the teachings of the synoptic gospels. These were to be destroyed, and were lost until the discovery of the Nag Hamadi library in 1945.
John Chrysostom’s (347-407) “Adversus Judaeos” (Against the Jews) sermons held the Jews collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and deicide, and claimed that Jews rejoiced in the death of Jesus. According to Paul Johnson (1988), Chrysostom’s sermons “became the pattern for anti-Jewish tirades…. a specifically Christian anti-Semitism, presenting the Jews as murderers of Christ” and as a result, “Jewish communities were now at risk in every Christian city” (p. 165).
The Jews had their defenders inside the Church. Both Augustine and Bernard based their defense on Psalm 59 “Slay them not lest my people forget”, asking that the Jews be protected as a “witness people”. Unfortunately, the second half of the verse is “scatter them by thy power and bring them down”. Because the defense of the Jews was fraught with ambivalence, it was ineffective. Likewise, the papal bull “Sicut Judaeis” (constitution for the Jews), issued by Calixtus II around 1120, forbade the forcible conversion of the Jews, the taking of their property, interference with their religious practices under pain of excommunication. It has been re-issued by 20 popes over more than 300 years and has proven singularly unsuccessful in protecting the Jews. As Carroll notes, the ambivalence at the heart of the Church’s attitude toward Jews, combined with the rise of the racist anti-Semitism of the Inquisition, has its ultimate expression in the Church’s inability to oppose the Holocaust.
Only in 1965 did the papal bull “Nostra Aetate” clear the Jews of the accusation of having killed Christ and officially condemned anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism within

This means that for a Christian, for almost 2000 years, anti-Semitism was an essential component of the faith. The question is: what are the place and the function of anti-Semitism seen as an internalized, normative, cognitive-emotional construct?
Religion, together with mythology, theology, philosophy and science are all maintenance mechanisms of the symbolic universe – an overarching universe of meaning “which constitutes the universe in the literal sense of the word because all human experience can now be conceived as taking place within it. The symbolic universe is conceived as the matrix of all socially objectivated, and subjectively real, meanings; the entire historic society and the entire biography of the individual are seen as taking place within this universe” (Berger and Luckman 1966, p. 96).
I do not believe that Berger and Luckman considered the problem of having two competing religions within the same symbolic universe, let alone a situation in which one of the religions is the outgrowth of the other. This resulted in a continued common Judeo-Christian value system, but in discontinuity and strife in the faith. It is plausible that the role of religion, as a universe maintenance mechanism, was more important 2000 years ago than it is today, so this conflict was a defining one, threatening the integrity and the continuity of the symbolic universe.
At the very core of religious belief there is cognitive dissonance, and it is focused on the role and acceptance of the Jews in the new faith: The Triune God and the divinity of Jesus are to be considered alongside the Jewish Scriptures as the revealed Word of God. But the belief also includes deicide, Jesus’ Jewishness, the circumstances of his death, the Jews’ continued rejection of him, as well as the Jews as the People of the Book and the history they represent. In other words, a universe maintenance mechanism, whose role is to ensure internal consistency and continuity, and be a safeguard against dissonance (Berger and Luckman 1966), is flawed because there is a contradiction at its very center. Anti-Semitism is the device through which cognitive dissonance is silenced and internal consistency restored. These goals are achieved by employing several strategies. The God of love of the New Testament is seen as superior to the stern God of the Old Testament. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception dilutes Jesus’ Jewishness; his bond to the Old Testament was de-emphasized and his physical appearance increasingly Aryanized. Influential philosophers, like Johan Fichte (1762-1814), would later argue that Jesus was not Jewish at all, and “German Protestant hymnals were ‘de-Judaized’ by the removal of words like ‘amen’, ‘hallelujah’ and ‘hosanna’” (Carroll 2002, p. 72). Shifting the blame for the death of Jesus from the Romans to the Jews allowed one to resent those seen as guilty of deicide and at the same time explained why, in turn, they continued to reject him
Bering (1992) described a number of core anti-Semitic beliefs whose function is to reinforce prejudice against Jews and at the same time facilitate aggressive behavior against them:

“Jews are not only partially but totally bad by nature, that is, their bad traits are incorrigible. Because of this bad nature Jews have to be seen not as individuals but as a collective”.

This results in the depersonalization of the Jews and facilitates the use of aggression against them. Since all of them are bad, there is no need to make distinctions between them. The guilt of one proves that they are all guilty.

“Jews remain essentially alien in the surrounding societies”.

This makes the Jews the easy target of all the hostile projections.

