In the end, it wasn’t fractionally as bad as it could have been.
Four-year-old Barbara Griffiths wandered into the woods near her house one September afternoon in 1928. That wasn’t unusual; she lived in Massena, a small town in way upstate New York, just south of the border with the province of Quebec. She was with her 6-year-old brother, and in that pre-playdate era they’d been sent out to amuse themselves.
At dinnertime, the brother came home but his little sister did not. Her parents worried, and then they panicked. Search parties hunted all night long, and in the morning, some boys found her. She’s gotten lost and fallen asleep. She was fine.
But something did happen in the woods that night, not to Barbara, not even because of Barbara, but catalyzed by her absence.
The blood libel — the idea that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to bake matzah for Passover, the idea that had triggered pogroms in Europe — surfaced in the United States for the first time. And then it went away, back to the black hole from which it had surfaced.
What happened that night, and in the weeks, months, and years since then?
Dr. Edward Berenson tells the story of Barbara Griffiths — including two interviews with her, because this story just is passing out of living memory now — in a new book, “The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town,” and he will talk about it at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on October 31. (See box.)
The story “raises a number of questions,” Dr. Berenson, who is a professor of history at NYU, said. “Why was the blood libel a unique thing in this country, when it was so usual and tragically common in Europe? What was it about the 1920s that allowed this terrible libel against Jews to emerge?”
Most of Dr. Berenson’s research has focused on Europe, which “has been really helpful for this book,” he said. “As awful as anti-Semitism has been in this country, it is nowhere as severe and violent as it has been in Europe. And the blood libel is “a European form of anti-Semitism that basically was unknown in this country. So how did it get here? And what happened to it?”
There were about 25 Jewish families in Massena, a town that had flourished when Alcoa opened a plant there, on the Saint Lawrence River, but then shriveled as the economy soured. Most of them were immigrants, one-time peddlers who settled there and opened stores.
One of those families was Dr. Berenson’s; his great grandparents, Ida and Jesse Kauffman, settled in town and opened a store there. His grandmother, Harriet Kauffman, married Edward Berenson, and their son, Norman, and their daughter-in-law, Claire, lived in Massena until the current Ed Berenson, the historian, was 2 1/2. Until he was in college, Ed Berenson and his family would go to Massena almost every summer.
“That’s what makes the book so meaningful to me,” Dr. Berenson said. “It involves my family and my own personal history. I grew up hearing about it.”
What those Jewish families heard, that night in 1928 — the night before Yom Kippur, Dr. Berenson said — was that somehow the searchers began hearing a rumor that “the Jews had captured Barbara and killed her. They got a little mixed up in their dates — they knew it was an important Jewish holiday, even if they didn’t know which one.” Yom Kippur, Pesach — whatever.
“Some of the searchers shined their flashlights into Jewish shops to see if the body was hidden there,” Dr. Berenson said.
As he reported in his book, the community’s rabbi was questioned about Jewish customs. He took notes, Dr. Berenson wrote, that tell us that the town’s mayor and a state trooper questioned him. “Have you a holiday tomorrow?” they asked, soon moving to the heart of the matter: “Could you inform me if your people in the old country are offering human sacrifices on a holiday?”
“It was pretty seriously ugly,” Dr. Berenson said
But Barbara was alive — not only had she not been kidnapped and killed by Jews, she also had not been abducted by a real-life villain. She had not been mauled by an animal or fallen hurt, and immobilized herself; she did not die and her body did not molder undiscovered.
So things could be fixed. The head of the American Jewish Committee, Louis Marshall, and of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Stephen Wise, both went to Massena, where they “were able to say that this was a total libel against the Jewish people.
“They made a really big deal of the story, because they wanted to teach Americans a lesson about the evils of anti-Semitism,” Dr. Berenson said.
Why did this happen? Why did the blood libel appear, and why did it slither back underground?
