Activists revisiting 1899 blood libel

PRAGUE — The whispers began soon after the battered and strangled body of a 19-year-old seamstress was found on the edge of Brezina Forest in eastern Bohemia in 1899.

Anezka Hruzova had a deep gash around her throat but apparently little blood was found at the murder scene. The discovery, a short distance from the town of Polna, revived a centuries-old myth of Jewish ritual murder known as the "blood libel"– and the prime suspect was a local 22-year-old Jew, Leopold Hilsner.

Although Hilsner has been dead for more than 70 years, an unlikely alliance of academics, an Italian lawyer and a Czech physician living in Vienna is pressing hard to have the case reviewed in the hope of rehabilitating Hilsner's name and reputation.

"My motive is to fight against stupidity," said Peter Vasicek, a Vienna-based doctor who said he has invested $20,000 of his own money campaigning for justice since becoming interested in Hilsner's case five years ago.

Passions were running high at the time Hilsner was brought to trial under the jurisdiction of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Czech historians point out that at that time anti-Semitism was a common political weapon used by nationalists and radicals in their battle against the forces of social democracy. The concept of Jewish ritual murder fit neatly into their political campaigns.

The myth of the blood libel was revived at the end of the 19th century when several Jews were brought' before the courts throughout Czech lands and beyond in the years immediately preceding the Hilsner case.

Hilsner stood little chance at his trial, according to Milos Pojar of the Education and Cultural Center of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

"He was a poor man and from such a low class that he couldn't defend himself. The media also were against him from the beginning. I believe Hilsner was not guilty," he said.

The only important Czech figure to support him was Tomas Masaryk, who went on to become the first president of Czechoslovakia when the state was created in 1918.

Masaryk intervened when Hilsner was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder, calling for a legal review of the case.

Hilsner was brought before a second court on the same charge and convicted again — despite a lack of convincing forensic evidence and a reliance on indirect testimony, according to Czech academics who recently wrote about the case in a publication supported by the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Hilsner's sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment, and he was eventually released by Austrian Emperor Charles I in 1918. Hilsner spent the rest of his life on the streets, dying in Vienna in 1928 at the age of 52.

Hilsner lived on, however, in another sense. Adolf Hitler was familiar with the case, and it was used by the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer in the 1930s to justify Nazi policies.