The Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel: Image and Propaganda

[This article is part of the Open Peer Review-Publication series “Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitism in International Perspective”]

von Daniel Véri

This study aims to reconstruct and analyse the anti-Semitic visual reception history of the Tiszaeszlár blood libel case from the time of the affair (1882–83) up until today. It examines images created in connection with the blood libel together with their usage and function as instruments of anti-Semitic propaganda. It underlines the power of images by highlighting their role in the establishment and institutionalisation of an anti-Semitic, pseudo-religious cult centred around the figure of the alleged victim of the ritual murder accusation. Furthermore, the study identifies the main actors, their motivations, objectives and strategies, while also exploring the economical aspect of the phenomenon: the production, circulation, multiplication and distribution of anti-Semitic imagery. The Tiszaeszlár affair occurred in Hungary, but it received immediate attention in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy as well as beyond. As for the anti-Semitic, artistic reception history of the case, it is a transnational phenomenon as it involves material and sources from a myriad of countries ranging from Russia to the United States.

Tiszaeszlár blood libel: a cultural history

On 1 April, 1882, Eszter Solymosi, a young peasant girl went missing in the village of Tiszaeszlár, Eastern Hungary. Soon local Jews were accused of ritual murder; it was claimed that they needed the Christian girl’s blood for the approaching Passover to make the Matzot, the unleavened bread. (The historical Eszter Solymosi most probably drowned in the river Tisza, her – unharmed – body was found nearby at the shore.) From village rumours the case grew to gain nationwide importance as MPs Géza Ónody and Győző Istóczy – future founders of the Anti-Semitic Party – introduced the case at the Hungarian Parliament. During the investigation – which did not lack premeditated elements – Móric Scharf, son of a defendant was forced to make a false testimony. The trial was held during the summer of 1883, the defence had been led by lawyer Károly Eötvös, a well-known liberal politician at the time. At the end of the Europe-wide disputed, infamous case all of the defendants were cleared of the charges.[1]

The cultural history of this blood libel is characterized by a rather strange phenomenon: Tiszaeszlár appears to be a key issue of identity for two distinct groups; Hungarian anti-Semites and Hungarian artists of Jewish descent are equally invested in the case. Artistically or culturally significant works authored outside these two groups are extremely rare. The cultural production related to this blood libel is extremely rich. It includes multiple genres: literary works (poems, dramas, novels, an essay), artworks (paintings, drawings, caricatures, prints, a relief), music (polka, folk songs, rock songs, operas) and films as well as popular myths and folklore.[2]

The interpretations of the Tiszaeszlár case show profound affinity with Hungary’s social and political history. On the one hand, Tiszaeszlár has always been inevitably thematised when the extreme right had gained momentum; on the other hand, interpretations by Jewish artists are connected to the emergence of both hidden and open anti-Semitism, and on a symbolic level, to the Holocaust. Contemporary politics have always been a major factor for both the genesis and the understanding of these works.

The creators and the public of the anti-Semitic, blood libel related works belong to subsequent yet interrelated anti-Semitic subcultures present from 1882 up to this day. In the following study I will concentrate exclusively on the visual material, but it has to be kept in mind that their primary context, Tiszaeszlár’s wider anti-Semitic cultural tradition includes literature, folklore, and music as well as an unfinished film.

The alleged victim: an imaginary portrait

The first and – concerning its long lasting effect – the most important work of art related to the case was the imaginary portrait of the alleged victim, Eszter Solymosi. It is rather early work, created less than three months after Ónody’s speech in the parliament.[3] On 12 August the press reported that a young painter called Lajos Ábrányi set out to paint the portrait of the missing girl, based on the features of her sister and descriptions made by her acquaintances.[4] Ábrányi was an editor of local newspapers in the city of Nyíregyháza, situated approximately 25 kilometres away from Tiszaeszlár. He received his artistic training in Munich and in Paris, later he became an established portraitist in Hungary.[5] The sources are contradicting concerning the exact chronology, but it seems that by the end of August the painting had already been completed.[6] Apparently sketches or even parts of the painting were made on the spot, however the work was certainly finished in the painter’s studio.[7] Judging from the girl’s supposedly authentic attire it is clear that Ábrányi made good use of further sources: the descriptions given in the missing person report and during the investigation.[8] At the end of the month a local newspaper – founded two years before under the editorship of Ábrányi himself – reported that the painter was about to finish his work and would hand it over to a Hungarian or foreign art dealer in order to create reproductions and to sell the painting itself.[9] This episode indicates that Ábrányi created the image out of his own initiative, because – knowing, as an editor, the workings of the press and public opinion – he saw it as a good financial opportunity. However – as we will see – he found a much better marketing agent than a simple art dealer: the local MP, Géza Ónody.

Before discussing his role, let us turn our attention to Ábrányi’s work. Unfortunately there is no information about the painting’s whereabouts – its last track dates back to 1883 –, but we can judge it after a reproduction, a detailed drawing. It was a full figure representation of the girl, described in the sources as a semi-life-size painting.[10] (According to my estimate that would be an 80 x 45 centimetre large canvas.[11]) Concerning the facial features and the clothes, the painting might be considered – as much as an imaginary portrait could be – authentic. The painter worked carefully, after descriptions, the sister’s figure and advice from the girl’s relatives, almost as a forensic sketch artist.[12] The setting of the figure however – and thus the overall message of the work – is far from being descriptive or objective. Behind the girl we see a path, leading to the Tiszaeszlár synagogue and the temple servant’s house: this turns the portrait into a narrative image, suggesting the ritual murder of the girl.

The painting was finished just in time for Ónody to bring it with himself to Dresden, where he took part at the first International Anti-Jewish Congress, which opened on 11 September, at the Festsaal of Helbig’s Etablissement located in the city centre.[13] Before the congress Hungarian press reported that Ábrányi was already painting the portrait of Móric Scharf, the Jewish boy, who made a false testimony confirming the ritual murder.[14] Later, it was stated that Ónody planned to bring this second portrait to Dresden as well, but Ábrányi did not manage to finish it in time.[15] Strangely enough, after this episode there is no trace of the second painting.

