Letter from Massena: Blood Libel on Main Street

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Letter from Massena: Blood Libel on Main Street

Shirley Reva Vernick


Illustration by Koren Shadmi.

One autumn night in 1928, when my father was a high school senior in Massena, New York, the state police knocked on his family’s door as part of a missing child investigation.

The cops wanted my grandfather to open up his clothing store on Main Street so they could see if he had hidden the little girl’s body there. The reason for the policemen’s suspicion? It was erev Yom Kippur, and didn’t Jews use the blood of Christian children in their holiday libations? Might the cops not find 4-year-old Barbara Griffiths’s mutilated corpse—or at least some choice body parts—if they searched the handful of Jewish establishments in the village? Sure, Barbara had gone missing while playing in the woods in back of her house, but didn’t it make more sense to look in the Jewish stores than in the forest?

The next morning, little Barbara wandered back out of the woods, where she had spent the night sleeping under a bush after getting lost. No worse for wear, she was quickly reunited with her family, ordeal over. That was not the end of it for my father, though. Townsfolk still suspected the Jews of foul play, saying they had let the girl go once they realized they were about to get pinched. Harassment and boycotts ensued.

This incident was the first reported blood libel in the entire Western Hemisphere. Five years later, Hitler took power in Germany and began using the blood libel to justify the oppression and ultimate slaughter of the Jews. In 1937, the German Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer even published a special ritual murder edition. The front-page headline read “Jewish Murder Plan Against Gentile Humanity Revealed” and featured a drawing of four rabbis sucking the blood of a Christian child through straws.

Yet, I knew nothing about the Massena blood libel until I was in my twenties. I grew up thinking the town was my own personal Walton’s Mountain, where my friends and I spent our summers swimming in the Saint Lawrence River, our winters cross-country skiing in neighbors’ farmland and the off-seasons hanging out at each other’s houses or the local pizzeria. I was even more smitten with the town once I left it. In my mind, Massena became bubbe’s house: the place I could always return to for unconditional love and complete security.
Until I found out.

I was a sophomore in college, and my sociology professor sent us home for fall break with an assignment: Identify a local conflict, past or present, and write a paper analyzing it. I remember driving home thinking, I am in trouble, nothing juicy or controversial ever happens in placid little Massena. So I asked my father if he had any ideas, and that is when he shared the story for the first time.

He told me how the Jews that night feared a pogrom, the very sort of anti-Semitic violence many of them had come to America to escape. How the rabbi valiantly defended his congregation during police interrogation. How people on the street hurled epithets and accusations. And how my grandfather worried that the troopers would find his wine, homemade for use in the Sabbath Kiddush, which he hid in the rafters of the store basement because Prohibition was in effect.

A blood libel, in America, in my beloved hometown? The account not only stunned me but knocked the rosy glasses right off my nose. Memories buried beneath the warm fuzzies of an otherwise idyllic childhood came crashing to the surface—the times I was called a Christ-killer, teased for my kosher diet, flaunted by party hosts as the token Jew. Nothing as serious as what my father went through, to be sure, but the intolerance had been there, and now I had to wonder what form it might have taken if there had been a crisis on the level of a missing child.

Now that the wolf had officially taken over bubbe’s house, the comfort I had known became mere bones tossed to the floor. The “A” I received on the paper did not help, either. I felt derailed. There was no going back.

Or was there? Flash-forward 30 years. Last October, the Massena library decided to host a month-long Jewish history program, including a klezmer music performance, a Jewish film series and a talk by the head of Saint Lawrence University’s religious studies department. They also invited me to speak about the blood libel. The town that had not said boo about the incident, not even a line in the local paper when it happened, wanted me to talk about it publicly.

So I traveled back, nervously, and found myself standing before a packed room that included old friends, complete strangers, descendants of my forebear’s accusers and the few remaining Jews. We were going to reflect on our mutual history together for the first time. Barbara Griffiths—now an octogenarian—was sitting in the front row. It was surreal.

I gave the audience a mini-history of blood libels, described the Massena incident and then opened the floor for questions.

People were interested. They wanted to know exactly what happened back in 1928 and why. Some people expressed dismay at the mistreatment of the Jews, while one participant, a long-time friend of my family, said, “What’s the big deal? I always heard that the Jews immediately laughed the whole thing off as an understandable mistake.” Griffiths herself said the events had little effect on her personally.

Nothing was settled that evening—no new facts established, no resolutions proposed. But we had shared our doubts and certainties. Even the people who had challenged the gravity of the episode cared enough to show up. And when it was all over, we liked each other enough to fill the refreshment room with chatter, laughter and the exchange of e-mail addresses.

I walked away with renewed faith in my hometown. Somehow—I will never know exactly how—a perfect storm struck Massena on that ill-fated night in 1928, and while that neither excuses nor mitigates the hateful acts, it does provide a case well worth examining. Now, 85 years after the fact, we had begun that dialogue. I would say that was a pretty good start. I think Dad would be pleased.

Shirley Reva Vernick is the author of The Blood Lie (Cinco Puntos Press). Her Web site is www.bloodlibel.org.

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