Sunday, July 02, 2006

Correction Corner #3: who was Pranaitis and what did he do?

In the Correction Corner we don't deal exclusively with the Holocaust - we also deal with related topics, such as history of antisemitism. The Blood Libel, while not directly relevant to the Holocaust, is certainly a related topic, being a form of antisemitic propaganda. In fact, it is related to the Holocaust more strongly than than one might think. Take this letter from Himmler to Kaltenbrunner, in which he urges to spread the book about "Jewish ritual murder" among Einsatzkommandos dealing with the "Jewish question".

According to Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, Justinas Pranaitis (27.7.1861-28.1.1917) was a Lithuanian Catholic priest, a lecturer of Hebrew at Imperial Ecclesiastical Academy of the Roman Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, and, later, a priest in Tashkent (where he is honored to this day, apparently). In 1892 he published an anti-Judaic tract, which is now known as Talmud Unmasked, and is wide-spread on antisemitic sites. During the Beilis trial Pranaitis was a prosecution "expert", trying to prove that Jews use Christian blood for ritual purposes. Ironically, Pranaitis had been a student of Prof. David Khvolson, a baptized Jew who had published in-depth refutations of the "Jewish ritual murder" claims.

It became customary among anti-antisemites to respond to any mention of Pranaitis' book with a link to David S. Maddison's page about him. Even ADL refers to this page in their The Talmud in Anti-Semitic Polemics.

Read more!

The page correctly points out that Pranaitis had a criminal record, namely, he was caught in blackmail in 1894. He was also accused by Tsarist officials for trying to convert Russian Orthodox people into Catholicism. Despite this, Pranaitis was quite useful for staging the Beilis trial, because he was a known antisemite, and an "academic" one, at that. As one police department official wrote:
The course of the trial will depend on how the ignorant jury will perceive arguments of priest Pranaitis, who is sure about the reality of ritual murders. I think, as a priest he is able to talk with peasants and to convince them. As a scientist, who defended a thesis about this question, he will give props to the court and prosecution, though nothing can be guessed in advance yet. I became acquainted with Pranaitis and am firmly convinced that he is the person who knows the problem, about which he will talk, in depth... Everything, then, will depend on which arguments priest Pranaitis will furnish, and he has them, and they're shattering for the Jewry.

(cited in A. Tager, Tsarskaja Rossija i delo Bejlisa, Moscow, 1934, p. 265)
During the pre-trial interrogation Pranaitis had to concede that in Jewish literature known to him there was no unequivocal evidence of bloody rituals. Nevertheless, he insisted that the rituals were a reality, a tradition passed orally, and murder of Jushchinskij should be counted as a Jewish ritual murder until proven otherwise. Despite the concession about lack of written evidence, as we have seen, prosecution was hoping to rely heavily on Pranaitis' testimony.

This is when things start to get interesting. Maddison provides a quote from Maurice Samuel's Blood Accusation: The Strange History of the Beiliss Case, which is really the crux of the page. The quote purports to be a description of a severe humiliation which happened during Pranaitis' interrogation during the trial (I omit the comments, not present in the book; punctuation partially revised):
Q: What is the meaning of the word Hullin?
A: I don't know.
Q: What is the meaning of the word Erubin?
A: I don't know.
Q: What is the meaning of the word Yevamot?
A: I don't know.


"- When did Baba Bathra live and what was her activity?" - "I don't know."
The last "clever" question was supposed to spring the trap - Pranaitis was supposed to confuse the name of the Talmudic tractate with the Russian word "baba", "old woman".

The problem here is that this exchange never happened.

