Re­call­ing Na­tion’s Only Blood Li­bel, One Small Town Re­lives Its Pain

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Naomi Zevel­off Massena, N.Y.

The only recorded blood li­bel ac­cu­sa­tion against Amer­i­can Jews oc­curred

Con­nois­seur: in 1928 in Massena, N.Y., a small in­dus­trial town on the Cana­dian bor­der that for the next 84 years never brought up the episode. But to­day, Deb­bie Fuehring, pro­gram di­rec­tor at Massena Pub­lic Li­brary, is ea­ger to show a vis­it­ing re­porter the box of rugelach and man­del­brot she had shipped in spe­cially for the li­brary’s Oc­to­ber Jewish his­tory pro­gram. The del­i­ca­cies will be served dur­ing the pro­gram, at which, for the first time, Massena will pub­licly dis­cuss the blood li­bel af­fair.

“We want to ed­u­cate the chil­dren and the peo­ple of Massena,” she said. “It’s good to be aware of in­tol­er­ance.”

The pub­lic reck­on­ing comes at an un­usual mo­ment in the town’s his­tory. As it hap­pens, Massena’s Jewish community, which traces its roots back to the 19th cen­tury, is liq­ui­dat­ing its pres­ence af­ter years of shrink­ing mem­ber­ship. It’s a com­mon story in Amer­ica to­day. Jewish com­mu­ni­ties once pro­lif­er­ated across New Eng­land, the Deep South and even the Far West, as im­mi­grant ped­dlers and shop­keep­ers found homes and ac­cep­tance, they thought, in the na­tion’s count­less towns and vil­lages.

Massena is no dif­fer­ent from many of these towns. But here there is a

twist, and ques­tions that linger about the ac­cep­tance those Jews found.

With a pop­u­la­tion just shy of 13,000, Massena is the north­ern­most town in New York state, an hour and 45 minute drive from Montreal. Once an in­dus­trial cen­ter of the North Coun­try, the town’s econ­omy has con­tracted in re­cent decades due to the con­sol­i­da­tion of two alu­minum pro­duc­tion plants and the clo­sure of a Gen­eral Mo­tors Co. fa­cil­ity. Down­town Massena is now pocked with empty store­fronts. The im­mi­grant groups — Ital­ians, Ir­ish, French Cana­di­ans and Eastern Euro­pean Jews — who once flocked there have largely dis­ap­peared.

The 1928 blood li­bel in­ci­dent be­gan on the eve of Yom Kip­pur, when a 4-year-old Chris­tian girl named Bar­bara Grif­fiths dis­ap­peared into the woods ad­ja­cent to her home. The lo­cal fire depart­ment, 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. 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.

The next day, Grif­fiths reap­peared from the woods, un­harmed. But the story had al­ready trav­eled far be­yond the town. Jewish news­pa­pers printed scream­ing head­lines: “Ku Klux Klan Throws Blood Li­bel on Jews of Massena NY,” pro­claimed the Yid­dish Morgn Zhur­nal. The Forverts, this pa­per’s pre­de­ces­sor, de­scribed a near pogrom, with Jews “hor­ri­fied and fear­ing for their lives.” And the Jewish Daily Bul­letin pub­lished the story on its front page, along­side re­ports on a syn­a­gogue plun­der­ing in Ber­lin and at­tacks on Jews at the Wail­ing Wall.

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.

Back in Massena, some his­tor­i­cal ac­counts say the in­ci­dent sub­sided quickly and that friendly re­la­tions be­tween Massena’s Jews and gen­tiles re­sumed. But oth­ers con­tend that the an­tag­o­nism con­tin­ued, un­abated for weeks cul­mi­nat­ing in a boy­cott of Jewish busi­nesses led by the mayor. Ab Ca­han, the Forverts’ leg­endary ed­i­tor, con­demned the boy­cott, but called on Jews to re­frain from pun­ish­ing the mayor fur­ther, be­cause “it would cre­ate the im­pres­sion that Jews are venge­ful.”