Eszter Solymosi’s portrait was hung at the venue of the congress in illustrious company: the podium was decorated with the busts of the German emperor, the king of Saxony and the Austrian emperor, while Bismarks’s framed letter thanking the greetings sent to him by the Dresden anti-Semitic Deutscher Reformverein adorned the wall.[16] This kind of decoration aimed to lend an air of authority to the meeting.[17]

Ónody held his speech in front of the painting, maximising the emotional effect offered by this theatrical setting.[18] He talked about the girl’s alleged fate, »whose body was dismembered by Hebrew vandalism«.[19] He described vividly the effect the painting made on him: he saw »those closed lips move, those hands raise towards the sky«.[20] According to his account the picture was created by »the spirit of memory« in Tiszaeszlár at the presence of the girl’s family and acquaintances, who all found the portrait life-like.[21] Ónody underlined the authenticity of the painting with an anecdotic account: when the painting was introduced to the mother, »for a moment her sad face brightened up with the sweet joy of reunion and she cried out: ›This is my good child, my poor little Eszter! As if she herself were standing in front of me! She looked exactly alike!‹«[22] Ónody coloured the ›objective authenticity‹ of the painting masterfully with an emotional overtone. He summarized his objective and the potential of the painting as follows: »This image will always be, until Christianity exists, the symbol of Jewish religious fanaticism, it will always be a symbol of the intolerance of that race.« He was right: the painting served as a basis and starting point for the future cult of Eszter Solymosi.

After Dresden Ónody continued his journey to Berlin, where Ernst Henrici organized an anti-Semitic gathering on 14 September at the Bockbrauerei; Here Ónody held his speech with the same mise-en-scène as before.[23] According to the report of the Viennese liberal newspaper, Neue Freie Presse, the public was invited to view the painting for an entry fee of 50 pfennigs.[24] The next day the local Hungarian newspaper – formerly edited by Ábrányi – reported that the painting was already in Hamburg and the past and future income was handled by Henrici, who was going to send the revenue to the painter.[25] By mid December the work arrived back in Hungary: from 18 December it was exhibited in the restaurant of the Hotel Pannonia for a 30 kreuzers entrance fee.[26] According to the reports of the press, at the beginning of January the owner of the restaurant confiscated the work, because the painter was not able to provide the rental fee.[27] Unfortunately after this incident, we lose track of the work.

Ábrányi and Ónody had a fruitful and lucrative cooperation. Ábrányi found the impresario he was looking for, who helped him to capitalise on the affair, while Ónody received perfect visual support for his anti-Semitic propaganda. Their harmonic association was not applauded by every branch of the press: the liberal humorous periodical Borsszem Jankó did not miss an occasion to have a laugh at the two gentlemen’s expense.[28] After the Dresden congress, the paper published a caricature showing Ónody as a sideshow operator, pulling the curtain aside to show the attraction – the portrait – to the audience.[29] Indeed, the way Ónody illustrated his narrative about the alleged murder was very much like the role of the Bänkelsänger at a county fair.

Ónody’s and Ábrányi’s cooperation did not end after the German tour of the painting. At the beginning of 1883 Ónody published a book about the affair in Hungarian and in a subsequent German edition.[30] The books were published by the Imre Bartalits company, which was essential for contemporary anti-Semitic subculture as it published a wide scale of anti-Semitic products, such as books, a blood libel related musical score, as well as humorous periodicals.[31] Both editions of Ónody’s book contained a drawing after Ábrányi’s painting, made by draughtsman Zoltán Csörgey, who worked regularly for Bartalits.[32] His drawing is very detailed, the only apparent change is that he rounded off the edges of the rectangular image, probably in order to imitate a photographic portrait, thus enhancing the illusion of authenticity.

A second wave of portraits were created during the summer of 1883, at the time of the trial. Considering the limited availability of the painting compared to the drawing reproduced in Ónody’s books, it was most probably Csörgey’s work that served as a model. In an illustrated weekly, a rather roughly sketched drawing appeared, showing only two thirds of the original figure, without the background, while an anti-Semitic political daily newspaper published a quality drawing of the girl’s bust.[33] After the trial, advertisements appeared in the anti-Semitic, humorous periodicals published by Bartalits, first in the Hungarian, then in the German version.

They advertised zincographic portraits of »the martyr girl of Christianity«, created after Ábrányi’s painting.[34] The international interest invested in the case prompted further illustrations, based on the painting and its derivatives. The new renderings were most probably created in order to avoid copyright issues. An 1883 book published in German language in New York contains a rather detailed and authentic graphic interpretation.[35] Contrarily, the illustrator of a Berlin publication from the same year changed both the background and the figure: not being aware of its significance, he omitted the synagogue, and familiarised the girl with the figure of Little Red Riding Hood by adding a woven basket.

The rapid multiplication and international distribution of Ábrányi’s composition attests to the power of images. The creation of Eszter’s portrait made the alleged victim visible, thus facilitated the emotional identification and it contributed to the possibility of visualising the ritual murder. As we will see, this was the first and essential step towards establishing a pseudo-religious, anti-Semitic cult.

Ritual murder visualised: the Zagreb painting

Ábrányi’s work only hinted at the ritual murder by presenting in the background the supposed murder scene, the synagogue, but soon open representations, anti-Semitic propaganda works were created, which showed the alleged ritual murder.

A most probably large size painting was created in Zagreb before the beginning of October 1882. Unfortunately the painting and its photographic reproductions are lost, but a detailed description and a related drawing is at our disposal. The case, based on the reports published in Croatian, Austrian and Hungarian press can be summarised as follows.[36] In Zagreb, the Trieste-born painter, named – depending on the sources – Ernst or Josip or Giuseppe Novak painted a canvas representing the ritual murder of Eszter Solymosi and started selling photographic reproductions of it. Local police arrested the painter and following a house search destroyed the photos together with its »Matrize«, that is the photographic original. Citizens who owned copies were summoned by the police, but the painter was released from preventive custody.