“Jews bring disaster on their 'host societies' or on the whole world, they are doing it secretly, therefore the antisemites feel obliged to unmask the conspiratorial, bad Jewish character”.

This justifies pre-emptive violence against the Jews rationalized as self defense. At the individual level, anti-Semitism is self reinforcing and self justifying, and like a stereotype, impervious to cognitive dissonance. Like a defense mechanism, it distorts reality in a systematic way. At cultural level, it is an integral part of religion. At the small group and societal level, it is triggered, maintained, and reinforced by two ritualized behaviors: the Passion play, and the blood libel.

Passion plays and the blood libel

Passion plays are a staging of the trial and death of Jesus and have historically taken place during Lent. The narrative is openly anti-Semitic and polemic, blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus. They depict the Jewish people and their leaders as allies of the devil and as assuming perpetual collective guilt for the murder of Jesus, (based on Matthew 27:25: “His blood be on us and our children”). It also depicts the Jews as evil and ugly.
As Augustine wrote in “The Confessions”, evil and ugly do not exist on the divine plane. At the same time, Jesus is increasingly Aryanized, changing from an olive-complexed Mediterranean Jew into a beautiful, light skinned, blue eyed North European, with light brown hair. According to Augustine, beauty and good do exist on the divine plane. The aesthetics of the Passion play follow its Manichean viewpoint: good versus evil, beauty versus ugliness, love versus bloodlust.
Historically, the Passion plays have frequently incited outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence. Other significant historic events such as the Crusades – liberating the Holy Sepulchre from infidels, or the Black Plague – which was blamed on the Jews poisoning the wells – resulted in widespread massacres of the Jewish population of Europe.
As noted above, the Passion play acts on multiple levels: By focusing resentment on the Jews, it is a triggering event, amplifying and releasing pent-up anti-Jewish hostility. By relentlessly emphasizing the anti-Semitic narrative, it validates the hatred of the Jews and cognitively reinforces it. It is the proximate cause of the violence against Jews, and at the same time it defuses the social inhibitors of aggressive behavior, providing the needed moral justification for violent actions.
Ernest Becker (1976) argued that the main function of culture is to circumvent the permanence of death, since culture develops from humankind’s attempts to master the awareness of its own mortality. He believed that culture can be a source of “symbolic immortality”, which counteracts the fear of death, by fostering a sense of “oneness” and continuity, creating a context in which one can “both die and continue” (Lifton 1983).
Because culture is a major symbolic universe maintenance mechanism, death denial and the promise of symbolic immortality become parts of the social construct which confers our existence its context and its meaning.
As Carroll (2002) writes, Christian immortality is based on salvation through the love of Jesus; in contrast, Jewish immortality is based on the belief that the covenant with God transcends death. From an anti-Semitic perspective, Jews are seen as threatening Christian symbolic immortality, having tried (and failed) to destroy its source. Their success would mean the eternal victory of Death, the triumph of Evil over Good. This is the latent content (in the Freudian sense) of ritualized anti-Semitic behaviors: they re-enact in a manner similar to repetition compulsion their version of the original conflict. The difference is that Macbeth compulsively washed the blood of his hands as an acknowledgement of his guilt, whereas the Passion play and the blood libel are a compulsive seeking of reassurance that anti-Semitism is justified.
Blood libel is the accusation of human sacrifice performed for obtaining the blood of the victim for ritual purposes. Although there are instances of blood libel against the Jews that precede Christianity, and certainly there is a history of Islamic, i.e. non-Christian, anti-Semitism, accusations of blood libel started proliferating in Europe after the 12th century. In the most common form, the unexplained death or the disappearance of a Christian child is followed by the accusation that the Jews killed the child in a re-enactment of the crucifixion, and collected the blood of the victim to be used as an essential component of the Passover Matzoth, or as a remedy for a mysterious ailment typical of the Jews. In different versions, the Jews are afflicted with hemorrhages (Thomas of Monmouth, 1173, The Life and Miracles of William), or Jewish men are said to menstruate (Tyrnau 1494), and need to drink Christian blood (solo sanguine Christiano) as an only remedy (remedium).
Furthermore, Jewish communities are said to draw lots to decide “which congregation or city” will “kill the Christian as we killed Christ” in order “to send Christian blood to the other congregations.” (Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Miracles of William, 1173). Note how the myth of worldwide Jewish conspiracy is added on to amplify the concept of collective guilt, and at the same time serve as an explanation for the apparently random location of the re-occurrence of blood libel around Easter.
The entire concept spread fast across Europe. I believe the appropriate analogy here is a computer virus. Once vulnerability (anti-Semitism) exists in an important piece of software (religion) the virus (blood libel) gets established and subordinates the entire belief system, generating pathological (pogrom) and self sustaining (passion play) behaviors. Those infected spread the virus to others who are susceptible.
The proof of the crime was either considered self evident, followed by a massacre (Norwich 1144, Blois 1171, and Trentino 1475); obtained by torture (Tyrnau 1484, Bazin 1529, Rhodes 1840, Syria1840) or proven by a miracle, such as the corpse starting to bleed in the presence of the Jews or floating upriver and emitting radiance ((Margraviate of Baden 1267, Alsace 1270, Oberwesel 1286). Some of the alleged victims have become subject of cults and have even been canonized: William of Norwich 1144, Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln 1255, Anderl von Rinn, Tyrol 1462, Simon of Trent, Trentino 1475, Christopher of Toledo – the Holy Child of La Guardia – 1491, Gavriil Belostoksky from Zverki, Poland/Lithuania 1690. Most of the canonizations have been rescinded by the Church, but many of the alleged victims have remained the subject of cults. Gavriil Belostoksky is the only child saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. As recently as 1990, the Byelorussian television featured a movie claiming that the martyrdom of Gavriil is a true story. It should be noted that no pope has ever sanctioned the accusation of blood libel, and many have condemned it. However, it was not an effective defensive strategy: the Jewish Encyclopedia lists 121 documented instances of blood libel from 1144 to 1900.
By 1532, blood libel had become part of the popular culture. Chaucer, in “The Prioress’ Tale”, describes the death of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, which happened almost two hundred years before:

“From thenforth the Jewes have conspired
This innocent out of the world to chase;
A homicide thereto have they hired,
That in an alley had a privy place
And, as the child gan forth by for to pace,
This cursed Jew him hent, and held him fast.
And cut his throat and in a pit him cast.
I say that in a wardrobe he him threw,
Where the Jewes purged their entrail.
O cursed folk. O Herodes all new!
What may your evil intente you avail?
Murder will out, certain it will not fail.
And namely where th’honor of God shall spread;
The blood out cries on your cursed dead”

The blood libel within

What explains the ubiquity of the blood libel? After all, it contradicts known Jewish tradition, the historical facts, it has no basis in the Old Testament, and it is against common sense. The often quoted Mathew 27:25, “His blood be on us and our children”, as well as Paul’s comment about blood and sacrifice “And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22), do not constitute a sufficient explanation.
The blood libel distills anti-Semitism into what Lifton calls “a controlling image”, a powerful, highly symbolic representation which has a fractal quality: it is independent of scale. The killing of Christ and the killing of an innocent child are the same version of the narrative on a different scale. If even a fragment of the blood libel is believed true, then blood libel in its entirety must be considered true, which means that the Jews are guilty of deicide. This mirrors the fact that the guilt of one Jew is seen as validating the guilt of all Jews. In turn, if the blood libel is true then all of anti-Semitism is justified. All one has to do is to use self deception, to act “as if” any part of the accusation is true, and one is on the side of Good in a Manichean struggle, free of guilt and shame, and morally justified to take any action.
Self deception is a key concept in the emergence of evil according to Peck (1983) and Kubarych (2005), and it is an essential component as well in the evolutionary psychology viewpoint I have proposed (Dan 1995, 2007). The “psychic numbing” and “doubling” processes that Lifton (1983) has identified, and that help both victim and victimizer cope with extreme situations, contain an “as if” element. In other words, they imply a certain degree of self deception.
In the case of the anti-Semite, the monstrosity of the crime committed by Jews creates a peculiar, reactive numbing, mediated by faith. If one has tried to kill my God, rob me of my chance to symbolic immortality, and I retaliate, their real suffering pales in comparison with my symbolic suffering, and my actions are justified, even righteous. The more gruesome and widespread the violence, the less people react to it and the more likely it is to occur again. As Slovic (2007) writes, exposure to mass atrocities leads to “a collapse of compassion”, because the number of lives at risk and the value of a life worth saving are inversely correlated: the higher the number at risk, the lower the value of life.
Doubling – which permits the coexistence of two value systems supporting two separate identities (not dissociation, but a system of moral double book keeping) – allows the anti-Semite to take part in violent acts and feel like a “good man” at the same time. Anti-Semitism is, after all, as Sartre (1962) wrote, a matter of self definition.
The psychological principle of doubling is, according to Lifton “the division of the self in two functioning wholes. In that way, the two selves are syntonic, and a part-self becomes, in effect, an entire self” (1986). By doubling one could “not only kill and contribute to killing, but organize silently, on behalf of that evil project, an entire self structure (or self process) encompassing virtually all aspects of his behavior” (1986). While Lifton wrote these lines about the Holocaust, they apply to our subject of study as well. The logic of anti-Semitism, Passion plays and blood libel leads inexorably to its ultimate conclusion: the necessity of the destruction of all the Jews.
The way to stop this vicious cycle is to fundamentally change the faith and take responsibility for the evils of the past. As Carroll (2002), writes, it is necessary for the Church to accept the Jewishness of Jesus and for “Christianity to submit itself to that therapy of Jewish consciousness that allows ‘the return of the repressed’. This means establishing a new education for a new consciousness” (Ruether, 1974).

