Commemorative postcard celebrating the role played by lawyer Oskar Osipovich Gruzenberg (right) and Rabbi Iakov Maze (left) in the acquittal of Mendel Beilis, a Jew accused of murdering a Christian boy in Kiev in 1911 for ritual purposes. Postcard printed by H. Goldberg, ca. 1920. (YIVO)

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Gruzenberg, Oskar Osipovich

(1866–1940), lawyer, communal advocate, and chief counsel of Mendel Beilis. Born in Ekaterinoslav, in 1876 Gruzenberg moved with his family to Kiev, where he attended a Russian gymnasium. Upon earning a law degree from Saint Vladimir University in 1889, Gruzenberg moved to Saint Petersburg to begin his profession. Despite his talents, he remained an apprentice lawyer until 1905 because of a government decree that admitted non-Christians to the bar only by personal authorization from the minister of justice.

In his career, Gruzenberg embodied the new ethos of the legal profession after the 1864 judiciary reforms. Accordingly, he felt a sense of duty to defend the individual’s rights from the authority of the state. He specialized in cassation (appellate) proceedings, in which the State Senate and Main Court Martial reviewed lower court rulings. He developed a reputation as a brilliant legal defender and represented prominent Russian writers (such as Maksim Gorky and Vladimir G. Korolenko), revolutionaries (including Leon Trotsky and other participants in the First Soviet of Workers’ Deputies), politicians (including the deputies of the First Duma who signed the Vyborg Proclamation of 1906), and ordinary workers.

Although Gruzenberg associated with Russian professional elites and identified with Russian culture, he maintained a great sense of responsibility to the Jewish community. With other prominent Jewish lawyers, he used the reformed courts to combat discrimination against Jews, albeit with limited success. During the waves of pogroms in the early 1900s, for example, Gruzenberg sought not only to secure reparations for Jewish victims in Kishinev (1903) and Minsk (1905), but also to demonstrate official complicity. To his dismay, the Kishinev court rejected accusations of state involvement, issued lenient sentences to the perpetrators, and denied the civil suits filed by Jewish plaintiffs. Gruzenberg did, however, secure the commutation of Pinkhas Dashevskii’s five-year sentence for attacking Pavolakii Krushevan, the editor of Bessarabets responsible for instigating the Kishinev pogroms.

Gruzenberg’s unwavering belief in the law was most apparent during the blood libel trials of David Blondes and Mendel Beilis. When a lower court in Vilna determined that Blondes, a physician’s assistant, had had no intent to kill his Polish domestic servant when he injured her in 1900, blood libel accusations against him nevertheless persisted. Whereas Jewish communal leaders were willing to accept the court’s decision because Blondes received a relatively lenient sentence, Gruzenberg insisted on an appeal and obtained an acquittal in 1902. The culminating point of his career followed 11 years later, when he served as the chief counsel for Mendel Beilis, accused of murdering a Christian boy in Kiev in 1911 for ritual purposes. This sensationalized trial, the subject of international attention, pitted Gruzenberg against a government intent on obtaining a conviction at any cost. Ultimately, Gruzenberg was able to discredit the prosecution’s witnesses and convinced a peasant jury to acquit Beilis in October 1913, severely damaging the credibility of the old regime.

During World War I, Gruzenberg defended numerous Jews who had been charged with espionage, treason, and collaboration with the German army. As in the blood libel cases, Gruzenberg was concerned not only about the fates of individuals, but about the collective honor of the Jewish community. In one instance, a military investigator charged that the entire Jewish community of Marijampole had denied assistance to the Russian army and had aided the Germans; the indictment focused specifically on a man named Herschanovich (Gershanovich; first name unrecorded), whom the Germans had allegedly picked as the new mayor. He was convicted and sentenced to eight years of hard labor. When Gruzenberg received a petition from Herschanovich’s family to reopen the case based on new evidence, he admitted that there was no “technical rationale” for an appeal but nonetheless took the case. By proving that one witness, who was later convicted of treason, had given false testimony, and by obtaining a favorable report from the local gendarme, Gruzenberg secured a retrial and had the original verdict overturned.

Also among Gruzenberg’s clients were various Zionist activists of the early twentieth century, including members of the Central Zionist Committee in Vilna and Avraam Idel’son, the editor of Razsvet (The Dawn). According to a close acquaintance, Gruzenberg never officially joined the Zionist movement in Russia, but remained sympathetic to its goals to the end of his life.

Gruzenberg also fought social injustice through his political activities. In 1905 he joined the Konstitutsionno-Demokraticheskaia Partiia (Constitutional Democratic Party; Kadet), primarily due to its platform to create a constitutional government based on religious and ethnic tolerance and civil liberties. He regularly called for equal rights and integration of the Jews into Russian society in such publications as Budushchnost’ (The Future), which was edited by his brother Semen, and Voskhod (Sunrise). Following the Revolution of 1905, he ran as a deputy for the First Duma in Vilna but lost, despite the solid reputation he had gained from the Blondes case. Later, he served on the advisory council to the Jewish representatives of the Third and Fourth Dumas. After the February Revolution of 1917, Alexander Kerensky appointed him senator in the criminal cassation department of the Senate, where he played an active role in the reform of legal statutes. Following the October Revolution, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly, but due to illness, he missed its famous one-day session.

After the rise of Soviet power, Gruzenberg found himself excluded from law and politics. He moved to Tbilisi to live with his brother Matvei and later relocated, first to Kiev and then to Odessa. In 1921 he immigrated to Berlin and in 1926, to Riga, where he established the Russian Juridical Society. In 1929 he represented the Jews of Riga at the World Zionist Congress in Zurich. Gruzenberg lived in Nice in the 1930s and died there in 1940. In 1950, as requested in his last will, his remains were taken to Israel for reburial.

Suggested Reading

Oskar Gruzenberg, Vchera: Vospominaniia (Paris, 1938); Oskar Gruzenberg, Ocherki i rechi (New York, 1944); Oskar Gruzenberg, Memoirs of a Russian-Jewish Lawyer, ed. Don C. Rawson (Berkeley, 1981); S. L. Kucherov, Kniga o russkom evreistve ot 1860-kh godov do revoliutsii 1917 goda (New York, 1960), pp. 400–437.