Massena’s Jewish community has dwin­dled to about 10 peo­ple from its one­time high of 20 fam­i­lies. The Jewishowned 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. It is ev­i­dence, some say, that an­tiSemitism still abounds in the St. Lawrence River Val­ley

The pub­lic li­brary’s be­lated re­mem­brance of the blood li­bel in­ci­dent finds the small community in tur­moil. Massena’s Jews are deeply di­vided over the fate of the syn­a­gogue build­ing and the tal­li­tot, prayer books, and To­rah scrolls it once housed. The li­brary se­ries is also a source of con­tention; some Jews see it is an op­por­tu­nity to ed­u­cate Masse­nans about and in­tol­er­ance. But oth­ers would rather for­get about the event — a mo­ment of fric­tion in an oth­er­wise placid small-town his­tory of gen­tiles and Jews.

At stake in both cases are the community’s mem­o­ries. As Jewish life in Massena sput­ters out, the re­main­ing in­di­vid­u­als are wag­ing an in­ternecine bat­tle over the story that Massena’s Jews will tell about them­selves — and that the town will re­mem­ber about its sig­nal mo­ment on a na­tional stage.

In the Massena area to­day, there are only two peo­ple alive with di­rect ties to the blood li­bel in­ci­dent. One is Bar­bara Grif­fiths Kle­mens, the one­time 4-yearold girl, now 88, who dis­ap­peared into the woods. The other is Harry Cl­op­man, a 97-year-old World War II vet­eran with a full head of white hair. His fam­ily fur­ni­ture store, Cl­op­man’s, went out of busi­ness last sum­mer, the last of the Jewish store­fronts to dis­ap­pear from down­town. Cl­op­man lives in a one-story home across the street from the St. Lawrence River, the di­vid­ing line be­tween the United States and Canada. Sit­ting for­ward in a re­cliner in his wood-pan­eled liv­ing room, he told me that the li­brary is mak­ing a moun­tain out of a mole­hill with its re­mem­brance of the blood li­bel.

“It was some­thing we wanted to go away,” said his daugh­ter, Miriam Cat­a­pano, who was sit­ting across the room. “There was no rea­son for it to be con­stantly brought up.”

Af­ter Bar­bara Grif­fiths went miss­ing, Cl­op­man said, he joined the search party for her res­cue, but left early to go to Yom Kip­pur ser­vices. He heard noth­ing of the blood li­bel ru­mor un­til Bren­n­glass ar­rived at Adath Is­rael “all ex­cited”: He had just been ques­tioned by law en­force­ment. “The rabbi gave them a good tongue lash­ing,” said Cl­op­man, who was 15 at the time. “It was for­got­ten af­ter that.” No Jewish busi­nesses were searched for the Grif­fiths child, nor were they boy­cotted in the en­su­ing weeks, he said.

Cl­op­man said he felt sorry for the Massena mayor, whom he be­lieves was raked over the coals by the New York Jewish es­tab­lish­ment. “That man was never the same af­ter that,” he said.

Cl­op­man blames a 1978 book, “The In­ci­dent at Massena,” for turn­ing a lo­cal skir­mish into a Jewish his­tor­i­cal event. The book was writ­ten by Saul Fried­man, a pro­fes­sor of Jewish his­tory at Youngstown State Univer­sity, in Ohio, who first read about the blood li­bel in­ci­dent in an end­note in “The Devil and the Jews” by Joshua Tracht­en­berg. “The In­ci­dent at Massena” por­trays the blood li­bel af­fair as the in­evitable out­come of “me­so­zoic ha­treds” against Jews and other out­siders in Massena. “All that was needed to re­lease this pent-up fury was an ex­cuse,” Fried­man writes.

But “The In­ci­dent at Massena” is hardly ac­cepted as un­qual­i­fied truth in Massena. Lo­cal crit­ics of­ten re­fer to a book re­view by Sam Ja­cobs, a Jewish en­tre­pre­neur who died last year. Writ­ing in Ju­daism, a now de­funct quar­terly jour­nal, in 1979, Ja­cobs sug­gested that Fried­man had sen­sa­tion­al­ized the event by paint­ing a pic­ture of “a vil­lage seething with mass hys­te­ria.” The au­thor made “no real at­tempt to sift through and eval­u­ate the in­for­ma­tion; much of it may have been hearsay or worse,” he writes. As far as Cl­op­man is con­cerned, the book is a “bunch of damn lies.”

