PRAGUE, April 9 (JTA) — 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.
What happened next created comparisons with the infamous Dreyfus Affair in France, but with one essential difference.
Both became political pawns in an era of rampant anti-Semitism and both were convicted of crimes on the thinnest of evidence. But while Dreyfus was exonerated after a 12-year investigation and reinstated to the army, Hilsner was never vindicated.
But his plight has not been forgotten. 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 doctor based in Vienna who said who 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 fitted 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. His motives were largely political, according to Pojar.
“It was important for Masaryk to rid Czech society of this superstition of blood libel,” he said. “How could the Czech nation enter the 20th century and be part of modern Europe with this terrible belief in this nonsense?”
Hilsner was brought before a second court on the same charge and convicted again.
This conviction occurred 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 1 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.
“The Hilsner case was one stone in a mosaic which led to Nazi ideology,” says Prague-based German journalist Peter Brod, who has studied the affair in detail.
Now, more than a century after Hruzova’s body was found, the effort is being launched to get justice for Hilsner.
Vasicek, the Vienna-based doctor, has secured money from private Austrian sources to restore Hilsner’s dilapidated grave in Vienna.
Planning to hit the media trail to highlight the Hilsner case, Vasicek has arranged for a Czech-made documentary on the affair to be shown at the Czech Center in Vienna next month.
The documentary includes a reconstruction of the murder scene by police experts who have dismissed witness accounts, including one who claimed to have clearly seen Hilsner at the murder scene from 700 yards away.
The viewing will be followed by what Vasicek calls “a highly political” lecture at a university in Jerusalem on May 15 titled, “The Hilsner Affair 1899 and its echoes in the Czech Republic in 1999.”
Vasicek is targeting the Austrian authorities, who have insisted that any legal review should be handled by Czech officials because the trials were held in Czech courts.
But Vasicek has won support from an Italian lawyer who began to study the case last year. Mario Umberto Morini, who is based in Rome, believes the courts came under the jurisdiction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose legal successor is now Austria. He now intends to approach Austria’s legal ombudsman in an effort to have the case reviewed.
Morini says he will, if necessary, take the matter to the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi.
“I believe that in Europe there must be someone who will listen to our cry for justice,” said Morini.
In the meantime, the Czech Jewish community awaits the outcome with interest.
Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, said he supports calls for a legal review of the Hilsner case.
“The Hilsner Affair is very important from the historical perspective of this country,” Kraus said. “There was a lot of anti-Semitic feeling at that time, and I think the case made many people become pro-Semitic because they realized that what accompanied the Hilsner Affair was wrong.”