This Day in Jewish History / N.Y. Residents Drop 1920s Blood Libel

The Jews of Massena were suspected of kidnapping a local girl for a Yom Kippur sacrifice before she was discovered safe and sound on this day.

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On September 23, 1928, 4-year-old Barbara Griffiths, of Massena, New York, was found alive and well and returned to her family, thus ending 24 hours of frenzied speculation by the residents of the town that she had been kidnapped by their Jewish neighbors for a pre-Yom Kippur blood killing.

Massena, today a town of some 13,000, is situated on the St. Lawrence River, some 120 kms downriver from Montreal, Quebec. The town was founded in the early years of the 19th century, and a century later, it was something of a melting pot, after an aluminum smelting plant opened there, and laborers poured into the town, some of them directly off the boat from Europe. According to writer Samuel J. Jacobs, by the time of Barbara Griffiths’ disappearance, the town had immigrants from some 50 countries, including a contingent of Jews from Eastern Europe. In 1920, they purchased a building that had belonged to the Congregational Church, and made it the home of Adath Israel Synagogue. The synagogue was led by the formidable Rabbi Berel Brenglass, who had arrived in the United States from Lithuania, by way of Cardiff, Wales, in 1915. Massena also had a branch of the Ku Klux Klan.

On the afternoon of Saturday, September 22, Barbara Griffiths, a 4-year-old girl, went missing in the woods near her home. As it was late in the day, neighbors and other townspeople gathered to search for her, but by dark, she still had not been found. Because the town straddles two counties, troopers from the New York State were also brought in to help track down Barbara.

Someone in Massena noted that the town’s Jews would be celebrating an important holiday, starting the following evening. It was recalled that there were Jews who used the blood of Christian children for certain holiday rituals – although the “blood libel” generally attributes the use of Gentile blood for the making of matzos on Passover. By the following morning, state troopers were interrogating Massena’s Jewish citizens and even searching their homes for evidence of Barbara Griffiths’ fate.

One of those questioned on Sunday was Morris Goldberg, an employee of Alcoa Aluminum who, despite his name, was only marginally knowledgeable about Jewish matters. His answers to the troopers’ questions on Jewish practices did not set their minds at ease. The policemen reported back to town mayor Gilbert Hawes, though legally, he should not have been involved in the investigation, and, according to Samuel Jacobs, who wrote a long article on the case in the journal Judaism in 1979 (and who was himself a 9-year-old in Massena in 1928), Hawes, who was the very model of an ignorant, bigoted, small-town politician, decided the time had come to interrogate Rabbi Brenglass.

Brenglass was questioned by both a state trooper and Mayor Hawes at the police station in Town Hall. They wanted to know about the Jewish practice of human sacrifice. According to Jacobs’ account, the cleric quickly turned the tables on his interrogators, telling them they should be ashamed to be bringing up an anti-Semitic libel with no basis in fact that had caused so much suffering to the Jews over the centuries.

“After delivering his angry speech, the rabbi left abruptly. There is one report that he also called out to a mob of men who were hanging around the alley that led from Main Street to the police station. They should search for the little girl, he is alleged to have said, rather than pursue medieval calumnies against the Jews.”

A short time later, Barbara Griffiths wandered out of the woods on her own power, and was found by two young women, who recognized her and brought her home. When interviewed by a reporter from The Forward a year ago, Barbara Griffiths Klemens, then 88, remembered little about the incident, other than that the two girls who found her had long curls, which was “the style at the time.”

At 6 that evening, Rabbi Brenglass recited the Kol Nidre prayer before his congregation, and then talked with them about what the town had just been through. Writing 51 years later, Samuel Jacobs noted that, “Though I was only a child, I remember his charge to the community to stand up as proud Jews and staunch Americans, against all anti-Semitism. He inspired all of us, old and young, and we emerged from the synagogue that night with our heads held high, unafraid.”

The Massena Blood Libel very quickly became a national news story, and the two men who at the time were in unofficial competition for the mantle of leader of American Jewry quickly became involved in the affair. Louis Marshall, head of the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi Stephen Wise, who led the American Jewish Congress, both denounced the incident and in particular the behavior of the mayor and the state police. Marshall demanded an investigation by the police, which led to an apology by the trooper involved and his suspension. Wise spoke with his friend, Governor Al Smith, who was then running for president, and who also promised an inquiry into the behavior of the state police.

Although Mayor Hawes resisted calls for his own resignation, he did make an apology of sorts to the Jews of Massena, stating “clearly and unequivocally,” in his words, “my sincere regret that by any act of commission or omission, I should have seemed to lend countenance … to what I should have known to be a cruel libel imputing human sacrifice as a practice now or at any time in the history of the Jewish people.”

Hawes was reelected mayor that fall, for his sixth consecutive term.

By 2012, Massena had lost its General Motors facility plant and seen its two aluminum plants merge into one. Its Jewish population, which had been at a high of some 20 families about the time of the blood libel, was now down to some 10 residents. The board of Adath Israel decided to sell their building to the town chamber of commerce for a symbolic price of $1, and to distribute its Torah scrolls and other assets to other synagogues in the area. A year earlier, a local resident, Shirley Vernick, wrote a young-adult novel based on the incident, “The Blood Lie.” According to The Forward, hundreds of copies were distributed for free in Massena, and the book was made part of the local school reading curriculum.

Historic photo of downtown Massena, New York.

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