Fried­man was un­able to re­spond due to his ad­vanced age.

But for other Massena Jews, the book’s more dra­matic el­e­ments ring true. Shirley Reva Ver­nick, who grew up in Massena but now re­sides in western Mas­sachusetts, learned about the in­ci­dent from her fa­ther, who was a teenager at the time. “State troop­ers came to my grand­fa­ther’s house late at night and made him go down­town and open his store so they could see if the corpse of Bar­bara Grif­fiths was stashed there,” she said. Even af­ter the girl was found, many sus­pected that the Jewish community re­leased her when they re­al­ized the state po­lice were on the case. “My fa­ther and his five sib­lings ex­pe­ri­enced harass­ment, jeer­ing,” she said. Par­ents be­gan ac­com­pa­ny­ing their chil­dren to school. “At least one fam­ily moved away,” Ver­nick said.

Last year, Ver­nick pub­lished a fic­tional ac­count of the in­ci­dent, “The Blood Lie,” that hews closely to her fam­ily’s ver­sion of the event. The young adult novel was the in­spi­ra­tion for the Massena Pub­lic Li­brary’s month- long se­ries on Jewish life. The se­ries, which in­cludes a per­for­mance by a Ver­mont klezmer band and a screening of “Fid­dler on the Roof,” cul­mi­nates on Oc­to­ber 25 with a pub­lic dis­cus­sion of Ver­nick’s book. Three hun­dred copies of “The Blood Lie” were dis­trib­uted in Massena; the book is now part of the English lit­er­a­ture cur­ricuanti-Semitism

lum at pub­lic schools in the area.

mid-Oc­to­ber I went to the Massena Pub­lic Li­brary to meet with Judy Witek and Lenore Levine, two of the three board mem­bers of Con­gre­ga­tion Adath Is­rael, which do­nated $5,100 for the li­brary’s month-long se­ries. Levine, a nurse at Massena Memo­rial Hospi­tal, is Ver­nick’s sis­ter. Witek works as a teacher’s aide in the lo­cal high school; she is a rel­a­tive new­comer, who moved to Massena in 1987. The third board mem­ber is Miriam Cat­a­pano, Harry Cl­op­man’s daugh­ter.

We walked through the li­brary’s dis­play on Jewish his­tory, a kind of Ju­daica pot­pourri that in­cluded a can­de­labra from Adath Is­rael, and sev­eral short tow­ers of Jewish books and DVDs: “On Be­ing a Jewish Fem­i­nist,” “Thou Shall Pros­per: Ten Com­mand­ments for Mak­ing Money” and Holo­caust sur­vivor Elie Wiesel’s mem­oirs. Be­fore Jewish his­tory month in Massena, Jewish books were al­most never checked out, Fuehring told me, but now they were fly­ing off the shelves. In the main room of the li­brary were four boards fea­tur­ing ar­ti­cles and pho­to­graphs about Massena in the 1920s, in­for­ma­tion about the 1928 in­ci­dent and about Ver­nick’s book, and a printed Wikipedia en­try for the term “blood li­bel.” “My feel­ing was, Shirley had writ­ten a book that is very rel­e­vant in to­day’s world,” Witek said, ex­plain­ing the syn­a­gogue’s sup­port for the se­ries. “Peo­ple can be swept up in emo­tions of hate. It is im­por­tant that students read about this event.” Levine chimed in: “It’s a nice op­por­tu­nity to ed­u­cate peo­ple.” As Levine and Witek back the li­brary’s trib­ute to Massena’s Jewish his­tory, they are si­mul­ta­ne­ously liq­ui­dat­ing the lo­cal Jewish community’s as­sets. Since 1919, Con­gre­ga­tion Adath Is­rael was housed in a red brick build­ing, a for­mer con­gre­ga­tional church, on the cor­ner of Church and West Orvis streets. But over the years, chil­dren of Jewish fam­i­lies moved away from Massena, and the con­gre­ga­tion di­min­ished. With no rabbi or reg­u­lar Sab­bath ser­vices, Adath Is­rael hired stu­dent rab­bis from He­brew Union Col­lege-Jewish In­sti­tute of Re­li­gion, in Man­hat­tan, to lead hol­i­day prayers. Then in 2007, light­ning struck the Em­manuel Con­gre­ga­tional Church across the street, and Adath Is­rael tem­po­rar­ily hosted its Sun­day ser­vices.