The Great Trial

The narrative of the 1882 blood libel trial comes from Karoly Eotvos, the main defense attorney who represented the Jews. He was a compelling figure: devoid of prejudice, morally upright, someone who never wavered amid the swirling hate. Eotvos believed the blood libel to be “a stupid superstition”, and did not give it any credence. Neither did he harbor any illusions about the anti-Semitism raging in Hungary at the time. He saw the defense of the Jews not only as his moral duty, but also as a historic obligation. He felt that what was at stake was the legitimacy of Hungary’s judicial system. These were his beliefs about Jews:
“There are Jews everywhere. Their role in each society is larger than their proportion in it. Because of this, jealousy accompanies them in the great race of life. Their religion has its origins in ancient times, and still stands today. Their racial being is the very same today as four and a half thousand years ago, when one could find nary a trace of today’s great cultures and nations. According to religious knowledge, Jesus’ supreme teachings have grown in the cradle rocked by the gentle hand of the Jews.
Today conscientious Christians everywhere read the holy books of the Jews with an awed soul. In the study of nature there is no richer, more interesting and more surprising phenomenon than the Jew. That is why the mob cannot forget the blood libel… why the flames of the blood libel flare up from time to time… and its embers still glow after one and a half thousand years, under the layers of ashes and oblivion. And yet, they cannot be extinguished definitively” (Eotvos 1904, p. 3).

A note on the names and translations: unless otherwise specified all translations are by the author and all names will be spelled as in the Hungarian original. That spelling may be at variance with the present spelling (i.e. Sarf and not Scharf, Buksbaum and not Buxbaum).

Tisza Eszlar, Hungary, April 1, 1882

Tisza Eszlar was an old, well established, large village on the banks of the Tisza River. The population was mostly Hungarian.
At the time the Jewish community of Tisza Eszlar comprised 25 families, plus a fluctuating number of transients. The “shohet”, or communal slaughterer, had given notice, and three candidates: Salamon Schwartz, Lobi Braun and Abraham Bukszbaum had applied for the job. Salamon Schwartz was ultimately hired as shohet. Because of Passover and the presence of applicants for the shohet and precentor positions, and their families, there was an unusually high number of Jews in Tisza Eszlar in those days.
On April 1, 1882, a fourteen year old girl by the name of Solymosi Eszter vanished shortly after noon, while on an errand. She had been sent to purchase some black paint by her employer, Mrs. Huri, for whom she was working for keep. Two other neighbors had also asked her to buy some things for them. She had to go to a Christian owned store, which was farther away, because the nearby Jewish stores were closed, as it was the eve of Passover. The store owner remembers her making the purchases and leaving. She met on the way home with Mr. and Mrs. Rozenberg, who were the employers of her sister. They were the last ones to see her alive.
After two days, Jozsef Sarf, the synagogue sexton, expressed to Eszter’s mother the hope that she would be found, adding that Jews had recently been accused in the disappearance of a child, who eventually was found alive and well. He may have intended to defuse a possible rumor, but instead ignited it. Mrs. Solymosi went to the local authorities and declared Eszter missing. The anti-Semitic press picked up the story and fanned the flames, egged on by local (Onody) and national (von Istoczi) leaders. The reason for the widespread anti-Semitism was that the outbreak of intense nationalism that followed Hungary’s relatively recent independence needed a straw man, an internal foe.
On May 4, Mrs. Solymosi logged an official complaint asking for an investigation. Notary Bary was sent to investigate by the Nyiregyhaza county court.
Up to this point, the prescription for blood libel had been followed to perfection: a Christian child had disappeared around Passover. The Jews were acting suspiciously, and had among them several communal slaughterers. Anti-Semitic passions were on the rise. The next stage in this lockstep process would be the finding of a witness, preferably a Jewish one, as that would lend credence to the charges.