3 volumes of trial transcripts are available for download here. Interrogation of Pranaitis took two days (Oct. 20 and 21, 1913) and is on pp. 317-353 of the second volume. Further comments by Pranaitis are on pp. 433-436.[1, 2, 3]

When one examines these pages, one can find only one place that vaguely resembles Maurice Samuel's description. It's on pp. 434-435:
Karabchevskij: In your expert opinion you refer to some sources from which you make conclusions. I think you mentioned tractate Hullin. Is there such [a tractate -SR]?
Pranaitis: I don't remember.
Karabchevskij: How so, you don't remember you own expert opinion?
Pranaitis: I can't remember when I have read something.
Karabchevskij: But you know about Hullin tractate? How do you translare this name, what's it about?
Pranaitis: silent.
Karabchevskij: You can't tell?
Pranaitis: silent.
Karabchevskij: Then there's something about Makhshirim. What does that mean?
Pranaitis: This is liquid. Are you testing me?
Karabchevskij: No, it's for myself, because you have Hebrew words here.
Shmakov: Defence is testing... This cannot be done.
President: Defence is interested in translation of these words and has a right to ask the expert about this.
Shmakov: It is hardly permissible to ask such questions. He doesn't have to remember. This is a test.
President: An expert is a knowledgeable person and under no circumstance he should be tested.
Shmakov: After all, he cannot remember each tractate.
Karabchevskij: You, Mr. Shmakov, don't like it when I ask expert Pranaitis; I can refrain from it.
Zarudnyj: And I think that I have a right to ask an expert for a translation, on which he relies, and I think I have a right to know the meaning of the name of the tractate on which expert relies in his expert opinion. You, by the way, refer to tractate Yevotojt [sic]?
Pranaitis: I refuse to answer.
President: If an expert doesn't wish to reply, he cannot be asked.
Zarudnyj: I obey. Maybe you would like to translate the name of the work Midrash.
Pranaitis: silent.
Zarudnyj: What about tractate Shaalot Uteshubot?
Pranaitis: silent.
Zarudnyj: I want you to write in the protocol that when asked about the meaning of names to which the expert referred, he said that he doesn't know.
President: He said that he doesn't wish to answer.
Zarudnyj: No, he said that he doesn't know. And if he knows, let him translate.
President: This is not necessary for him.
Zarudnyj: I asked him with your permission, and I wish it to be entered in the protocol that I didn't test him in any way, but just asked him a question, and received an answer that he doesn't know. And concerning the following names: Yevomojt [sic], Keseres Gagoyle[sic], Shalot-Utenubot [sic], I wish it to be entered in the protocol that he refused to translate.
Shmakov (to Zarudnyj): You cannot even read.
Zarudnyj: That's why I'm asking the expert, because I can't read Hebrew.
The real exchange wasn't as "clever" as the fake one in Samuel's book, and by itself didn't show Pranaitis' ignorance - whether he didn't know (or remember) how most words were translated, or whether he really didn't wish to be "tested" (it was a weird rule in that court that experts, as "knowledgeable people", couldn't be "tested" akin to schoolboys, but the court would decide whether they were credible) cannot be determined from the quoted excerpt. Pranaitis' negative reply to the first question probably referred to him forgetting about whether he referred to Hullin in his expert opinion (his forgetfulness even caused this opinion to be read in court in full), and not to the existence of the tractate itself. Erubin wasn't mentioned, and neither do we see any coup de grâce in the form of Baba Bathra question, when, according to Samuel, Jewish public present in the court was supposed to laugh at Pranaitis' obvious ignorance.

Indeed, even if Pranaitis forgot the meanings of most tractate names, there is no doubt that he would at least identify "Baba Bathra" and other well-known terms as Talmudic tractates, if only because 20 years before that, he published a whole book about Talmud, wherein he listed all these tractates.

The story about Pranaitis' humiliation through a clever trick was taken by Samuel from a memoir of a certain writer Ben-Zion Katz, who was present at the trial. But Samuel, who had the transcripts at hand, is also to be blamed for spreading false information - he used the transcripts extensively and knew that no such exchange took place. Why he wrote what he did is up to the reader to decide.

This is not to say, however, that Pranaitis was not an vile antisemitic ignoramus. Contrary to Katz's and Samuel's tall tale, he did know basic facts about Talmud, but beyond these, his "interpretations" and "expert opinion" were almost nothing but rubbish. Here's one example of his "scholarly" "expert" opinion (p. 318):
Extermination of Christians is the main aim of existence of Talmudic Jews.
And here's an illuminating exchange (p. 339)
Karabchevskij: So in XIth century there were confessions of Jews that they had been consuming blood of infants. How the trials were conducted - with torture?

