Legal move aimed at reopening notorious anti-Semitic Hilsner case

Leopold Hilsner

The case of Leopold Hilsner, a Jewish vagrant convicted in 1899 for the ritual murder of a Christian girl, may be on the path to re-examination. It is the first time since 1900 that a review of the case has been ordered in an effort to reopen Hilsner’s infamous trial, which sparked a huge wave of anti-Semitism at the time.

Anežka Hrůzová | Photo: public domain

The murder of the 19-year-old seamstress Anežka Hrůzová took place near Polná in South Bohemia, on March 29, 1899. The body was found three days later with a deep cut to the neck, although there was allegedly only a small amount of blood at the scene of the crime.

Easter that year coincided with the Jewish holiday of Passover, and talk of a ritual “blood libel” killing immediately started. Although there were other suspects, the investigation concentrated on Leopold Hilsner, a 22-year-old simple-minded Jewish vagrant. He was arrested without any incriminating evidence due to mounting public pressure and an anti-Semitic press campaign.

He confessed to the charge of murder and named his accomplices while in prison, after fellow inmates told him doing so would save his neck. Hilsner was released from prison shortly before the end of the First World War after serving 18 years of a life sentence, following a pardon by the Austrian Emperor.

Photo: Klub za starou Prahu

Although Hilsner’s innocence regarding the charge of ritual murder has been largely recognised, his conviction was never annulled.

Photo: Klub za starou Prahu

Thanks to Jaroslav Müller, a Czech lawyer specialising in defending and rehabilitating unjustly persecuted people, the case may now finally re-open. Based on his complaint, the prosecutor's office in Jihlava has been ordered to re-examine the motion to reopen proceedings in the case. Mr. Müller says this may be partly thanks to the evidence provided by journalist and researcher Jaroslav Mareš.

“Mareš documented that the witnesses’ testimonies were such that Hilsner could not have managed everything the witnesses claimed to have seen. He also reconstructed the situation described by the key witness, Mr Pešák, and proved that it was completely unrealistic. It all shows that Hilsner was wrongly convicted.”

Jaroslav Müller says he was drawn to the case of Leopold Hilsner through his work on different cases of people from religious minorities:

“It is important to me because the entire case was linked to a hate campaign against a religious minority, in this case Jews, and I believe that it should be corrected.”

Photo: Irena Šarounová,  Czech Radio

Earlier this year, Ladislav Müller also turned to Justice Minister Pavel Blažek with a request to order a retrial. However, the minister did not grant him the request on grounds that "no reason has been found" to justify such a move.

Mr Müller says he will now wait for the verdict of the state prosecutor’s office in Jihlava before considering next steps in his effort to clear Hilsner’s name:

“There are essentially two routes for abolishing a final judgment. Firstly, the renewal of a trial and secondly, a complaint that a law has been broken. And we have now selected the first option.”