On 11 October, an MP showed around a copy of the photo at the Hungarian Parliament, while the next day an anti-Semitic daily newspaper published an article which included a detailed description of the work, stating the possibility of mail order together with the painter’s address.[37] Earlier, Croatian newspapers only stated that the painting represented the murder of Eszter Solymosi in the synagogue of Tiszaeszlár.[38] For its turn, an article published in Vienna gave a short, general description: Eszter is strapped to a bench, where the slaughterer cuts her neck while another Jew collects her blood into a bowl.[39] Unlike the previous reporters, the editor of the Hungarian newspaper, a future member of the Anti-Semitic Party, Gyula Verhovay, presumably had the chance to take a good look at the photo, although some parts of the description might be exaggerated out of poetic fervour.

According to the article, the scene is set in the anteroom of the synagogue, with candles lit in the chandelier and the tablets of the Ten Commandments on the wall. Eszter lies naked on the table, facing its top, her legs are bound, her neck is cut and her blood is flowing into a bowl below. The ritual butcher is holding her head by the hair with his right hand, with the left one he pushes her back down, holding the bloody knife in between his teeth. An old Jew holds her legs straight, another one presses her waist onto the table. A Jewish woman is bringing an empty bowl in order to change it for the filled one. Around the table an old Jew in a »praying cloak« and a rabbi in religious attire are praying, looking up with hands folded.[40]

If the above description is correct, there were seven figures on the painting, which should have therefore been a rather sizeable canvas. Unfortunately so far the painting has not surfaced, nor did its reproduction, while the archive of the Police Directorate of Zagreb does not hold the files of the affair.[41] The painter himself is barely known, only little information is available about him in the Fine Arts Archive of the Croatian Academy.[42] He exhibited in Zagreb in 1881 and 1882, but after the affair there is no trace of him, according to a short biographic note his disappearance might be due to serving time in the Lepoglava prison. The accuracy of this information and its connection to the affair remains uncertain.

Nonetheless, the immediate influence of the painting is attested by a drawing that appeared in two anti-Semitic humorous magazines published by Bartalits, the Hungarian Füstölő and its German counterpart, the Rebach.[43] The drawing was included in the first issues that followed the appearance of the painting’s reproduction in Budapest – surprisingly enough, until then no visualisation of the alleged ritual murder had been published. The draughtsman was the same as the one who reproduced Eszter Solymosi’s imaginary portrait: Zoltán Csörgey.[44] The image is part of a ›historical‹ parallel: the left page entitled »In the 1st century (according to the Jewish calendar)« shows the sacrifice of Isaac, the one on the right – »In the 57th century (according to the Jewish calendar)« represents the blood libel. The latter is not identical with the description of Novak’s work, but still attests to its influence. Contrarily to Novak’s seven figures there are six people in the foreground, plus eight in the background. Eszter is on the table, her blood is flowing to the bowl, the butcher and the praying Jews are present, as well as the Ten Commandments on the wall. The description – apart from the religious attire – did not say anything particular about the social status of the participants. Csörgey’s drawing however suggests a Jewish conspiracy by representing people of different social standing: men in top hats, in ordinary clothes and a stereotypically eastern Jew with a fur hat, who is filling a large mug with the girl’s blood.

Novak’s painting and its reception shows that although the visualisation of a contemporary sensation, a ritual murder accusation was potentially lucrative. Yet in the context of the end of the 19th century Austro-Hungarian Monarchy the distribution of such anti-Semitic representations had its legal limits.

 Ritual murder visualised: the pseudo-Munkácsy painting

Contrarily to the limited outreach of Novak’s work, another monumental painting from the same period depicting a blood libel had larger success. The work surfaced in 2013 in Hungarian and subsequently in international press.[45] Its theme was identified as the Tiszaeszlár blood libel with a rather dubious attribution to Mihály Munkácsy (1844–1900), a successful Hungarian painter, who lived in Paris. Although we can exclude the authorship of Munkácsy and due to lack of evidence we cannot confirm a direct relation to Tiszaeszlár, the painting and especially its reception history has interesting connections to the Hungarian case. Furthermore, from the genesis and the usage of the painting we can learn much about the mechanisms of the turn of the century art-related sector of anti-Semitic economy.

The painting is a monumental, 225 x 392 centimetres large canvas of rather good quality representing life-size figures.[46] The scene is set in a space defined only by an entrance at the left and illuminated by the lit candles of a metal chandelier. A pale blond woman is lying naked on a table or a pulpit covered with red textile. Jewish men are holding her still in order to enable a stereotypically eastern looking Jew in a fur hat and coat to cut her. Another Jew starts either to devour her right arm or drink blood from a wound, a further one is about to drive a nail in or pull one out of her left palm. A man kneeling in front of her holds a bowl under her stomach wounds for the blood, while another wearing a tallit is standing on the right, waiting with an empty brass bowl in his hands. On the left side of the painting some people are looking at the scene, others are turning away from it, one of the latter, a woman is holding nails in her open palm. The characters and their clothes represent people of different social backgrounds: clerical, bourgeois, rural, eastern, Sephardic, etc.

The sources about the work are rather contradicting and biased: mostly anti-Semitic and liberal newspapers were interested in the painting, yet both had their own agenda when writing about it. First, we should therefore examine the evidence offered by the work itself. The style and quality suggest a rather good but not extraordinary painter with academic training from the end of the 19th century. The current state of the painting shows alterations by the artist and some later repainting; for example opposite of the current chandelier another one appears to have been painted.[47] The nails and the position of the girl’s arms make an allusion to the crucifixion of Christ. Besides the work’s obviously anti-Jewish message the painter also aimed to gain the potential public’s attention with the attractive female body arranged in an erotic, almost pornographic pose. The size of the canvas suggests that the painter either had a prospective, wealthy buyer or some kind of defined financial plan: a work of this size depicting a blood libel is not likely to be painted for stock.

Although it is evident that the painting represents a blood libel, it is uncertain, which one. The work offers two defining features: the perpetrators, a large group and the victim, a young blond woman. From the blood libels of the period which ended with a trial, the gender of the alleged victim excludes Xanten (1891), Konitz (1900), and Kiev (1911).[48] What remains is Kutaisi (1878), Tiszaeszlár and Polná (1899, the Hilsner affair). The age however is against Kutaisi, where the alleged victim was only a child and unfavourable towards Tiszaeszlár, as Eszter Solymosi was only over 14, while the age of Anežka Hrůzová (Polná) suits the painting best. Contrarily, the large number of the alleged perpetrators would suggest either Kutaisi or Tiszaeszlár. However, if there was another monumental painting of Tiszaeszlár, it should have surfaced in contemporary Hungarian press. It is therefore possible that the painting is only inspired by the cases and is not representing a specific one, or it is connected to a lesser known accusation that ended without a trial.

