Blood Libel – in the USA

Who would have dreamed that such a tiny place would have produced such wholesale mayhem within one day? Massena, a small town in upstate New York, adjacent to Canada and perched on the Lawrence River, enjoyed a peaceful existence until the end of September, 5688/1928. Until then, its nineteen Jewish families would have escaped notice among the village’s 8,500 residents, had two things not thrown them apart: their prosperity and their Torah observance.

Since the town’s first Jew, Jesse Kauffman, arrived back in 5658/1898, the Jews had thrived, opening prosperous furniture, jewelry, and furnishings businesses in the main street, and this bred a silent resentment, even encouraging enrollment in the Ku Klux Klan. And, largely thanks to their rav, a former talmid in the Slobodka yeshivah, the town’s Jews were, by and large, shomer mitzvos. This set them apart.

On September 22, 5688/1928, the town’s serenity was shattered when four-year-old Barbara Griffiths came back from shopping with her father, Dave, and asked for a candy. In response, her mother, Marion, asked her to first bring back her six-year-old brother from the woods, a favorite recreational area of the local youngsters, just fifty yards from their home.

“Then I’ll give candy to you both,” Marion promised.

As Barbara disappeared among the trees, her brother and his friends emerged from the forest and returned home. Then hours passed and the four year- old never came back. Dave, his sons, and their friends frantically combed the forest and came up empty handed. Neighbors ransacked half built homes and basements in the area. Someone tripped a fire alarm and the fire and police departments joined the search. To prevent frightening the girl with their barks and howls, dogs were rigidly excluded from the search. This turned out to be a crucial error since, by morning, the girl was as lost as ever.

During the night, a rumor gathered momentum: perhaps the Jews were behind it all. This canard was sparked by a Judeo-phobic Greek immigrant, Albert Comnas, proprietor of an ice cream parlor on Main Street, who reminded his patrons that the Jews in Europe were known to capture gentiles for religious purposes. Who knows? With the Day of Atonement around the corner, perhaps the Jews had kidnapped the girl for their arcane rituals.

He had barely finished making his insinuations when a young, feebleminded Jew entered his parlor.

“What do you think of what’s going on?” the customers there asked him. “I hope they don’t blame this on the Jews!” was his reply.

Firefighters in the place looked at each other knowingly, construing the young Jew’s statement as confirmation of their suspicions. The story spread. Even Mayor W. Gilbert Hawes thought there might be something in the idea and gave police the go-ahead to ransack whichever Jewish businesses were still open.

The next morning, the young Jew was summoned to City Hall for questioning and, after he returned home, the town’s Jews realized they were in deep trouble. Townspeople searched the Jewish businesses that had been closed during the night and, by ten in the morning, a mob, approximately three hundred strong, was surging around City Hall to see what would happen. In the meantime, the Jews hid behind locked doors.

Unfortunately, the next person the police questioned was the most ignorant Jew in town and had been raised in a gentile orphanage. Instead of squelching the blood libel rumor, he fanned the flames by telling the police,

“I don’t know if such a custom exists in the old country but, in this country, they don’t have this custom.”

Now it was the turn of the town’s rav, and shochet, Rabbi Berel Brennglass, to be interrogated. Soon after noon, the chief of police, Mickey McCann, invited him to come to City Hall for “a little conversation.” The rav (who, until now, had not been informed of the libel — his congregants did not want to bother him on Erev Yom Kippur — almost jumped out of his skin when McCann asked him, “Was there ever a time when the Jewish people used human blood?”

After the rav explained, at length, that the idea was absolutely ridiculous, McCann apologized, “Please don’t think the idea originated with me; someone else, a foreigner, impressed me with it.”

“I am not through with you yet,” the rav retorted. “You will have to reveal the name of the party who gave you the information, so that he can be taught he is not in Poland or Romania!” After the rav left, the mob outside tried to block his path home.

“What do you people want?” he yelled at them. “What are you doing here? What a nerve to insinuate such things against your Jewish neighbors! Go home and pray to G-d that He will forgive you for what you are thinking!”