Pranaitis: Yes, there were severe tortures.

Karabchevskij: Tortures such as used until XVIIIth century?

Pranaitis: Such tortures as were, are, and always will be. One can talk much about these tortures, but, after all, through them the truth was revealed. Of course, it is not good, but if a person does not confess, one should torture. It was bad that torture was used, but, after all, then the places were shown [by those tortured - SR] and even physical evidence was shown.

Gruzenberg: Show me any trial when torture led to discovery of a new real or physical evidence. Show me.

Pranaitis: In 1853 Zhitomir trial Jews confessed and then were convicted.

Karabchevskij: Do you know a trial when one old Jew confessed after torture, saying: "Yes, I did cut and did consume blood, but I beg to burn me as soon as possible, because otherwise you will torture me again"?

Pranaitis: I don't know.
Tsarist police agent, secretly reporting about the trial, also was not impressed with Pranaitis (Tager, pp. 266, 267):
Cross-examination of Pranaitis has weakened evidentiary value of his expert opinion, exposing lack of knowledge of texts, insufficient knowledge of Jewish literature. Because of amateurish knowledge and lack of resourcefulness, Pranaitis' expert opinion is of very low value. Professors Troitskij and Kokovtsev, who were interrogated today, gave conclusions which are exceptionally positive for the defence, praising doctrines of the Jewish religion, and not accepting even a possibility of a religious murder by Jews... Vipper thinks that acquittal is possible.
Given such an obvious ineptness of this "expert", hailed by the antisemites to this day, there is not a single excuse to distort the truth as Katz and Samuel have done.


  1. From the quotations of the Tzarist secret police agent I get the impression that the Ochrana was using stereotypes, that at least some of them knew perfectly to be false, against Jews. Disturbingly cynical, but that's Imperial Russia for you. Also, when judging the East European population on its antisemitism, this form of fueling and keeping up their prejudice should not be neglected.

  2. As Tager proves with the original documents, police knew who the real murderers were. Parallel investigation was conducted, which was kept secret by Col. Ivanov, when he testified during the trial, all the while knowing that Beilis was innocent. There were even direct forgeries, like falsification of the original medical expert report, as Tager also proves. Tsarist officials wrote in secret reports that they hoped that Beilis would be convicted on the basis of "tribal hatred". And they came close to it - if one believes some accounts, the jury split 6:6 when asked about Beilis' personal guilt.

    Also, let's not forget that the first question - whether Jushchinskij's murder was ritual (i.e., by implication, a Jewish ritual murder) - was answered positively by the jury. So in some sense the prosecution (and thus the Black Hundreds) was not completely crushed during the trial, as it should have been.

  3. So much of the same accusations: Roman Catholics are "anti-Semites" and idiots! In fact, they don't learn anything at their own academies!!

    This rewriting of history is deplorable, but you don't question it, becaue you think they are non-biased. No history can be truly without bias, but you don't check sources other than that one book you quoted, which could have been forged.

    You can't question the ritual murder of St. Simon of Trent (though now "desainted"), because the Cardinal who filed the report admitted that it happened in the early 1400s.

  4. "So much of the same accusations: Roman Catholics are "anti-Semites" and idiots!"

    Where? In your feverish brains?

    "This rewriting of history is deplorable, but you don't question it"

    Which rewriting? If by Samuel, then I question it in the very posting you're commenting on, idiot.

    "becaue you think they are non-biased."

    "They" who?

    "No history can be truly without bias, but you don't check sources other than that one book you quoted, which could have been forged."

    You haven't shown that anything in Tager's credible book is forged or is suspected to be forged.

    "You can't question the ritual murder of St. Simon of Trent (though now "desainted"), because the Cardinal who filed the report admitted that it happened in the early 1400s."

    Non sequitur.


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