Considering the composition, it is possible to identify its probable source. If we take into account the significant financial investment, it is likely that – as a skilled anti-Semite – the painter or more likely the sponsor had knowledge of the history of blood libels, amongst which the case of Simon of Trent (1475) was the most persistent and the most widespread. The case coincided with the blossoming of woodblock printing: after an earlier woodcut, a more detailed illustration entered the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel.[49] The pseudo-Munkácsy painting shows several parallels with the iconography of Simon of Trent. The allusion to the crucifixion is a commonplace, while the position of the ritual butcher could be a coincidence. Contrarily, the kneeling figure on the right holding the bowl and the only female perpetrator on the left side, holding nails is her hand shows that the composition has certainly been made with the knowledge of its 15th century prefiguration. This could have served simply to facilitate the arrangement of the figures or was more likely used in order to achieve some sort of authenticity by the usage of an authoritative model.

Traces of the painting can be attested in international press between 1898 and 1914. Luckily enough, an article from Zemscina (1914) contains a photograph, which makes it possible to identify the work mentioned in the sources with the pseudo-Munkácsy painting.[50] Most of the articles were inspired by Aleksandr Stolypin’s writing published in the St. Petersburg newspaper Novoye Vremya, entitled The Triumph of Mendel Beilis.[51] In the last paragraph the brother of the late Russian prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin wrote that he met the owner of Munkácsy’s work depicting the blood libel. According to Stolypin, the victim, the young blond girl symbolises the Slavs, while the perpetrators are modelled after Jewish leaders, including Rothschild and Montefiore. The latter is most probably Moses Montefiore (1784–1885), but is seems impossible to name the former due to the large number of probable candidates from the Rothschild family. Nonetheless, it is not possible to identify either of them on the painting: the figures represent types rather than portraits; the names must have been part of Stolypin’s or the owner’s marketing invention.

The news of the article reached Munkácsy’s widow, who wrote a letter denying the authorship of the painting.[52] Her account includes important information: 15–16 years ago there had already been an attempt to exhibit the painting in Paris with the false attribution, but Munkácsy had the exhibition closed. Later the same happened in Brussels where he also intervened. We have two further important sources from 1914: an anti-Semitic article published in Zemscina (St. Petersburg) which covers the painting’s provenance from 1908 and a reader’s letter in the liberal Kievskaya Misl (Kiev) by professor Traszcevszky, who clarifies the genesis of the work.[53] The Hungarian newspaper Világ published a particular explanation: the journalist recalled a work by Ábrányi, which according to him depicted the Tiszaeszlár blood libel.[54] The author’s information, who did not see the painting himself, was only half correct; Ábrányi’s work – as we have already seen – showed Eszter Solymosi’s portrait instead of the alleged murder.

Unfortunately we do not have independent sources confirming every aspect, but the story of the painting can be more or less reconstructed. The work was commissioned by Kajetan Babetzky, a landowner in Galicia from a Russian painter living in Krakow. Babetzky’s first artistic-financial venture was the ordering of another painting from the same artist, depicting the 1889 suicide of Austrian archduke Rudolf and his lover. He planned to exhibit the painting in Paris in order to capitalise on the tragedy, but the exhibition was banned. He ordered the second painting of the blood libel and exhibited it – with an attribution to Munkácsy – in Warsaw, but the exhibition was banned by the authorities within a couple of days.[55] Before or during 1898 the painting was exhibited in Paris under Munkácsy’s name, but the painter had the exhibition closed.[56] In 1898 the painting was exhibited in Brussels, not stating directly but at least hinting at Munkácsy’s authorship, until the painter – or, due to his illness more likely his wife – intervened.[57] At some point the work might have also been exhibited in Vienna.[58] The painting was in Warsaw before 1908, when it was exhibited in St. Petersburg. Following a scandal the work was removed; at this occasion the owner attributed it to the famous Polish painter Henryk Siemiradzki.[59] After 1908 it belonged to a Polish club, after its bankruptcy the painting was sold at an auction and changed owners subsequently at a number of occasions until 1914. According to the current owner it reached the United Kingdom through Finland following the 1917 revolution.[60]

In 1898 an anti-Semitic article in Le Vingtième Siècle applauded the painting on the occasion of its exhibition in Brussels.[61] The paper provided a detailed description, an attribution and identified its source of inspiration. It was stated that although the painter was veiled in anonymity, the work should be attributed to Munkácsy. (The exhibition’s advertisement in L’ Indépendance Belge did not name the author, only the title: »Meurtre rituel«.[62]) The article identifies the blood libel of »Gram-Kissale (Hongrie), en février 1875« as the painter’s source of inspiration. The author adds that the editor of a Berlin newspaper who denounced the affair, was brought before the Prussian tribunal, but he had been acquitted. In fact, a blood accusation did occur in Garam-Kis-Salló (today Šalov, Slovakia) in 1895 that ended with the accused suing the writer of the accusatory article.[63] The editor of the Berlin newspaper can be identified as Karl Sedlatzek, who stood trial in February 1896.[64] The Garam-Kis-Salló case – which had an alleged child victim and only one alleged perpetrator – is so marginal that the author’s information could only have originated from prior knowledge of the Berlin case or from the owner of the painting. Either way, the function of bringing up a Hungarian case was to affirm the authorship of the famous Hungarian painter; the work’s connection to Garam-Kis-Salló remains rather unlikely.