Six years ago, the Adath Is­rael board de­cided that main­tain­ing the build­ing with­out an ac­tive con­gre­ga­tion wasn’t worth the cost, so it put up the syn­a­gogue for sale. Sev­eral promis­ing prospec­tive buy­ers fell through. Fi­nally, the board sold the build­ing to the Cham­ber of Com­merce in July for a nom­i­nal fee of $1. “By that point in time, we lit­er­ally had no con­gre­ga­tion,” Levine said. Adath Is­rael isn’t the only North Coun­try syn­a­gogue to have shut its doors re­cently; a hand­ful of oth­ers have closed as well.

But even with the sale, Witek be­lieves, the Jewish community’s pres­ence in Massena will be pre­served. “My feel­ing is, as long as the build­ing is there, it is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Jewish community,” she said.

The board also dis­charged the syn­a­gogue’s as­sets. The three To­rah scrolls were do­nated to syn­a­gogues around the re­gion. Sil­ver trays and tea sets were re­turned to the fam­i­lies they orig­i­nally be­longed to. The metal let­ters that spelled out “Adath Is­rael Syn­a­gogue” were placed in a box in Levine’s base­ment. The syn­a­gogue in nearby Pots­dam, Con­gre­ga­tion Beth El, hung Adath Is­rael’s memo­rial board in its main hall, promis­ing to light up the bulbs on the ap­pro­pri­ate yahrzeits. A few of Adath Is­rael’s mem­bers who were well enough to make the 30-minute drive to Pots­dam be­gan at­tend­ing Fri­day night ser­vices there.

dis­so­lu­tion of Adath Is­rael is a sore point among some re­main­ing Jews in Massena. I met with Doris Robin­son, a 78-year-old re­tiree, and Michael Slavin, a lo­cal real es­tate agent, at the li­brary where, months be­fore, mem­bers of the Jewish community voted to turn over the syn­a­gogue build­ing to the Cham­ber of Com­merce.

Slavin is the great-grand­son of Louis Slavin, one of the first Jews in Massena. The elder Slavin

‘It was some­thing we wanted to go away.’

made a liv­ing sell­ing cloth­ing and boots to work­ers at the Alu­minum Com­pany of Amer­ica, which is still one of the largest em­ploy­ers in town. (Lo­cal Jews and even the mayor are quick to men­tion that AL­COA didn’t hire Jews dur­ing its early years in Massena.) When the blood li­bel ru­mor spread through Massena, Michael Slavin’s fa­ther, then a teenager, kept a 24-hour vigil at Adath Is­rael; he later went on to found the first B’nai B’rith chap­ter in town. A bar­rel-chested man with a heavy gold ring on his fin­ger and a Ma­sonic pin fas­tened into the but­ton­hole of his jacket, Slavin fumed over the syn­a­gogue sale, which he said was ex­e­cuted with­out suf­fi­cient in­put from the broader Jewish community.

He con­tends that the board “gave, pil­fered, or stole the con­tents of the Jewish community.” The To­rah scrolls, in­clud­ing one that his great-grand­fa­ther car­ried from Rus­sia, “were given away with no trans­parency…They were go­ing to bury all the yarmulkes,” he said. “It’s some­thing that was done in the olden days. But to­day there are Jewish con­gre­ga­tions that need that.”

Witek and Levine counter that they con­sulted with rab­bis and mem­bers of the lo­cal community be­fore dis­solv­ing Adath Is­rael’s prop­erty. Some di­lap­i­dated tal­li­tot and moldy prayer books were buried, they con­cede, un­us­able by an­other con­gre­ga­tion. “We held on as long as we could, and we put the best care we could into the things the community had to deal with, and we moved on,” Witek said.

