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September 22: A Blood Libel in New York State

September 22, 2014
w-2massena-101812On 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