The Testimony of the Sarf children

The person appointed to act as examining judge was notary Bary, a rabid anti-Semite. He saw as his role the forging of a version of the truth in which the guilt of the Jews could be established without a shadow of doubt. He pursued his goal by two parallel means: the subornation of witnesses, and the establishment of a “secret council” which coordinated the testimony of witnesses in support of Bary’s version of the truth.
Soon a bevy of adolescent Hungarian girls and some young women started to ply the younger of Sarf children, Samuel, five years old, with sweets and money. After careful coaching, Samuel reportedly said that the shohet cut of Esther’s head while his father was holding her, having lured her into the house. Because the testimony of such a young child was not admissible in court, it needed to change. Samuel’s testimony then became that his father had been there when the shohet made a cut on Esther’s neck, and that his brother Moricz, 14, had collected the blood in a plate. Aside from the patent absurdity of the charge, Eotvos asked, would one include in such a criminal enterprise an unknown shohet, and two children? However, what mattered was not plausibility, but the fake internal consistency of the blood libel.
Bary arrested Moricz on May 19, and contrary to the law, separated him from his parents. He involved in the investigation Recsky, the commissioner of safety of the nearby Nagy Falu, as well as the county clerk Peczely, an ex murderer and willing torturer. Afterwards, sleep deprived, Moricz, scared, confused and alone, confessed. In his version of events, his father had lured the girl in, then a beggar named Hermann Wollner held her and knocked her unconscious. She was then undressed and the new shohet, Salomon Schwartz, cut her neck while the other two candidates, Abraham Bukszbaum and Lobi Braun held her. Samuel Lusztig, Lazar Weiszstein, Abraham Braun, and Adolf Jünger were also said to be present. On May 23, the local court held a hearing and found Moricz’s testimony to be sufficient ground for action.
Bary arrested 12 Jews and started working on them. He had enough raw human material to probe for weaknesses and manufacture facts. Investigation by torture was forbidden by law but this did not stop Bary and Peczely. However, the case had a fatal weakness: the entire fabrication of blood libel rested on the testimony of a minor, and was subject to cross examination in open court.
Both parties needed a body, the Jews in order to prove their innocence, and the anti-Semites in order to prove the blood libel. The Council of Hungarian Jews offered a prize of 10.000 crowns for anybody who finds Esther dead or alive.