We can conclude that the work was probably painted after 1889 and before 1897 in Warsaw by a Russian painter who received academic training. It is depicting a blood libel in general, inspired by contemporary cases, most likely Kutaisi (1878) and Tiszaeszlár (1882), the composition is informed by the iconography of Simon of Trent. What is even more interesting, is the usage of such a monumental anti-Semitic propaganda painting. It was created as a business venture with two complementing goals, both building upon the anticipated scandal as a marketing tool. One was to generate income from exhibitions all around Europe, the other was to sell the painting at a high price. The tool which served to increase both public interest and potential price of the work was, in part, the alleged attribution. Munkácsy was a well-known brand, his name had been connected to the painting the most often, however when the work was transported from Warsaw to St. Petersburg, another great name had been used, that of Siemiradzki. In all the cases the anti-Semitic entrepreneur built the business upon the false attribution and the scandalous topic, as well as the almost pornographic nature of the depiction. A time window was always available from the opening of the exhibition until the regular intervention of the authorities due to the depicted theme or the false attribution. The known locations of the exhibitions are of equal importance: in St. Petersburg it was the Passazh, in Brussels the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.[65] Both were prestigious, glass covered shopping arcades, having thus the potential to reach the well-off bourgeoisie. The functioning, usage and the European tour of this anti-Semitic painting reminds us of Eszter Solymosi’s portrait. Both cases are meaningful examples of the mechanisms of the anti-Semitic sector of economy at the turn of the century.

A martyr in the making

Although the following chapters of the Tiszaeszlár blood libel’s visual reception history are rather recent, it does not by far mean that the anti-Semitic culture built upon the case stayed dormant for a century. The affair remained a popular topic, brought up time to time by the extreme right for political reasons; anti-Semitic cultural products were equally created. The memoirs of the investigator who led the biased process were published first in 1933, and subsequently in 1941, 1942, and 1944.[66] A well-known poet, József Erdélyi wrote a scandalous poem, entitled Eszter Solymosi’s Blood in 1937, which in turn inspired rock songs in the 1990s.[67] During 1944 preparations were on the way for an anti-Semitic propaganda film about Tiszaeszlár.[68] The script writer of the film, a vigorous anti-Semite, Lajos Marschalkó published a book about the case already in 1943, and, living abroad as an émigré, touched upon the topic in another publication in 1965.[69] Furthermore, the deeply enrooted culture of folk songs and myths related to Tiszaeszlár – which are attested from 1882 up until the 1970s – can be identified, as the major factors behind the appearance of blood libel accusations against survivors of the Holocaust after the Second World War.[70] Under communist rule however, it was prohibited to create overtly anti-Semitic cultural products, thus the new wave of such works arrived only after 1989.[71]

Besides the revival of Eszter Solymosi’s imaginary portrait, which will be examined in the next part of the study, two further works were created, showing the girl as a Christian martyr.  Both were published on, the major news portal of the Hungarian extreme right.[72] The first was created in 2008 by an unknown artist, the second – inspired by the previous one – in 2009 by painter Tamás Molnár. Both works show the girl on the side of the enthroned Christ: he is introducing the girl, who is pointing at her neck wound.

The model of both images is the same: the email cloisonné Pantocrator plaque on the front of the so called Holy Crown of Hungary, a medieval object of prestigious Byzantine origin. The choice of model is rather significant: the crown is a major symbol for the right and a cultic object for extremists. The political importance of the crown goes back to centuries, but its recent history started after the fall of communism. As part of a political compromise, the coat of arms of the new Republic of Hungary included the crown. It was a valued object of the Hungarian National Museum until year 2000 when it was brought to the Parliament by the governing right wing party.[73] The 2011 new constitution introduced by the same party includes the Holy Crown, which, according to the preamble, »embodies the unity of the nation«.[74] The crown today occupies a central position in the mythology of the extreme right as well.

This background makes the artists’ choice self-evident. The second work, painted in an almost hyper-realistic style, includes another motif: on the girl’s skirt a mythical Hungarian bird – the so called turul – is depicted, which is another popular symbol for the extreme right.[75] Both of the artists attached a letter to their work, offering explanation. According to these, the first artist is an icon painter, who wished to remain anonymous due to the anticipated negative public reactions. The author of the second, more detailed painting however had no such deliberation; interestingly enough, the latter even proposed the establishment of a memorial day for the saint. The artists’ statements as well as the inscriptions on their works make it clear that they view Eszter Solymosi as a saint, as a Christian martyr. The two works attest to the confluence of two cults nurtured by the extreme right: that of Eszter Solymosi and the Holy Crown, which were integrated within these images in a pseudo-religious context.

Tiszaeszlár: a lieu de mémoire

The cult of Eszter Solymosi was formed step by step. First the doctrine of the blood libel appeared, supported by the believers, then a true image of the martyr and subsequently depictions of her suffering were created. The missing elements to complete this pseudo-religious cult – a location, a memorial day, and rituals – developed during the 1990s and the 2000s. The blood libel myth came to be reflected in the village itself: today, Tiszaeszlár has become a genuine pilgrimage site, a real lieu de mémoire for right wing extremists.[76]

The major step in this process was the creation of a memorial site. In 1992 a Hungarian émigré, living in Switzerland and in Spain, Csaba Kenessey contacted the municipal government of Tiszaeszlár, requesting permission to create a memorial for Eszter Solymosi.[77] Although his request has been declined, he was offered a slot in the local cemetery free of charge. In 1994 he erected there an empty tomb, with an inscription written in between quotation marks: »To the memory of my beloved daughter«, which anachronistically suggests that it was commissioned by Eszter Solymosi’s mother. The inscription is part of an origin-myth, intended to make the site more authentic. (As anti-Semites do not accept the identification of Eszter Solymosi with the drowned body found at the river shore, no remains were available to be buried.)

