‘Blood libel’: Czech lawyer specialising in judicial rehabilitation takes on Hilsner Affair of 1899

Photo: Public Domain

In the early summer of 1899, just as the infamous Dreyfus Affair was reaching its climax in France, another case now emblematic of anti-Semitism and injustice enveloped the Czech lands and wider Austrian Empire. Leopold Hilsner, a simple-minded Jewish peddler and vagrant in his early twenties, stood accused of killing a teenage seamstress in an implied act of “blood libel”, the ritual murder of a Christian. Now, more than 120 years later, a Czech lawyer specialising in defending and “rehabilitating” unjustly persecuted people is pushing to reopen the case.

Lubomír Müller was just starting his third of legal studies at Charles University in 1976 when he was arrested by the secret police and sentenced to prison for leading an illegal gathering and practicing spiritual work without a state permit. Barred by the Communist authorities from continuing his education, he was only able to earn his juris doctorate in 1990, after his own “rehabilitation”.

Photo: Public Domain

Since then, Müller has specialised in righting past wrongs – winning “moral victories”, as he calls them. Whether the best possible result is setting a legal precedence, gaining judicial or political rehabilitation, or symbolic compensation, the process itself is crucial, he told the Memory of Nations project.

“When I see that someone was in the right, I simply try to help them regardless of how much money is at stake. And this is the legal principle which, given that it eventually prevails, can prove useful for hundreds or thousands of people.”

Müller has taken on hundreds of such cases and won many victories in the nation’s highest courts. His clients have mainly been people prosecuted or punished by the former regime on political grounds – such as “Pétépáky” (people who served in PTP auxiliary technical battalions for the internment and re-education of “politically unreliable” persons) – or stripped of their land or property.

Most recently, he represented the family of Pavel Wonka, believed to be the last Czech political prisoner to have died in prison under Communism, under suspicious circumstances. Wonka’s family was awarded 2,473 crowns in compensation – the equivalent of less than 95 euros today – for the salary he lost during three weeks in prison, and the costs incurred during his detention and criminal proceedings.

Pavel Wonka,  photo: archive of Jiří Wonka

A year ago, Müller began the painstaking process of petitioning the Czech courts to re-examine the case of Leopold Hilsner, who in a climate of rabid anti-Semitism had been accused of murdering a 19-year-old seamstress named Anežka Hrůzová, found on an Ash Wednesday in the woods near Polná, in the Jihlava region.

Jan Prchal, a doctor who heads the Club for Historic Polná, took a Czech Radio reporter to the alleged site of the murder. He believes the forensic evidence clearly shows that Hilsner was innocent.

“This is the path on which Anežka Hrůzová was heading home… and here is where the act actually took place, where there is the symbolic grave. They found her clothes cut on the trees by the site. From this evidence, it is quite evident that the perpetrator was a deviant.”

Hrůzová’s body was found on 1 April 1899 with a deep gash to the neck. But allegedly only a small amount of blood was discovered at the scene. The main suspect to emerge in the ensuing investigation was Hilsner, who’d been seen in the vicinity at the time of the murder.

Passover coincided with Easter that year, and talk of a ritual “blood libel” killing began immediately. Hilsner was tried for having been a willing accomplice to murder – suggesting a Jewish conspiracy, a bogus charge to which he later confessed and named accomplices to, while in prison after fellow inmates told him doing so would save his neck.

The lawyer for the murder victim’s mother, Dr Karel Baxa, summed up his case as follows: “Disgusting people, people of another race, people who acted like animals, have murdered a virtuous Christian virgin so that they could use her blood ... For what purpose this race, or sect, need this blood, this trial has not brought to light”.

Lubomír Müller again:

Leopold Hilsner,  photo: Public Domain

“Hilsner did not get a fair trial. The process was heavily influenced outside of the judiciary. There were strong anti-Semitic pressures, which is completely at odds with the principle of the right to a fair trial. Since the regional court of Kuttenberg [Písek] that heard the case no longer exists, I have petitioned its legal successor, the Regional Court in České Budějovice.”

Among the few public figures who came to Hilsner’s defence was then university professor Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who called for a legal review of the case and suggested Hrůzová was likely the victim of a family quarrel and not murdered where her body was found. He said the idea of Jewish ritual murder of Christians was a myth still rife among the Czech peasantry, which needed to be dispelled once and for all.

Hilsner was released from prison after serving 18 years of a life sentence, following a pardon by the Austrian Emperor, shortly before the end of the First World War. The following year, an organisation fighting anti-Semitism in Austria appealed for a retrial to clear Hilsner’s name, but nothing came of the attempt.