The Body in the Tisza River

The Tisza River was the main timber rafting thoroughfare. Huge rafts of timber from the forests of Transylvania were floated to destinations down the river. Each raft had a crew of two or three and a helmsman or pilot. Since the rafts originated in what today are Romania and the Ukraine, the crew spoke those languages and a smattering of Hungarian. The buying and selling of the timber and the paying the crew was handled by a trader, who was usually Jewish.
On June 19, 1882, a group of raftsmen discovered a body floating in the shallows near Dada, downstream from Tisza Eszlar. The crew pulled the body ashore and asked a Hungarian passerby to notify the authorities. As the evening progressed and nobody came, they decided to bury the body, since superstition held that failing to do so would bring them bad luck.
The news that Esther’s body had been discovered spread like wildfire. An ad hoc committee formed of the assistant head magistrate and the county clerk, accompanied by the local doctor, his intern, the local pharmacist, Zuranyi Kalman, as well as a bevy of curious bystanders, arrived at around 10 PM. They uncovered the body and conducted the initial investigation in the dim light of candles.
They found the body to be a female of 140 cm. The hair was missing, the teeth were intact. The body looked approximately 14 year old, dressed in a skirt, blouse and a sort of vest. On her waist there was a red belt. In her left hand, a bundle containing some blueish paint. She was barefoot. However, the most important finding was that the neck was intact. This created the necessity to prove that the body is not Esther.
From now on, every fact relating to the body became a battleground. The stakes were enormous. If even one fact could establish that the body was not Esther, then the blood libel continues; but if this was indeed Esther, then the Jews were innocent and the blood libel was proven false. Each party was fighting to validate their mutually exclusive version of truth.
The following day a commission formed by local, regional and national jurists, law enforcement officials and a number of policeman led by Vay Gyorgy, a brutal man, “terrible and raw” (Eotvos,1904), and a known Jew hater, arrived to conduct the official inquiry. Doctors Kiss, Trajtler and Keri were the medical experts. Pharmacist Zuranyi was also present. Vay Gyorgy instructed the policemen to keep any Jew from being in the proximity. This was a clear violation of the law, which stated that both the accused and their legal representative, Heumann Ignacz, had the right to be present. However, with the blood libel hysteria in full swing all Jews were suspect and did not have any rights.
The commission first established that Esther’s mother recognized the clothes. These were indeed the clothes Esther was wearing on the day she disappeared. They then proceeded to try and identify the body. Their procedure was peculiar: they undressed the body so people would see her naked safe for a loincloth. Eotvos comments on how this routine differed from other investigations, where the body was seen clothed, since immersion in water and decomposition often renders a body unrecognizable.
Furthermore, the reticence of country folk would keep them from looking closely at a naked body. Esther’s mother did not recognize the body, nor did her aunt. However a neighbor identified the body as being Esther. The fourth witness, her uncle, also recognized her, based on her stature and features. The fifth witness identified the body based on her blue eyes and regular teeth. (However, the inquiry found the body’s eyes to be brown). The sixth witness, Szakolczai Julcsa, 19, provided an important clue: Esther had a scar on her left foot, the result of a cow having stepped on it. She said she can see the scar. When the doctors claimed not to be able to see the scar, the pharmacist Zurany, stepped in and carefully washed away the dirt, and saw the scar. One of the doctors then wiped the area by rubbing it with a cloth and the scar disappeared. The next two witnesses were uncertain, and this concluded the first day. The official transcript of the proceedings was not signed by any of the witnesses, in clear violation of the law.
As Eotvos writes, this should have been the end of the blood libel. Different witnesses had identified the clothes, the features, the stature, the teeth and scar of the body.
Other items in evidence, such as the paint packed in yellowish wax paper, which could have been identified by the store owner, have been “lost”. Not one of the Jewish inhabitants who knew Esther was asked to identify her.
By next morning a rumor started circulating: the Jews have smuggled the body of a Jewish woman, dressed it in Esther’s clothes and are trying to pass it off as Esther’s. One can see she is Jewish because her head is shaved. This version of the truth had multiple benefits: it accounted for the fact that the neck was intact, it expanded the Jewish conspiracy, and it proved that the Jews were guilty, since only the killer would have access to Esther’s clothes. The rumor is an excellent example of the de-construction and re-construction of reality, having as a starting point a false premise and achieving a remarkable paranoid internal consistency. The “secret council” went to work, coordinating testimony and medical opinion to mold the facts to this narrative.
The next witnesses did not recognize the body as Esther. Their testimony contradicted point by point any criteria used in the identification: the body is taller than Esther, the eyes, teeth are different, her features, hands and feet are different, and there is no scar. As noted earlier, each fact had become a battleground for competing versions of the truth.
The autopsy results continued the same pattern. The height of the body was found to be 144 cm. the hair on her head is described as “missing”, without specifying if the hair had been cut or has fallen out as a result of decomposition. The eyebrows and pubic hair “have been removed”, as opposed to having fallen out or the pubic hair having not yet developed. The eyes are brown, as Esther’s were. (This particular fact caused the coached witnesses to declare that the eyes were blue, contradicting medical testimony, since the point was to refute any physical resemblance). The teeth were “irregular”.
The breasts are “emaciated” (as opposed to undeveloped). The hands are small and cared for, with manicured nails, with fine skin, indicative of someone who possibly wore gloves.
The age of the body is 18, possibly 20 years. She is not a virgin. The body could not have been in the water more than three four days. The cause of death is not drowning, but anemia due to tuberculosis. After the examination was concluded, the body was buried in a wooden cabinet someone donated.
These findings, if true, proved conclusively that the body is not Esther’s, and implicates the Jews in a conspiracy to hide Esther’s murder by body smuggling. Based on these findings, Bary arrested all the raftsmen and on June 19 brought formal charges of murder against Salamon Swarcz, Abraham Bukszbaum, Leopold Braun, and Hermann Wollner; charges of being an accomplice to murder against Jozsef Sarf, Adolf Junger, Abraham Braun, Samuel Lusztig, Lazar Weisstein, and Emanuel Taub, and charges of conspiracy and body smuggling against Anszelm Vogel, Jankel Smilovics, David Hersko, Martin Gross, and Ignacz Klein.
By this point, Eotvos had become implicated in the trial, at the behest of the Council of Hungarian Jews, who asked him to meet Moricz Sarf, the main prosecution witness and to convey them his impressions. After an intervention by the country’s attorney general Kozma Sandor, who was himself worried about the case and the attention it was getting in the international press, he was granted an interview, on the condition that he cannot ask any question relevant to the case, and must meet with him in the presence of the country’s assistant district attorney and a local warden.
He met Moricz and noted that he is normally developed for his age. He asked him how old he was. Moricz looked terrified and looked at the warden who nodded slightly, and then he answered. Eotvos thanked everybody and left. As he explains it if somebody needs approval to state his age, his testimony is worthless. He is a manikin, mouthing what he was taught.
Upon his return, he informed the representative of the Jewish council that they will have to deal with two Moricz Sarfs: the terrified child and the cocky coached witness. After a few days, he was asked to head the defense, and accepted. His reasoning was that a miscarriage of justice was underway, one that will result in the conviction of the innocent, the validation of an age old lie, and a taint on Hungary’s reputation. He assembled a team of Hungarian and Jewish lawyers: B. Friedmann, Alexander Funtak, Max Szekely, and Ignacz Heumann.
