September 22: A Blood Libel in New York State
On this date in 1928, Barbara Griffiths, a 4-year-old girl in Massena, New York, a town near the Canadian border, went for a walk and did not come back home. “The local fire department,” writes Naomi Zeveloff in the Forward, “which at that time included many active members of the Ku Klux Klan, organized a search for her. Meanwhile, a state trooper stopped off at a local diner owned by a Greek immigrant, who speculated that Griffiths was abducted by the Jewish community for ritual sacrifice on the holiday” of Yom Kippur, which was imminent. “The state trooper brought Rabbi Berel Brennglass in for questioning as an angry mob gathered outside. Brennglass famously dressed down the troopers and delivered a rousing sermon at synagogue that evening, at the Kol Nidre service.” Barbara Griffiths (pictured at left, age 88) reappeared the next day; lost, she had slept the night in the woods before finding a road with people who got her home. The Jewish community sensationalized the incident and made it national news: “At the behest of Louis Marshall of the American Jewish Committee, Massena Mayor Gilbert Hawes issued an apology, but he rejected calls by prominent Jewish leaders in New York City for his resignation. Meanwhile, Marshall and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, his great rival for leadership of American Jewry, treated the incident as a political football as they struggled to outdo each other.”
“Today, Massena’s Jewish community has dwindled to about 10 people from its onetime high of 20 families. The Jewish-owned businesses that used to line Main Street in downtown Massena — Clopman’s, Levine’s, Slavin’s and others — have all closed. Long without a minyan, the Adath Israel synagogue was sold to the Massena Chamber of Commerce earlier this year for $1. The only Star of David remaining in Massena is the metal one atop the gate to the local Jewish cemetery. Six years ago, someone placed a hula hoop atop the star and spray painted a swastika on the asphalt below.” –Naomi Zeveloff
September 21: The First Life Form
On Carl Sagan‘s “Cosmic Calendar,” which reduces the entire span of the universe since the Big Bang to one year (1.58 million years per hour), September 21st is the date on which single-celled organisms called prokaryotes first appear. The oldest known fossilized prokaryotes, which are thought to be the first life forms on Earth, were laid down some 3.5 billion years ago. The Cosmic Calendar was first described by Sagan in 1980 in his book The Dragons of Eden and on the television series Cosmos. (In the 2014 revival of the series, the age of the universe was revised to 13.8 billion years from Sagan’s 15 billion.) On Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar, modern humans appear for the first time at eight seconds to midnight on December 31st.
“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” –Carl Sagan
September 20: Mayor Barnert of Paterson
Polish-born Nathan Barnert, who came to the U.S. a pauper at age 11, participated in the California Gold Rush, made his fortune in clothing (especially Union Army uniforms) and real estate (he was an early builder of mill-style factory buildings), and became a reforming mayor of Paterson, New Jersey, was born on this date in 1838. According to a 1920 hagiography, History of Paterson and Its Environs, Barnert, who served for two terms, “delved deep into the financial standing of the city, armed himself thoroughly with exact information, and overcoming apparently insurmountable obstacles … disclosed the maladministration of the public business and deplorable municipal dishonesty. A part of the result of his work was the prosecution and imprisonment of a number of officials.” Barnert was a major supporter Paterson’s YMHA and paid for the construction of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, known as the Nathan Barnert Memorial Congregation. A statue of Nathan Barnert was erected outside Paterson’s City Hall in 1925.
His “public bequests are as follows: Barnert Hebrew Free School, $52,000 … $10,000 to Barnert Memorial Hospital, and $25,000 more five years hence; $2,000 to St. Joseph’s Hospital; $1,500 to Paterson General Hospital; $10,000 to the Barnert Memorial Temple; $1,000 to Paterson Orphan Asylum, $1,000 to Paterson Orange lodge … and $1,000 to Cataract City lodge, Royal Arch Masons…. In addition several trust funds are created: one of $20,000, the interest of which is to be distributed on the day before Thanksgiving each year to the needy and worthy Gentle families of Paterson; the same amount for worthy Jewish families to be distributed the day before Passover each year.”–Jewish Telegraphic Agency, January 13, 1928
September 19: Palestinian Terrorism
A suicide bombing in Tel Aviv destroyed a bus and killed six on this date in 2002. It was one of dozens of such attacks over a four-year period from the eruption of the Second Intifada in October, 2000 until the death of Yasser Arafat in November, 2004, including: August 9, 2001, a suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv nightclub kills 21; December 1, 2001, 15 killed in a Jerusalem pizzeria; December 2, 2001, 11 killed along a Jerusalem pedestrian mall; January 4, 2002, 15 killed on a bus in Haifa; March 9, 2002, 11 killed at a Jerusalem bar mitsve party; March 12, 2002, 11 killed in a Jerusalem cafe; March 29, 2002, 30 killed at a Netanya hotel during a Passover seder; etc. The Second Intifada, coming on the heels of the failed Camp David Summit during the final days of the Clinton Presidency, destroyed the credibility of the Israeli peace movement and set in motion the tragic ascendancy of the Israeli right to this very day.
“[T]here is plenty of evidence that Arafat opposed the intifada but felt powerless to stop it. As in the 1991 Gulf War, Arafat chose to ride the tiger of public opinion, even to disaster.” –Glenn E. Robinson, Foreign Policy
September 18: The Nazi-Hunter
Elliot Welles (Kurt Sauerquell), who headed the Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Nazi War Criminals from its founding in 1979 until 2003, was born in Vienna on this date in 1927. He and his mother Anna were deported by the Nazis to Riga, where they executed Anna on a transport bus. Welles then spent years of his boyhood in the Riga ghetto before being interned at the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. Settling in New York in 1949, he eventually became a co-owner of a restaurant in Yorkville, a German neighborhood in Manhattan, where he began to gather information on former Nazis and their whereabouts. Welles eventually tracked down in Germany the SS officer who had selected his mother for death, and had him prosecuted in 1976. This kind of hunt became Welles’ calling, and he grew, writes Margalit Fox in the New York Times, into “one of the most influential forces in identifying Nazis who had settled in the United States and having them extradited to stand trial abroad.” Among the men he identified and brought to justice were Boleslav Maikovskis, responsible for the mass execution of 200 Latvian villagers during the war, who had settled in Mineola, NY (Maikovskis proved too ill to stand trial and shortly afterwards died), and Josef Schwammberger, a former Nazi labor camp commander who hid in Argentina for forty years before Welles succeeded him having him extradited to Germany, where he was convicted and died in prison. Welles died at 79 in 2006.
“Welles spent years trolling dusty archives and marble corridors in the United States, Germany, Austria and elsewhere, painstakingly tracing the whereabouts of men and women who had hoped to vanish into obscurity. He tenaciously pressed reluctant governments around the world to divulge information, to find suspects, to apprehend them and bring them to trial.”—Margalit Fox