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The Jewish defense lawyer Oskar Gruzenberg

How a lawyer from Yekaterinoslav became a legend in the “Jewish trials” in the Russian Empire

The “Jewish defense lawyer” – it was by this name that Oskar Gruzenberg was known among his contemporaries. “Our national lawyer,” Jews proudly called him, and anti-Semites only hissed through their teeth, “Yid daddy”. It was his involvement in all the major specific Jewish trials, where he brilliantly defended the honor and dignity of his people that brought him such wide popularity. The trials included the charge of Jews in Orsh of attacking the Christian population for reasons of religious hostility; court hearings after the pogroms in Kishinev and Minsk; the Dashevsky case; the Blondes trial – a victim of blood slander in Vilnius, and others. And the zenith of his professional fame was the case of Mendel Beilis in 1913, which Gruzenberg compared with the retributions from the time of the inquisition. And this was all despite the opinion of the Jewish community of those times that Jewish lawyers shouldn’t defend their compatriots.

The outstanding lawyer Oskar Osipovich (Israel Iosifovich) Gruzenberg was born into a traditional Jewish family in 1866 in Yekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk). His grandfather was a rabbi, his father a merchant of the 2nd guild. And the young Oskar chose the profession of lawyer. His youth took place in a difficult time. On the one hand, the barriers opened that had separated the Jews of Ukraine from public life; they were allowed to study at universities, and some of them were even allowed to leave the pale; on the other, the harsh Judophobic regime, the flourishing anti-Semitism and bloody pogroms.

In 1889, Oskar graduated from the law faculty of the Kiev University, and did not remain in the criminal law department for the professorial exam simply because of his religion: as Jew, he was asked to change his religion and convert to Christianity, which Gruzenberg found humiliating. For him, faith and Jewishness were also a conscious choice. “I didn’t want to write a dissertation about the freedom of the non-free will or look for the secret of the non-brutal brutality of punishment,” he later wrote in his memoirs. “I could do without that. It was much more interesting to fight in court.”

Oskar moved to Petersburg and soon shone as a talented defense lawyer and an expert on criminal law. However, again because of his Jewish ancestry, until 1905 he was not able to receive the title of attorney-at-law.
The first trial in which his name became widely known was the case of the Jewish apothecary Blondes, charged with ritual murder. After the appeal in the secondary examination of the trial, thanks to Gruzenberg Blondes was acquitted.
“It is unacceptable to allow even one court sentence finding a Jew guilty of ritual murder,” Gruzenberg wrote at the time.

This was in the year 1900. And it should be noted that in this period, so-called “ritual criminal cases” were encountered quite frequently, which were opened against Jews on religious grounds.

“It’s up to you whether to believe me or not, but if for just one minute I not only knew, but even thought that Jewish learning allows or encourages the consumption of human blood, I would not remain in this religion any longer,” Oskar Gruzenberg began his speech at one of the most sensational cases of this kind – the Beilis case. The father of five children, the 37-year-old clerk at a brick factory Menachem Mendel Beilis was charged with the ritual murder of the 12-year-old pupil of the Kiev-Sofia religious academy Andryusha Yushchinsky, in order to get innocent Christian blood to make matso for Passover.

On 20 March 1911, on the outskirts of Kiev, near the brick factory, the dead boy’s body was found. Everything indicated that the child was killed by the buyer of stolen goods and criminal Vera Cheberyak, whose son he had recently quarreled with and threatened to give the mother up to the police. However, this was quite a convenient opportunity to give vent to popular discontent and prevent revolutionary uprisings. The Kiev prosecutor was ordered to organize a “Jewish trial”. The investigation mentioned the “blood slander” – the so-called medieval accusation of the Jews of using the blood of Christians for ritual purposes. And it seemed to be completely absurd – for the Torah and other sacred books of Judaism contain bans on murder and magic. But the investigation, as the only argument, took the anonymous “Note on ritual murders” from police archives, dated to the beginning of the 18th century, which stated that before Passover some Jewish sectarians like to add drops of blood of innocent Christian babies to the matso dough.

Two medical professors who had been paid off showed that the child had been bled dry while he was still alive. Then the quiet Jew Mendel Beilis was arrested, and he was charged with ritual murder. Beilis refused to confess his guilt, while his cellmates testified that he had confessed to them. On the other hand, witnesses said that Beilis had a relaxed attitude to his religion: he didn’t observe most rituals, he worked on Saturdays, and was on good relations with the local Orthodox priest. The Beilis case looked so brazenly falsified that it drew a wave of protests around the world: demonstrations in Germany, petitions from English bishops, and speeches against the repressions of Tsarism by Anatole France and Octave Mirabeau in Paris.

The lawyer Alexander Tager wrote: “The entire country was against the trial, apart from the extreme right: not only the revolutionary underground, but the entire moderate and liberal opposition to some degree opposed the government over the trial…”

As a protest against the Beilis case, strikes and student meetings began: a universal strike was prepared in Petersburg if a guilty verdict was delivered. All society was immersed in debates and indignation over the accursed “Beilis case”.
“The trial is proceeding as we should have expected,” wrote the newspaper “Kievlyanin” on 12 October 1913. “Everyone knew full well that it wasn’t about Beilis, that he was just an annoying formality, an outdated requirement of the law, an arbitrariness which was unavoidable. And so it is continuing. Entire days go by when not a word is mentioned about Beilis, and the court even seems to forget about his existence.”

Other lawyers of the empire led by Oskar Gruzenberg opposed the sensational anti-Semitic charge, and in the end, on 28 October 1913 at 6 p.m. Menachem Beilis was acquitted. Soon afterwards he and his family left Russia. He died in the USA in 1935, writing the book “The Story of My Sufferings”, which was published in Yiddish and did not appear in Russian translation until 2005.

In his book of memoirs, “Yesterday”, Oskar wrote: “I included the people I defended among my closest friends – perhaps because every defense cost me a great deal emotionally.”

A lawyer by calling, Gruzenberg was justly considered to be an outstanding expert on the theory and practice of criminal law, and especially trials. But he was also an incredible improviser, whose masterful oratory decided the outcome of most of the trials where he served as the brilliant defense lawyer.

On 27 December 1940, Gruzenberg died in Nice. In 1950 his remains were sent to Israel, and buried in Tel-Aviv. One of the central streets in Jerusalem bears the name of Oskar Gruzenberg.


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