Although it is located in the cemetery, the empty grave is not really a tomb, instead it functions as a veritable memorial. From 1994 to 2000 no sources are available about the site; it appears that the yearly pilgrimage was first initiated by the neo-Nazi Hungarian National Front Line (HNFL) around the year 2000.[78] In 2003, on the 120th anniversary of the affair the number of participating organisations increased, as MIÉP, an extreme right party represented in the parliament laid their wreaths.[79] During the last decade the yearly pilgrimage at end of March or beginning of April – commemorating Eszter Solymosi’s alleged murder on 1 April 1882 – became regularly attended by numerous participants and a wide spectrum of extreme right organisations. An MP from the party Jobbik even held a speech in 2012 in the Hungarian Parliament, reviving the blood libel accusation.[80]

Most probably before 2003 but certainly by 2007 the HNFL created a separate memorial: a sculpted wooden cross, with Eszter Solymosi’s head in the middle medallion executed in high-relief.[81] The portrait has apparently been created after the graphic derivatives of Ábrányi’s work. The group is avoiding the public, the last known commemoration at their separate memorial dates back to 2010.[82]

In 2007 for the 125th anniversary an extremist organisation, Conscience ’88 attached a memorial plaque to the tomb erected in 1994, with a blurred image, a girl’s head with a scarf which is reminiscent of Ábrányi’s work. Since 2008 the Hungarian National Front is organising the program of the yearly pilgrimage to the cemetery; most of their flyers from 2009 to 2016 show the newspaper version of the imaginary portrait.[83]

2009 marked so far the most intriguing revival of Ábrányi’s portrait and its original function. The speeches that year were held in front of a redrawn, simplified, over life size version of Solymosi’s figure, with a sentence written at the bottom: »We will not forget!«. The setting and function of the image shows striking similarities with the mise-en-scène of Ónody’s speeches in 1882.

There are certain rituals connected to the site, which are repeated every year. Around 1 April, extremists travel to Tiszaeszlár to commemorate the alleged murder of the girl. The participants – some of them in paramilitary outfits –, equipped with different flags and signs showing their political affiliation take part in a procession, they attend a ceremony with speeches and leave their wreaths with different, anti-Semitic messages written on the attached ribbons.  From the site, the rituals, the accompanying propaganda and related visual material, it is evident that by today an anti-Semitic, pseudo-religious cult dedicated to Eszter Solymosi has been fully established.


Following the detailed analysis of the works and their usage it appears evident that Tiszaeszlár’s current, politically eminent status for right wing extremists is a result of a long process which started back in 1882. A wide spectrum of blood libel related cultural products – from which here only the visual ones were examined in depth – constitute a lineage of subsequent yet interrelated anti-Semitic subcultures. Through different periods, the usage and function of blood libel-related imagery show both direct connections and strong parallels. The striking survival and strength of the blood libel myth is ultimately the result of these very subcultures, their traditions, connections and cultural production.

The visual material analysed here had a strong potential to affect the viewer emotionally, the works were therefore ideal candidates for anti-Semitic propaganda. Besides the politically motivated actors it is also evident that anti-Semitism was a potentially lucrative economic sector. This is true to an even greater extent for blood libel related works of art, their reproduction, multiplication and distribution.

Thanks to the multinational background of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and to the immediate international interest, the visual reception history of the Tiszaeszlár blood libel is a characteristically transnational phenomenon. Although the cultural history of this blood libel appears to be uniquely rich, it is possible that other blood libels from the period might also offer interesting, yet under researched cultural aspects. As we have seen, in the case of Tiszaeszlár only few cultural products remained known and popular throughout the ages; most of them however disappeared from public discourse, while others stayed invisible due to the lack of focused research. For these reasons, other cases might also hold some previously unknown material, therefore a comparative cultural history of such famous cases in Central and Eastern Europe as the Hilsner affair or the Beilis affair might prove to be most rewarding in the future.


[1] Cf. the recent monograph about the affair: György Kövér, A tiszaeszlári dráma. Társadalomtörténeti látószögek (The Drama of Tiszaeszlár. Social Historical Viewpoints), Budapest 2011. I would like to thank the comments of Ágnes Fazakas and Lilian Gergely provided for the manuscript of this study.

[2] Cf. the author’s previous publications about different segments of the Tiszaeszlár blood libel’s cultural history. »Sír Solymosi Eszter« Vérvád és zene kapcsolata Erdélyi Józseftől az Egészséges Fejbőrig (»Eszter Solymosi is crying« Connections of Blood Libel and Music from József Erdélyi to the Healthy Scalp), forthcoming; A Sakter polkától az Egészséges Fejbőrig. A tiszaeszlári vérvád zenei szubkultúrái (Polka and Skinheads: Musical Subcultures of the Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel), in: Múlt és Jövő 1 (2016), forthcoming; »Szembenézni a magyar történelemmel«. Véri Dániel interjúja Sándor Ivánnal Tiszaeszlár című drámájáról és a hatvanas-hetvenes évekről (»Facing Hungarian History« Daniel Véri’s interview with Iván Sándor about his drama Tiszaeszlár and about the sixties-seventies), in: Iván Sándor, A tiszaeszlári per és 2015 (The Tiszaeszlár Trial and 2015), Budapest 2015, p. 215–226; A tiszaeszlári vérvád zenei feldolgozásai: hagyományok, interpretációk, narratívák (Musical Adaptations of the Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel: Traditions, Interpretations, Narratives), in: Múlt és Jövő 2 (2014), p. 23–36; »Leading the Dead« – The World of János Major, Budapest 2013, 14–29; Tiszaeszlár: The Site of an Alleged Ritual Murder, in: The Challenge of the Object. 33rd Conress of the International Committee of the History of Art: Post Graduate Program, Nuremberg 2012, p. 150–151; Több szólamban – Verzió egy koncepciós perre (Choir in Multiple Voices – Version for a Show Trial), in: Balkon 6 (2012), p. 22–23.

[3] Ónody’s speech: 23 May 1882. Kövér, A tiszaeszlári drama (see n. 1), p. 397–399.

[4] Fővárosi Lapok, 1882. 08. 12.

[5] Katalin Sz. Kürti, Debreceni képzőművészeti adattár (Debrecen Fine Arts Database), in: Márta Sz. Máthé, László Selmeczi (ed.), A Debreceni Déri Múzeum Évkönyve 1995–1996 (Yearbook of the Déri Museum in Debrecen), Debrecen 1998, p. 365.

[6] Függetlenség, 1882. 08. 24., cited by Kövér, A tiszaeszlári drama (see n. 1), p. 452; Nyírvidék, 1882. 08. 27., p. 3

[7] Nyírvidék, 1882. 08. 27., p. 3.

[8] For the descriptions, see Kövér, A tiszaeszlári drama (see n. 1), p. 447, 461.

[9] Nyírvidék, 1882. 08. 27., p. 3.

