The Hilsner Affair (also known as the Hilsner Trial, Hilsner Case or Polná Affair) was a series of anti-semitic trials following an accusation of blood libel against Leopold Hilsner, a Jewish inhabitant of the village of Polná in Bohemia in 1899 and 1900. The affair achieved widespread media publicity at the time.
Anežka Hrůzová, a 19-year old Czech Catholic girl, living in Věžnička, a village two miles from Polná, and going every day to the city to work as a seamstress, left her place of employment on the afternoon of 29 March 1899, and did not return to her home. Three days later (1 April) her body was found in a forest, her throat having been cut and her garments torn. Nearby was a pool of blood, some blood-stained stones, parts of her garments, and a rope with which she had been either strangled to death or dragged, after the murder, to the place where the body was found.
The suspicion of the sheriff was first turned against four vagrants who had been seen in the neighborhood of the forest on the afternoon of the day when the murder was supposed to have been committed. Among them was Leopold Hilsner, a 23-year old Jew, a man of little intelligence, who had been a vagrant all his life. Suspicion against him was based on the fact that he had been frequently seen strolling in the forest where the body was found. A search of his house showed nothing suspicious. He claimed to have left the place on the afternoon of the murder long before it could have been committed; but he could not establish a perfect alibi. Hilsner was arrested and tried at Kutná Hora on 12–16 September. He denied all knowledge of the crime. The only object which could be used as evidence against him was a pair of trousers on which some stains were found that, according to the testimony of chemical experts, might have been blood, while the garment was wet as if an attempt had been made to wash it. Witness against him, who claimed to have seen Hilsner, at a distance of 2,000 feet, in company with two strange Jews, on the day on which the murder was supposed to have been committed and on the spot where the body was found. Another witness claimed to have seen him come from that place on the afternoon of 29 March and to have noticed that he was very much agitated. Both the state's attorney and the attorney for the Hrůza family Karel Baxa made clear suggestions of ritual murder. Testimony had proved that Hilsner was too weak to have committed the crime by himself. Still he was sentenced to death for participation in the murder, while his supposed accomplices were undiscovered and no attempt was made to bring them to justice.
On the ground of technicalities, an appeal was made by Tomáš Masaryk to the supreme court, which ordered a new trial, to be held at Písek in order to avoid intimidation of the jury by the mob, and that it might not be influenced by political agitation. On 20 September 1899, a few days after the first trial, Hilsner was frightened by his fellow prisoners, who showed him some carpenters working in the courtyard of the jail and told him that they were constructing a gallows for him. They persuaded him to give the names of his accomplices, as by doing so he would obtain a commutation of his sentence. Hilsner implicated Joshua Erbmann and Solomon Wassermann as those who had assisted him. Being brought before the judge on 29 September, he declared that this charge was false. On 7 October, however, he reiterated the charge, but again recanted on 20 November. Fortunately for those he had accused, they were able to prove perfect alibis, one of them having been in jail on the day of the murder, while the other proved, from certificates of poorhouses in Moravia which he had visited as a beggar, that he could not possibly have been in Polná on that day.
Meantime Hilsner was accused of another murder. Marie Klímová, a servant, had disappeared on 17 July 1898 and a female body found on 27 October following in the same forest where that of Anežka Hrůzová had been discovered, had, with great probability, been identified as that of the missing girl. Decomposition was, however, so advanced that not even the fact that the girl had been murdered could be established. Hilsner, charged with this crime also, was tried for both murders in Písek (25 October - 14 November 1900). The witnesses at this trial became more definite in their statements. Those that at the first trial had spoken of a knife which they had seen in Hilsner's possession, now asserted distinctly that it was such a knife as was used in ritual slaughtering. The strange Jews who were supposed to have been seen in company with Hilsner were more and more particularly described. When witnesses were shown that the testimony given by them at the second trial differed from that given at the first trial, they said either that they had been intimidated by the judge or that their statements had not been correctly recorded.
The verdict pronounced Hilsner guilty of having murdered both Anežka Hrůzová and Marie Klímová. He was sentenced to death (14 November 1900), but the sentence was commuted by the emperor to imprisonment for life. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the basis of an imperial reprieve on 11 June 1901, although a number of requests to renew the trial were turned down. Shortly before the end of the First World War (24 March 1918) Hilsner was pardoned by Karl I of Austria. He spent the rest of his life in Velké Meziříčí, Prague and Vienna; he died on 9 January 1928 at the age of 52 in Vienna. His verdict was never annulled, and no one else was ever charged with the murders. But in 1961, the brother of the murdered girl made a deathbed confession: he had murdered the girl so he would not have to pay her dowry.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: "Polna affair". Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.
See History of East European Jews, Heiko Haumman, CEU Press (2002), at 200-01.