Bary and Recsky shuffled the prisoners from one location to another and subjected them to beatings, death threats, water torture and sleep deprivation. Using torture against suspects was totally illegal, and some of the witnesses, such as raftsmen Csepkanics and Matej were also tortured. Some of the accused (Hersko, Smilovics) and some of the witnesses (Matej) “confessed”, while others (Csepkanics, Mendelovics) resisted heroically. Salomon Swarcz tried to confess that he alone had killed Esther because she had taunted him. He was not believed. The translator (Matej was Russian and spoke only Russian) took upon himself to synchronize his confession with that of others.
The new version of the facts implicated the timber trader, David Hersko, as well as other Jewish traders in a conspiracy to smuggle the body. Hersko was said to have received an important sum of money from rich Jews, to smuggle the corpse. He recruited crew member Matej, a Gentile, to help. Local residents Klein and Gross were said to have delivered the corpse by carriage. Esther’s clothing was delivered to Hersko by a Jewish woman. Combined with Moricz Sarf’s testimony, a new coherent narrative emerged, a more potent one implying a larger Jewish conspiracy to hide the ritual murder, and by implication, their involvement in it. The fact that this version was patently absurd, presupposing a hodgepodge of suspects that met accidentally and trusted strangers and children with a deadly secret, was less important than the fact that it kept the blood libel alive.
After Eotvos became the lead attorney, Zurany, the local pharmacist came to see him on November 3. He shared with him his opinion that the witnesses have been intimidated, that he had seen the scar on Esther’s foot, and described its location and size. He said that the nose had been flattened but Dr. Keri had straightened it out. He noticed that the upper eyelashes were missing but that the lower ones were present. He thought the body to be that of a fourteen to seventeen year old girl. In other words, he was a very observant accidental and objective witness, ready to face all the unpleasant consequences for being principled and truthful.
By that time, Eotvos was deeply involved in a motion to exhume the body and have a second forensic opinion. He had contacted university professor Kovacs Jozsef to help him formulate the medical reasons for the motion. Kovacs was an anti-Semite, but Eotvos considered him a learned and principled man, and reasoned that his scientific probity will trump ideology. (This was a strategy he often repeated, mostly successfully). Kovacs brought in another expert, of Romanian origin, Viktor Babes, who impressed Eotvos with his quiet competence. He had dissected 302 drowned bodies, and while young, he was already an assistant professor. As Eotvos noted, he went on to become a world famous bacteriologist.
While both doctors were reluctant to challenge the direct findings of the doctors who had performed the autopsy, they found enough procedural mistakes to give a solid basis for the appeal, which was filed on November 11. By then the trial had become a political liability. Kossuth Lajos, the hero of the 1848 revolution, had filed a protest from exile. Other bodies had been found floating in the Tisza, but none of them proved to be Esther. The pitch of the public opinion rose to a frenzy. Getting to a closure had become a political imperative. In a larger sense, the blood libel had found a new opponent: Hungary’s concern for its image in the world. The archaic accusation clashed with the desire to be seen as a modern state, and the legal proceeding showed Hungarian jurisprudence in a bad light.
The motion to re examine the body was granted on November 23. On December 7, the corpse was exhumed and examined by a commission formed of three professors of medicine at the University of Budapest – Schenthauer, Belky, and Mihalkovics. By a stroke of luck, the body had been buried in dry, sandy soil and had become mummified instead of decomposing.
The conclusion of the experts was as follows: the body had a substantial build up of subcutaneous adipocera, a fatty deposit that develops if a body is submerged in water for a long time. The hair was not shorn, but had fallen out. There was no axillary (under arm) hair growth, indicating that the secondary sexual characteristics were not yet developed. This accounted for the lack of pubic hair, as well as the undeveloped (as opposed to “emaciated”) breasts. The skin of the hands could not be judged because the entire outer layer of the skin was missing. The nails were not manicured, they were missing. The previous medical team had mistaken the nail bed for nails. The state of the body was such that virginity – or lack thereof – could not be established. There was absolutely no indication that the death was due to anemia or tuberculosis.
These findings seemed to be a clear win for the defense, because they demolished, point by point the construct put forth by the anti-Semitic camp. Two troubling points still remained, and as we previously mentioned, losing either of them would have meant that the other side’s version of the truth prevailed. Both of these points required further tests. One was: how long had the body been in the water. The experts were equivocal: “the body has been in the water for at least fourteen days, and then some more days” (this despite the fact that the presence of adipocera indicated at least six weeks in water). But even this ambiguous finding upset the timeline established by the coached and coerced testimony, which was now on the official record.
The second was even more troubling: the body was deemed to be 16 to 17 years of age. Eotvos visited professor Mihalkovics and asked him how he reached this conclusion. Mihalkovics pointed to a skeleton of a 17 year old male he had used for comparison. Eotvos asked two questions: Is the age a fixed point or a likely range? Are there systematic differences in development between males and females, and if yes, why use a male skeleton for comparison? (This is only one of the many instances in which Eotvos proved to be a more modern thinker than his contemporaries).
He explained in a straightforward manner what was at stake: that despite a mountain of evidence pointing in the right direction, this single fact could undo everything. Yet again, a single fact, the last fact, had become a Manichean battleground. Eotvos told Mihalkovics that hospitals and universities in London, Vienna and Prague had extensive skeleton collections which could be used for reference.
After contacting them, they found that the university in Prague had a 14 year old female skeleton, and compared it to the skeleton of the body found in the Tisza, The conclusion: while most of the evidence points to the fact that the body is 16 to 17 years old, the possible age range extends from 14 to 18 years of age. This removed the last obstacle in identifying the body as Esther. In effect, the case for blood libel had collapsed.
The trial was dramatic, but still a letdown after the fight to establish one’s version of the truth had been won. All of the accused flatly denied the charges and constantly challenged the coached witnesses. Moricz Sarf was, as Eotvos had predicted, a cocky witness. Rather than cross examining him, Eotvos asked him if he can repeat his testimony in verse. When Moricz said he had converted to Christianity, his father tore his clothes in open court, indicating that he considers his son to be dead.
Eotvos delivered the closing statement, which was seven hours long, discrediting not only the charges but blood libel as well.
On August 2, 1883, the local court cleared all of the accused of all the charges. This judgment was upheld at all appeal levels. Eotvos logged official complaints about the investigators’ conduct in this case. None of the complaints resulted in legal action. He also petitioned the court for the return of Moricz to his parents. This was granted and Moricz was sent to Amsterdam, where he became a jeweler. He lived his life in anonymity as an observant Jew.
Eotvos expressed the hope that since blood libel cannot be proven true in a modern state, under a modern legal system, it had been vanquished forever. In this he was mistaken. In 1903, in Kishnev, Russia, and in 1911 in Kiev, Russia, blood libel accusations were brought against the Jews. In 1946, in Kielce, Poland, there was a pogrom started by a blood libel accusation. This despite the fact that, as Popescu states (personal communication), anti-Semitism was different before and after Auschwitz: one knows its ultimate consequences. Eotvos would be disappointed, but not surprised by this turn of events. The full title of his book is: “The Great Trial, That Has Been Going On for a Thousand Years and Which Will Never End.”