[10] Fővárosi Lapok 1882. 09. 08., p. 1286; Staatsbürger-Zeitung, 1882. 09. 12., cited by Ulrich Wyrwa, Die Internationalen Antijüdischen Kongresse von 1882 und 1883 in Dresden und Chemnitz. Zum Antisemitismus als europäischer Bewegung, in: Themenportal Europäische Geschichte, 2009 <>.

[11] The height of the drowned girl was 144 centimetres. Kövér, A tiszaeszlári drama (see n. 1), p. 465.

[12] Nyírvidék, 1882. 08. 27., p. 3.; 12 röpirat, 1882. 09. 15., 31; Géza Ónody, Tisza-Eszlár a multban és jelenben, 235; the two latter cited by Kövér, A tiszaeszlári drama (see n. 1), p. 453.

[13] 12 röpirat, 1882. 09. 15., p. 13.

[14] Pesti Napló, 1882. 09. 01., morning edition.

[15] Fővárosi Lapok 1882. 09. 08., p. 1286.

[16] 12 röpirat, 1882. 09. 15., p. 13.

[17] Earlier about the setting: Hillel J. Kieval, Antisémitisme ou savoir social? Sur la genèse du procès moderne pour meurtre ritual, in: Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 49/5 (1994), p. 1094–1095.

[18] 12 röpirat, 1882. 09. 15., p. 26, 30–31.

[19] 12 röpirat, 1882. 09. 15., p. 31.

[20] 12 röpirat, 1882. 09. 15., p. 30.

[21] 12 röpirat, 1882. 09. 15., p. 30.

[22] 12 röpirat, 1882. 09. 15., p. 31.

[23] 12 röpirat 1882. 10. 15., p. 5–6; Paul Nathan: Der Prozess von Tisza-Eszlár. Ein Antisemitisches Culturbild, Berlin 1892, p. 41. [cites Deutsche Tageblatt 1882. 09. 16.]

[24] Neue Freie Presse 1882. 09. 16., p. 4.

[25] It is unclear whether Ónody travelled to Hamburg, the article’s reference to Henrici’s role attests otherwise. Nyírvidék 1882. 10. 15., p. 3.

[26] Függetlenség 1882. 12. 17., p. 2; Fővárosi Lapok 1882. 12. 17., p. 1811; Függetlenség 1882. 12. 20., p. 2; Egyenlőség 1882. 12. 24., p. 9.;

[27] Egyenlőség 1883. 01. 07., p. 10; Fővárosi Lapok 1883. 01. 09.; Esztergom és vidéke 1883. 01. 21., p. 2.

[28] Borsszem Jankó 1882. 10. 01., p. 2; 1882. 10. 08., p. 2, 5; 1882. 12. 24, p. 5; 1882. 12. 24, p. 9.

[29] Borsszem Jankó 1882. 09. 17, p. 7.

[30] Ónody, Tisza-Eszlár 1883 (see n. 12); Géza Ónody, Tißa-Eßlár in der Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, Budapest 1883.

[31] About the eminent role of Bartalits: Véri, A Sakter polkától (see n. 2).

[32] His signed drawings are attested in Füstölő and in Rebach.

[33] Signed by Széchy [Gyula]. Függetlenség 1883. 07. 03., cited and reproduced by Kövér, A tiszaeszlári drama (see n. 1), 461–462.

[34] The quoted reference is included only in the Hungarian version. Füstölő 1883. 08. 15., s. p. and 09. 01., s. p.; Rebach 1883. 11. 01. (or 12. 01.), s. p.

[35] It is based either on Csörgey’s drawing, or on the zincography if the latter was made after the painting and not its graphic interpretation.

[36] Pozor 1882. 10. 09., p. 3.; Das Vaterland 1882. 10. 09., p. 3–4; Neuigkeits Welt Blatt 1882. 10. 11., p. 4; Agramer Zeitung 1882. 10. 12., p. 3; Függetlenség 1882. 10. 12., p. 1, 3; Fővárosi Lapok 1882. 10. 13., p. 1459, Das Vaterland 1882. 10. 14., p. 5 [quotes the report of Agramer Zeitung]; Borsszem Jankó 1882. 10. 15., p. 9; Borsszem Jankó 1882. 10. 22., p. 3. I would like to express my gratitude to Krunoslav Kamenov for sending me relevant sources (Pozor, Agramer Zeitung) and for helping my research in Zagreb in 2013.

[37] Függetlenség 1882. 10. 12., p. 1, 3.

[38] Pozor 1882. 10. 09., p. 3.

[39] Das Vaterland 1882. 10. 09., p. 3–4.

[40] Függetlenség 1882. 10. 12., p. 3.

[41] According to the list of files from the period held at the Croatian State Archives: 1.1.20. Redarstveno ravnatelstvjo u Zagrebu. Vodič (Police Directorate in Zagreb. Guide) 1850/1890, 1915/1916.

[42] Zagreb, Arhiv za likovne umjetnosti. Novak should not be confused with an Austrian painter from the period, Ernest Nowak. Thanks to the article published in Függetlenség, which calls the painter »Novák Ernő« (Hungarian equivalent of Ernest) it is evident that Ernest Novak (usually mentioned as E. Novak in the archive) and Josip or Guiseppe Novak are the same person.

[43] Füstölő 1882. 10. 01., p. 4–5; Rebach 1882. 12. 01., p. 6–7. Reproduced without commentary by János Gyurgyák, A zsidókérdés Magyarországon (The Jewish Question in Hungary), Budapest 2001, p. 341.

[44] The image on the right representing the blood libel is only signed with a monogram (Cs. Z.), the full name is written on the left drawing.

[45] András Földes, Munkácsy Mihály meztelen nőt ölő zsidókat festett? (Did Mihály Munkácsy Paint Jews Killing a Naked Woman?), in: index 2013. 03. 04. <>; Julia Michalska, Was Hungarian Star Artist an Anti-Semite?, in: The Art Newspaper, International Edition, 22/245 (April 2013), p. 9.

[46] I would like to thank Zsófia Végvári’s help, who brought my attention to the painting in 2012 and generously shared the information she had about the work. In 2012 with Jeffrey Taylor she had the opportunity to see the work in London and to perform a pigment analysis. According to her, the material would date the painting approximately to the 1880–1886 time period, sources however suggest a later execution. The current size of the canvas is given above, yet according to Végvári it is folded over the stretcher: originally it might have been cca. 8 centimetres larger.