At about four that afternoon, two teenagers, Julia Phillips and Maud Hutchins, who had come from outside town to help in the search, decided to return home and were hitchhiking on the roadside, when they noticed a bedraggled girl emerging from the bushes, fifty yards away. The search for Barbara Griffiths was over. After searching for her brother until dark, she had fallen asleep in tall grass and spent the entire next day wandering aimlessly until she stumbled onto a road. She insisted that she had had absolutely no contact with anyone during all this time.

Dave Griffiths thanked everyone in the local press: “Mrs. Griffiths and I desire to avail ourselves of publicly expressing our deep gratitude and sincere appreciation of the wonderful response of our townsfolk in aiding us in our trouble. We are aware of the hundreds of people who spent hours, both day and night, searching for our lost child … In times of sorrow or need, the people of Massena always respond to the occasion.

They have done this for us this time.” However, as the Jews joyfully made their way to shul for Kol Nidrei, their relief was short-lived when they saw a hundred-strong mob, including fire department members, blocking the road leading to the shul. These stalwart citizens were convinced that the Jews had kidnapped the girl after all, and only returned her when they saw that their plan had gone awry. Mayor W. Gilbert Hawes gave enough credence to this suspicion to begin organizing a boycott of the town’s Jewish businesses.

In his drasha, Rav Brennglass adjured his kehillah to trust that Hashem would not abandon them on this Day of Atonement.

“We must forgive but we must not forget,” he added. “We must forever remind ourselves that this happened in America, not Czarist Russia, among people we have come to regard as friends. We must show our neighbors that their hatred originates in fear, and this fear has its roots in ignorance, ignorance of Judaism, our beliefs, our history, our people, our G-d. We must show them they have nothing to fear from us. We must tell the world this story so it will never happen again.” Then he concluded with a prayer for the welfare of the government: “Unite all inhabitants of our country, whatever their origin and creed, into a bond of true brotherhood, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are our country’s glory!”

After the congregants emerged, they discovered Lieutenant Edward F. Heim of the State Highway Patrol, Police Chief McCann’s superior, standing guard at the shul steps to keep the mob in check. He arranged a conciliatory meeting in the shul on Tuesday morning, after Yom Kippur, where Mayor Hawes apologized for his handling of the affair, claiming that his part in it had been exaggerated.

By this time, the Massena affair was known throughout America. Dissatisfied with the mayor’s apology, two Reform leaders fanned the local story into a national scandal, each one trying to get maximum personal prestige in the process of squeezing a more abject apology from the mayor, who was running for re-election.

As one of the Reformers expressed it, “This apology must be couched in terms as will meet with my approval so that the world may know that the remorse which you have expressed is genuine.”

The mayor refused to be browbeaten and his official apology, at the beginning of October, was lukewarm: “I told them I regretted the incident occurred and, if I had done anything in the matter which was insulting to them or their religion, that I offer an apology and again repeat that as my position … I have never entertained feelings of prejudice against them and there is no hostile feeling against them in Massena.”

That Reform leader was infuriated that he had not been invited to the meeting where this watered down apology was squeezed from the mayor, and furious that the Massena Jews were perfectly satisfied with it and merely wanted to live at peace with their neighbors.

“The most cavalier matter practically dismisses me from the case and decides an important proposition which in no manner concerns you – that is, the attitude of the Jewish people as a whole in the case,” he fumed. Saul S. Friedman, author of The Incident at Massena, concludes that this unpleasant conclusion of the incident was a bitter presage for the future: “What happened in 1928 between the two principal Jewish groups (the Torah-observant Jews of Massena and the Reform Movement) and their leaders presaged future events: the anomie and friction, the backbiting and conniving, that would deprive American Jewry of effective action during the Holocaust.”

(Chief source: “The Incident at Massena” by Saul S. Friedman. Stein and Day/Publishers/Scarborough House, Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. 1978)

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