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Murder in Polná - Exhibition to mark the centenary of the Hilsner Affair

 

Spanish Synagogue: 17 June - 3 October
Polna Synagogue: from November 1999

Leopold HilsnerThe myth of Jewish ritual murder, known as the blood libel, came into being at a time of religious intolerance, crusades and persecution of Jews. The first blood libel case occurred in 1235 in Fulda, Germany, and the most infamous case took place in 1475 in Trent, Italy. These accusations had tragic consequences, with the torturing of hundreds of Jews, pogroms and expulsions. In the 17th century the blood libel was particularly widespread in Eastern Europe. Not a single case was ever proved and the myth was often refuted by experts, as well as by secular and church authorities.

In the late 19th century, anti-Semitism became a means of political attack in Germany, Austria, France and the countries of Eastern Europe. It was primarily used by nationalists and Christian Socialist and radical parties in the fight against liberalism and social democracy. Berlin and Vienna were the centres of anti-Semitic policy in Central Europe. Charges of ritual murder also became a tool of aggressive political campaigns. The more absurd the allegation, the more difficult the defence against it. Just as in the Middle Ages, the allegations of individuals became allegations of the entire nation and the Jewish faith. In the years between 1881 to 1913, a number of baseless and completely trumped-up charges of ritual murder were made by anti-Semites, patriots, clericalists and radicals in Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and Russia. The investigations, however, never revealed anything but lies and rumours.

The most infamous anti-Semitic political trial was the Dreyfus Affair in France (1894-1906), which has often been compared to the Hilsner Affair in terms of its significance. Although Dreyfus was not accused of ritual murder but of treason, the course of the trial and its consequences were similar in many ways. In both cases innocent victims were accused and condemned. However, while Dreyfus spent five years on Devil’s Island and lived to see at least partial rehabilitation, Hilsner spent 10 years in prison and never lived to see a revision of his trial.

The murder of 19-year-old Anezka Hruzova (b. 16 April 1879) took place in Březina Wood near Polná, a hundred years ago on Ash Wednesday, 29 March 1899. The body was found in the morning on Holy Saturday, 1 April. She had bled to death from a deep cut on the neck , although there was allegedly only a small amount of blood at the scene of the crime. There was immediately talk of ritual killing. Easter that year fell on the Jewish Passover, and rumours of the blood libel were revived in Polná. Although there were other suspects, the investigation concentrated on Leopold Hilsner (b. 10 July 1876), a 22-year-old Jewish vagabond of low intelligence, who was arrested without any incriminating evidence due to public pressure. The charge was backed by the local elite and influenced by a seditious anti-Semitic press campaign and by heightened Czech-German national disputes on the political scene. A key role in the trial was played by the plaintiff, the well-known Czech nationalist and radical deputy Dr. Karel Baxa. Under these circumstances and only on the basis of inconsistent and indirect evidence, Leopold Hilsner was condemned to death in the Kutná Hora Trial (12 - 16 September 1899) for involvement in the murder of A. Hruzova. The verdict was quashed on 25 April 1900 on the basis of T. G. Masaryk s protest at the absurdity of the accusation and in light of recent findings. At the new trial in the regional court of Písek (25 October - 14 November 1899), Hilsner was also charged with involvement in the murder of Marie Klimova, who had died two years previously. The trial followed the same scenario, and Leopold Hilsner, once again on the basis of indirect evidence, was condemned to death for involvement in both murders. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the basis of an imperial reprieve on 11 June 1901, although a number of requests to renew the trial were turned down. Shortly before the end of the First World War (24 March 1918) Hilsner was pardoned by Charles I. He spent the rest of his life in Velké Mezirici, Prague and Vienna; he died on 9 January 1928 at the age of 52 in Vienna. The real murderer of Anezka Hruzova was never found.

The trial of Leopold Hilsner was factually void, and the probative proceedings were completely inconclusive. The first crime evidently had a sexual motive of a sadistic nature, while the cause of death was not even established in the second case, and anumber of testimonies included factual inconsistencies. Hilsner himself was of a timid nature and hardly capable of such a violent act. It was clear to many people at the time, as it is today, that this was mainly a political trial, greatly influenced by anti-Semitism, the nationalistic press and the tense political situation with regards Czech-German relations. Towards the end of the century the Habsburg Monarchy was floundering in a drawn-out national and political crisis, and was no longer able to defend itself against these pressures. T. G. Masaryk intervened in the trial not to defend primarily Hilsner, but to defend the good sense, pragmatism and culture of Czech political life.

The trial of Leopold Hilsner was also the first affair in Czech society to achieve such widespread media publicity - especially in the tabloid, anti-Semitic and radical papers, as well as in various pamphlets, cartoons, picture postcards, anonymous leaflets, letters and popular songs. The exhibition of the Jewish Museum in Prague features such lesser-known material so as to highlight the events of a hundred years ago from a new perspective, in the context of the political scene of the day, anti-Semic publication and the period atmosphere. It is of significance today, because Czech historiographers have so far failed to devote sufficient attention to the Polna Trial and to the Czech politics of the period. Such themes as anti-Semitism and nationalism were never too welcome in the past.

After the exhibition ends in the Spanish Synagogue, it will be on permanent display in the newly reconstructed synagogue in Polná, which is to be opened in November 1999. On 24 - 26 November the Educatio and Cuture Centre of the Jewish Museum will host a specialist conference to mark the centenary of the Polná Trial. This will be devoted to the history and significance of the Hilsner Affair in the context of Czech politics and anti-Semitism. Further events commemorating the centenary of the Hilsner Trial can be expected in the year 2000.

Participants in the exhibition, through loans or collaboration, are: The Museum of Vysočina - Polná section, The Czech National Library, The National Museum Library - Periodical and Magazine Department, The Literary Archive of the Museum of Czech Literature, The State Central Archive in Prague, The State Regional Archive in Třeboň, The Archive of the T.G. Masaryk Institute in Prague, The Library of the Jewish Museum in Prague, Jan Prchal (Polná), Petr Vašíček (Vienna), Marta Vomelova (Polna), Stanislav Dulik (Prague), and Frantisek Banyai (Prague).

 

Exhibition curator: Dr. Arno Parik Collaboration: Michal Frankl, Andrea Braunova
Installation: Pavel Brach

 

 

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