[47] Repaints can be found on the stomach. (Zsófia Végvári’s observations.)

[48] For general information about the following affairs, see Hillel J. Kieval, Blood Libels and Host Desecration Accusations, in: YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 2011. <>.

[49] Martyrdom of Simon of Trent, woodcut, 273 x 293 mm, Nuremberg, 1475–1477 (Bibliothèque nationale de France), <>; Hartmann Schedel, Liber Chronicarum, Nuremberg 1493, fol. 254v.

[50] L. Zlotnikov, Ritualnaya Kartina (Ritual Painting), in: Zemscina 1914. 04. 18., p. 2. I received the article and its translation, provided by the owner from Zsófia Végvári.

[51] A[leksandr] Stolypin: The Triumph of Mendel Beilis, in: Novoye Vremya 1914. 02. 17., p. 4. I would like to thank Edit Berger for the transliteration of the article.

[52] The following newspapers quote her letter in full length: Pester Lloyd 1914. 04. 03., p. 10; Világ 1914. 04. 04., p. 8.; Neue Freie Presse 1914. 04. 04., p. 7–8.

[53] Since I was not able to locate the original article: Kievskaya Misl, after 1914. 02. 17., before 04. 18., I am refering to a Hungarian article, which quotes it: Az Est 1914. 04. 04., p. 3.

[54] Világ 1914. 04. 04., p. 8. (Published by Péter Molnos on Facebook in 2013.)

[55] Az Est 1914. 04. 04., p. 3.

[56] See n. 52.

[57] Ibid.; Le Vingtième Siècle 1898. 06. 18., p. 1. ; L’ Indépendance Belge 1898. 06. 17., p. 3.

[58] La Croix 1914. 04. 09., p. 1. A later reference (04. 15., p. 1) was published by Földes, Munkácsy Mihály 2013 (see n. 45).

[59] L. Zlotnikov, Ritualnaya Kartina (Ritual Painting), in: Zemscina 1914. 04. 18., p. 2.

[60] Lajos Csordás, Munkácsy vagy látszólag hanyag tanítványa festette a Vérvádat? (Was the Blood Libel Painted by Munkácsy or by his Pupil?), Népszabadság 2013. 03. 08. <>

[61] Le Vingtième Siècle 1898. 06. 18., p. 1.

[62] L’ Indépendance Belge 1898. 06. 17., p. 3.

[63] Tamás Kende, Vérvád (Blood Libel), Budapest 1995, p. 135–156.

[64] Berliner Tageblatt und Handels-Zeitung, 1896. 02. 18., p. 6.

[65] Cabaret Artistique, Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. L’ Indépendance Belge 1898. 06. 17., p. 3.

[66] József Bary, A tiszaeszlári bűnper (The Tiszaeszlár Criminal Trial), Budapest 1933, 1941, 1942, 1944.

[67] Véri, A Sakter polkától (see n. 2).

[68] Hogyan jutott el a tiszaeszlári nagy per a filmig? Beszélgetés Marschalkó Lajossal (How Did the Tiszaeszlár Great Trial Arrive to be Filmed? Conversation with Lajos Marschalkó), in: Magyar Film, 1944. 06. 01. p. 1–2.

[69] Lajos Marschalkó, Tiszaeszlár, Budapest 1943; Lajos Marschalkó, Országhódítók (Conquerors of the Country), Munich, 1965.

[70] Véri, A Sakter polkától (see n. 2).

[71] Contrarily, Jewish interpretations in the domain of fine arts were created mostly before 1989.

[72] Ikon a keresztény mártír, Solymosi Eszter emlékére (Icon for the Memory of the Christian Martyr, Eszter Solymosi), in: 2008. 04. 30. <>; Újabb művész állított emléket a magyar és keresztény vértanúnak (Another Artist Commemorated the Hungarian and Christian Martyr), in: 2009. 04. 15.<>.

[73] Cf. Law I/2000 about the foundation of the state by St. Stephen and the Holy Crown.

[74] Magyarország Alaptörvénye (Hungary’s Constitution), 2011. 04. 25., Nemzeti hitvallás (National Confession [preamble])

[75] Cf. Szabolcs KissPál, The Rise of a Fallen Feather: The Symbolism of the Turul Bird in Contemporary Hungary, e-flux 2014 <>.

[76] Cf. the series Les lieux de mémoire by Pierre Nora.

[77] For the whole paragraph, see Zsolt Kácsor, Tiszaeszlár, S. E. 1867–1882, in: Népszabadság 2003. 03. 08., p. 28–29 <>.

[78] Tiszaeszlár, 2000–2012. MNA-s kézigránát a zsidó tyúkólba… (HNFL Hand Grenade into the Jewish Henhouse), jövő 2012. 04. 11. <>.

[79] János Dési, A Blood Libel History from MIÉP, in: András Gerő (ed.), Anti-Semitic Discourse in Hungary in 2002–2003, Budapest 2004, 289.

[80] A tiszaeszlári vérvádról beszélt a Jobbik (The Jobbik Talked About the Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel), index 2012. 04. 04. <>.

[81] Visible in this video: Solymosi Eszter Emléknap MNA (Eszter Solymosi Memorial Day HNFL), 2007. 04. 01. <>.

[82] Solymosi Eszter megemlékezés 2010 (Eszter Solymosi Commemoration), jövő 2010. 04. 19.  <>

[83] Solymosi Eszterre emlékeztek Tiszaeszláron (Eszter Solymosi Was Commemorated in Tiszaeszlár), 2012. 04. 02. <>. The flyers are in the author’s archive, collected from the HNF homepage. <>.

Cite as: “Daniel Véri, The Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel: Image and Propaganda, in: Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitism in International Perspective – Open Peer Review, 13.12.2016,


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redaktionmws (2016, December 13). The Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel: Image and Propaganda. Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitism in International Perspective. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

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2 Responses

  1. Mareike König says:

    Thank you for that very interesting article! You state at the beginning and in the last paragraph that the Tiszaeszlár blood libel is a transnational phenomenon – could you explain that a bit more? And I would like to know if you have a theory why this blood libel appears to be uniquely rich compared to others.

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