Aside from "holocaust," there is no uglier term to the Jewish people than "blood libel," the historical canard that Jews murdered Christian children in order to use their blood for ritualistic purposes. Throughout the ages, anti-Semites have leveled such accusations to justify their evil behavior.
Helmut Walser Smith examines one of the most contentious examples of this ugly phenomenon in <B>The Butcher's Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town</B>.
The case in question involves the murder and mutilation of an 18-year-old boy in the town of Konitz, Germany, at the turn of the century. The boy's body was found, in several pieces, by a nearby river. (A warning to readers: Smith is extremely graphic in his depictions of the crime.) Because the remains were devoid of blood (religious laws dictate that all blood must be drained in order for meat to be considered kosher), the townspeople resurrected "blood libel" as the explanation and looked for someone who had the knowledge to perpetrate such a heinous crime. Suspicion fell on Adolph Lewy, a Jewish butcher. As the investigation into the young man's death progressed, more and more people came forth to offer "testimony," or more accurately, their own hare-brained notions of what happened and how. Anti-Semitic journalists arrived to cover the various hearings and trials, fanning the flames of unrest.
The author, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University, offers a brief explanation of the "blood libel" concept and the tragic consequences it often held for the Jews of Europe. He portrays the townspeople of Konitz who offered statements against Lewy as being of such low quality (drunkards or "mental defectives") that it's amazing anyone in a position of authority could take their testimony seriously. Smith does a fascinating job of trying to prove Levy's innocence and identify a likely culprit. His book may make readers uncomfortable. If so, it has served a valuable purpose.
<I>Ron Kaplan writes from Montclair, New Jersey</I>.