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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

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Blood libel tarnishes a small American town

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“I’ll tell you flat out,” Gus said. “It’s time you knew. This girl who disappeared, it’s the Jews.” His lips curled up as if the very word tasted bitter.

“The Jews?”

“They have strange customs for their holidays. Terrible customs. They use blood. Drink it and bake it in their special foods. Blood of a Christian child…”

This chilling exchange appears in Shirley Reva Vernick’s The Blood Lie (Cinco Puntos Press), a young adult novel that deals with one of the oldest and most despicable antisemitic myths, the blood libel, a vile accusation that has demonized, marginalized and subjected Jews to violence.

Blood libel has reared its ugly head in Europe, particularly medieval Britain, czarist Russia and Nazi Germany.

But the United States?

On Sept. 22, 1928, two days before Yom Kippur, a rumour began floating around Massena, a town of 15,000 in upstate New York near the Canadian border with a Jewish population of about 150, that a four-year-old Christian girl, Barbara Griffiths, had been kidnapped and killed by Jews in a ritual murder.

The next day, a Jewish resident of Massena whose knowledge of Jewish customs and traditions was limited, was questioned by state police. He left them with the impression that there might be truth in the allegation that Jews engage in ritual murder. The police then called on the town’s rabbi, and he indignantly told them they should be ashamed of themselves for asking such absurd questions.

Later that day, Barbara was found alive in the woods about a mile from her home. She told rescuers she had lost her way during a walk and had slept in the forest.

The New York Times, having picked up the story, turned it into a national event. The American Jewish Committee denounced the incident, prompting apologies from Massena’s mayor and police.

“I couldn’t believe what I heard when I first learned about the blood libel,” said Vernick, 50, who was born and raised in Massena. “I was shocked that something like this had happened in America in the 20th century. It sounded like a page out of eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. I still wonder how anyone, even a bigot, could buy that canard.”

Vernick, a professional writer who lives in western Massachusetts today, learned about the Massena blood libel while in college.

“During my sophomore year, I came home for a fall break with an assignment for a sociology class. Students had to identify a local community conflict – past or present – and write a paper on it. I remember thinking, no controversies ever happened in my dinky little town of Massena. So I asked my dad, who grew up in Massena, if he had any ideas. That’s when he told me, for the first time, about the blood libel, which happened when he was a high school senior.

“The minute he told me the story, I knew one day I’d write more than a term paper about it. This was a story that not only spoke to me, but grabbed me by the throat and screamed at me. I felt compelled to illuminate this episode in Jewish history, as well as to inspire readers to contemplate the consequences of, and possible responses to, intolerance.”

To the best of her knowledge, the Massena blood libel was the first reported one in the western hemisphere, while The Blood Lie is the first novel of its kind to be published in the United States.

Massena is a few kilometres from the St. Lawrence River, which forms the international boundary between Canada and the United States. It is named in honour of Andre Massena, a French general who fought under Napoleon.

Originally, most of the people in the town were white Protestants, but eventually it was also populated by French-Canadian and Irish immigrants.

With the construction of an immense aluminum plant in the early 20th century, labourers from across Europe, mainly Roman Catholics and a handful of Jews, trickled into Massena. But according to Vernick, the first Jewish settlers, including her paternal grandfather, Samuel Levine, arrived in the late 1890s.

On the eve of World War I, Massena had enough Jewish men to form a minyan, though there was still no rabbi.

In 1919, the Jewish community bought a church, removed its spire and renamed the building Adath Israel. By then, the synagogue had hired Berel Brennglass – a Lithuanian Jew who had arrived in America in 1915 – as its rabbi, shochet and Hebrew teacher. 

Levine was the proprietor of a clothing store, but Vernick’s father, Abraham, was an anesthesiologist. Abraham’s wife, Blanche, was a television producer in New York City, but after marrying Abraham, she became a high school English teacher in Massena.

Vernick’s family was directly victimized by the blood libel. “A state trooper showed up at my father’s house late the night of Griffith’s disappearance and made my grandfather open his shop,” she said. “The trooper searched the store to see if any Jews had stashed the little girl’s corpse there.”

Asked what effect the blood libel accusation had on the Jews of Massena, Vernick replied, “Short-range, it terrified Jews, who feared a pogrom. Jewish people were afraid to walk the streets or let their children walk to school. A boycott of Jewish businesses lasted for several weeks.

“Nothing ever appeared in the local newspaper, the Massena Observer, about the blood libel – no acknowledgement and certainly no apology – probably due to embarrassment on the part of the antisemites. Still, the Jewish community stayed put in Massena, continuing to serve as generous, hardworking citizens.”

Since the blood-libel incident, Massena’s population has shrunk to approximately 13,000 today. The town is still predominantly white, but the Jewish population has declined sharply, in common with other small towns in the United States.

Vernick has some fond memories of Massena and visits occasionally. “But as a child, I overheard a neighbour, an adult, saying, ‘Hitler wasn’t so bad.’ That hit at my core. Also, other children told me that the Jews killed Christ.”

Strolling in the downtown area one day, she saw swastika graffiti. Five years ago, the Jewish cemetery was vandalized, and two 15-year-old youths were charged.

The youngest of five children, Vernick, now the mother of two daughters, left Massena after graduating from high school to attend college and launch her writing career. “It wouldn’t have been feasible or desirable to return to Massena after college because of the dearth of Jews, jobs and social-cultural activities.”

Vernick’s sister and her family, however, still live in Massena. Her parents are deceased.

She claims that Massena has yet to come to terms with the blood libel. “In the immediate aftermath, it was hushed up. But most people never found out about it. I hope The Blood Lie will help start a constructive conversation in town.”

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