But Slavin is adamant. “There’s a right and there’s a wrong,” he said. “And this is a wrong.”

of the syn­a­gogue’s as­sets, a stained-glass win­dow panel, now be­longs to the daugh­ter of Bar­bara Grif­fiths Kle­mens, the one­time four-year-old who wan­dered off into the woods 84 years ago. Kle­mens’ daugh­ter brought her to Adath Is­rael in Au­gust when the Cham­ber of Com­merce was auc­tion­ing off items that re­mained in the build­ing’s base­ment. It was the first time Kle­mens had set foot in the syn­a­gogue where the Jewish community gath­ered in fear of be­ing blamed for her dis­ap­pear­ance.

To­day, Kle­mens lives with her hus­band on a tree-lined street in Can­ton, a vil­lage 45 miles from Massena. Trim with a gray bob and a round face, Kle­mens ran a yarn store from her home for decades. We sat down at a card ta­ble in her liv­ing room, where she had played bridge the night be­fore with sev­eral friends from the neigh­bor­hood.

“I don’t re­mem­ber any­thing di­rectly,” she said. What she can re­call comes from sto­ries her fam­ily told her and the ar­ti­cles and books she read over the years. On that day in Septem­ber, her mother sent her out­side to call her brother, who was col­lect­ing twigs for sling­shots, and bring him home for a lol­lipop. Kle­mens couldn’t find him, and walked into the woods her­self. She even­tu­ally fell asleep, obliv­i­ous to the search crew call­ing her name. (Some ac­counts from the time spec­u­late that she did hear them, but was afraid.) The next morn­ing, she stum­bled into a street where she en­coun­tered two girls who were thumb­ing a ride to nearby Ray­mondville. She vaguely re­mem­bers how the girls looked. “They were girls with curls,” she said.

Kle­mens even­tu­ally left Massena to study physics in Al­bany. She worked for a year in the state health lab­o­ra­tory, mix­ing vac­cines for whoop­ing cough. She and her hus­band re­turned to the North Coun­try 66 years ago. Kle­mens is the mother of three chil­dren, one of whom is now de­ceased. She has six grand­chil­dren, and one great grand­child.

I asked Kle­mens if she ever felt bad for her part in the blood li­bel in­ci­dent. She said she felt sorry for her mother, who must have been wor­ried sick. Her mother was preg­nant at the time that Kle­mens dis­ap­peared, but some­thing — Kle­mens can’t quite re­mem­ber what — hap­pened to the baby. Her mother might have mis­car­ried be­cause of a blood clot.

Be­fore I left, Kle­mens showed me a manila folder filled with news­pa­per clip­pings about the blood li­bel in­ci­dent, dat­ing back to 1928. “Tot Tells of Night in Wood,” “Miss­ing Girl Is Found Safe,” “Four-YearOld Child Lost in Woods Twen­ty­Four Hours.” I asked her why she saved them.

“Any­thing about the fam­ily, I save it,” she said. “Prob­a­bly, mostly, be­cause it’s about me.”

PHOTO: NAOMI ZEVEL­OFF; NEWS­PA­PER CLIP­PINGS COUR­TESY OF BAR­BARA GRIF­FITHS KLE­MENS

Lost and Found: Bar­bara Grif­fiths Kle­mens holds a book writ­ten about the time she wan­dered into the woods and caused a sen­sa­tion.

CLAU­DIO PA­PA­PI­ETRO

Nach Wax­man only parts with a small por­tion of books in his store.

Lost and Found:

NAOMI ZEVEL­OFF

Bar­bara Grif­fiths Kle­mens col­lects news ar­ti­cles that dis­cuss her dis­ap­pear­ance into the Massena woods.

Clo­sure:

NAOMI ZEVEL­OFF

Judy Witek (left) and Lenore Levine stand out­side Adath Is­rael Syn­a­gogue, which they sold in July for $1 to the lo­cal Cham­ber of Com­merce.

Past:

NAOMI ZEVEL­OFF

Michael Slavin, the great grand­son of one of Massena’s first Jews, stands out­side his fam­ily’s shut­tered store.

On Dis­play:

NAOMI ZEVEL­OFF

Deb­bie Fuehring plans Massena’s Jewish his­tory month at the pub­lic li­brary.

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