Dr. Berenson thinks that the blood libel entered through Ellis Island and the other ports of entry that took in immigrants, as part of their baggage. It was able to grow in the impoverished soil of the economic depression that was gripping the country. Industry was being concentrated, and small farmers, shop owners, and other local business owners were finding it increasingly hard to compete with the bigger conglomerates newly surrounding them. Although most big plants, stores, and other farms were not owned by Jews, the few who were became highly visible, and they often became objects of loathing.
Because Massena was so close to Quebec Province, and because the international border between Canada and the United States was almost a legal fiction, people moved freely from country to country, following jobs. Many of Alcoa’s employees in Massena were Quebecois; their culture at the time was riddled with anti-Semitism, imported from both France and the Catholic church, Dr. Berenson said. So the blood libel had room to grow among them.
Dr. Berenson devotes much of his book to tracing the blood libel, which seems to have begun in the 12th century, most likely in reaction to the Catholic Church’s adoption of the doctrine of transubstantiation, which says that the wine and wafer Catholics take during communion becomes the blood and body of Christ. Later, Protestants amended that core belief to say that the wine and wafer are symbolic, but that is not true for Catholics. The focus on that belief, and the focus on blood that it evoked, seems, many scholars believe, to have led to the blood libel. There has been much scholarship on that issue, including many fascinating theories, but the idea of children’s blood baked into matzah seems to have begun in the same period. (The Dark Ages were not a time of security and plenty. That didn’t help either.)
The Ku Klux Klan, which started as a small terrorist organization and then largely vanished, reappeared in the 1920s, and Henry Ford, the monstrously anti-Semitic automaker, had begun to publish his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, which “as far as anybody knows was the only anti-Jewish newspaper in American history,” Dr. Berenson said.
The anti-immigrant fervor was inflamed by the presidential candidacy of Al Smith, the New York politician. He was Catholic, and that simple fact brought out grotesque ugliness and vicious hatred as he lost to Herbert Hoover. Jews were collateral victims of that unleashed hatred too. “If you think we are polarized now — we were more polarized then,” Dr. Berenson said.
So the well was primed. The blood libel appeared. And then nothing happened, and Louis Marshall and Steven Wise were able to reframe its appearance as evil.
There’s hope in the story, Dr. Berenson said.
He was able to interview Barbara Griffiths Klemens, who died last year at 95. “She had a great life,” he said. “She was unusual; not only did she go to college — St. Lawrence University — but she studied physics.” That was not what women from small upstate towns did then. She became a teacher, married, and had three children, and “she was a lovely, fascinating person. She didn’t have many memories of the event, but she did remember that when she was growing up, people would come up to her and say, ‘You were the little girl who started this.’”
He also was able to talk to Doris Robinson, who was Jewish, from Massena, and worked at Alcoa. “She said that Barbara’s dad, David Griffiths, was really worried that the Jews in Massena would think ill of him,” he said.” “He would regularly ask her if her family and friends had any animosity toward him.”
There are now almost no Jews left in Massena. “The synagogue — my family’s synagogue — closed in 2012,” Dr. Berenson said. “Luckily, Potsdam is just 20 miles away, and it has a SUNY campus and an active synagogue. A lot of the memorabilia is stored there.
“But still it’s sad. My great grandfather was one of the founding members of the synagogue, in 1919.”
Things change. Memories die. Stories lie fallow, and then sometimes they sprout. The relevance of this story to today is clear, but it’s not all grim, Dr. Berenson said. He’ll talk about that, and more, at the JCC U.
Who: Dr. Edward Berenson
What: Will talk about his new book, “The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town”
When: On Thursday, October 31, at 10:30 a.m.
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue, Tenafly
Why: It’s the first half of the JCC U
What else: The JCC U is a two-part program, from 10:30 to 2, with time for lunch in between. The second half is a talk called “Contemporary Chinese Art,” given by Professor Thomas Germano.
How much: JCC members pay $36; nonmembers pay $44.
For more information or to register: Email Kathy Graff at firstname.lastname@example.org, call her at (201) 408-1454, or go to www.jccopt.org/adult-JCC-university.