A personal note

In the summer of 1964 or 1965, a rumor started circulating in my hometown of Bucharest, Romania: someone was stealing children in order to draw their blood. The details were unclear, but it was allegedly done in order to sell the blood in the West.
The rumor grew in strength, and people started watching their children. The city became paranoid. I commented on this to my grandfather.
He looked at me and asked “don’t you know what this is?” As I said “no” he went to the bookshelf and handed me three volumes of an old book, bound in blue cloth, with gold lettering. It was “The Big Trial” by Karoly Eotvos. Despite the fact that I knew of anti-Semitism (my mother and aunt had been at Bergen Belsen), it was an abstract awareness. The book put me in contact with a world of Jews and anti-Semitism I had never known.
Later, when I left Romania, the books stayed behind. In 1993, as I was preparing my dissertation, I needed a quote from it. I walked into a Hungarian used book store, in and without much hope, asked for it.
The bookseller handed me three volumes: old, blue cloth bound books with gold lettering. To this day I am not able to establish if these were the very same old books which had found me again.
As I read the book the second and the third time, I became more and more impressed with Eotvos Karoly. I feel that he is not given his rightful place in history, and that his mark is much more important than currently known.
I sincerely hope someone will undertake the task of translating his book into English. Then, I am certain, his life and deeds will receive the recognition they richly deserve. Jewish tradition holds that the world is supported by the deeds of a few righteous men. It is my belief the Eotvos was one of those pillars on whom the world rested.


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