A new novel re-imagines what happened when a little girl went missing overnight in Massena. It's based on a true story from 1928. The town's small Jewish community was accused of kidnapping her for a ritual murder.
Julie Grant set out to find out what really happened. She found that after 80 years, it's not easy to parse the truth from rumors and memories.
But she did find that people from cultures around the world brought together in America's "melting pot" were easily pulled apart in a time of crisis.
Cook also educated listeners - and producers...
Barbara Klemens is 87-years old. In September 1928, she was known as Barbara Griffiths, and she was four. She doesn’t actually remember the incident people talk about in Massena, but she’s heard the story so many times, she can tell it.
"I was walking home from downtown with my father, we had no car, and I went to get my brother to tell him he could go home and get a lollipop. But I just got lost. And I lay down and went to sleep. I was sleeping all night."
When afternoon turned into evening, and little Barbara hadn’t returned home, her father started searching the woods, where she’d gone to look for her brother. Other people joined the search.
The police and fire departments showed up.
By 5:40 that evening, two state troopers were on the scene.
It was sometime around then that another theory about what happened to the little girl surfaced. And now, eighty years later, families affected by the rumor still talk about it.
Shirley Vernick’s father was a Jew living in Massena when the little girl went missing. Vernick recently published a novel, a work of fiction, about the incident, called The Blood Lie.
I met Shirley Vernick at a diner in Massena. She read a scene from her novel, where she imagines how the owner of a restaurant, a Greek immigrant, first spread the rumor to a state trooper late that evening:
"I’ll tell you flat out, Gus said. It’s time you knew. This girl who disappeared, it’s the Jews. His lips curled 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 into their special foods. Blood of a Christian child, not one of their own."
That’s the fiction.
But in real life, too, the rumor a ritual murder spread through Massena like wildfire.
Fifty-years later Saul Friedman, a professor of Jewish history at Youngstown State University, pieced together the story of what happen over that 24-hour period.
Friedman did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Amateur historian John Michaud first read Friedman’s book when he was 9-years-old. He still lives in Massena.
Michaud says in 1928, Massena was a small, industrial town, looking for labor. The aluminum company, Alcoa, recruited workers from all over the world. It was the cliché of the American melting pot.
"There were over a hundred ethnic backgrounds living in Massena at the time. From Chinese to Japanese to Italians, Jewish. You name it, the ethnics lived in Massena."
And people from each culture brought with them traditions and prejudices from their home countries.
Shirley Vernick says on the surface, people got along. But when the girl went missing, deeper feelings came to the surface.
"Because there was anti-Semitism smoldering and bubbling up from the surface, always, ever since there had been Jews in town. And because there was a crisis, and emotions were on high, it ran rabid."
Vernick says a state trooper showed up at her family’s house late that night, and forced her grandfather to open his clothing store, so it could be searched for the little girl’s corpse.
The next morning, Barbara was still missing.
97-year old Harry Clopman was a teenager back then. His family is also Jewish. They still own a furniture store in town.
"They were organizing groups to go out in the woods looking for this kid. So I volunteered. And we went out in the woods, and we were looking for this kid, and there were other groups out looking for this kid."
Yom Kippur, an important holiday in the Jewish tradition was to begin at sundown. Early that afternoon, Rabbi Berel Brennglass was summoned to the police station.
According to the non-fiction book, the state trooper asked the Rabbi whether Jews in the old country offered human sacrifices, and whether Jewish people ever used human blood. Rabbi Brennglass called it a ridiculous question.
Amateur Massena historian John Michaud says when the Rabbi left town hall, there was a mob outside.
"According to the book people said nasty things to him when he came out, saying, 'yeah, you took the girl, you killed her, you sacrificed her,' you know, crazy stuff."
Harry Clopman doesn’t believe there was any mob, or anyone yelling at the Rabbi outside of town hall. Clopman, himself, was still out with the search party, looking in the woods for the girl. He left to meet his father before the Yom Kippur services...
"When I got to synagogue, here was all this discussion how the rabbi was summoned to police station, and how this false story was going on. Everybody was all excited and everyting. Plenty going on."
When the Jewish men left the synagogue, Clopman says they walked past the firehouse. According to The Incident at Massena, the firehouse was known for housing Klan sympathizers. A group of firemen stood outside.
"They watched us go by like we were a bunch of a…they didn’t mean anything by it, but I’ll never forget that. But they heard the story against the Jewish community, that we were murderers, killers.. …That was quite a crime to be accused of…"
According the The Incident At Massena, leaders in Massena’s Jewish community were frightened. There were 100 Jews, in a town of 85-hundred people.
Many had personal experience with brutal pogroms in their home countries.
They called on two of the nation’s strongest Jewish leaders to help.
One of them, Louis Marshall, sent a reporter to write stories for the Jewish Telegraph Agency.
Just as the synagogue was emptying out, two teenage girls who had come to search for the little girl were trying to find a ride home. Barbara Klemens says she walked out of the woods when she saw them. And, the story goes, the girls started yelling her name.
"The memory I come up with when people ask, is that I remember two girls with long curls, thumbing a ride to Raymondville…they were just outside of Massena. JG: Do you actually remember. BK: No."
Barbara’s clothing had some tears, but otherwise, she was brought home safely.
Harry Clopman says that was the end of it. Until The Incident at Massena was published fifty years later.
"The minute the child was found, I don’t know
that anyone in town ever spoke of it again. Until this guy came and wrote the book about it. We thought the situation was forgotten
because it didn’t last long. It was like
nothing ever happened."
Historian Amy Godine has been writing about anti-Semitism and discrimination in the north country for 25 years. She says it’s understandable that Clopman would downplay a story about anti-Semitism.
"You’re living in the town, it’s really hard to look at it with the cold hard stare that this activity requires sometimes."
Godine says in 1928, anti-Semitism wasn’t confined to Ku Klux Klan parades. It was more pervasive, seeping into the dominant culture. Even the emerging summer recreation scene, at places like the Lake Placid Club, didn’t allow Jews…
"AG: The Lake Placid Club is one instance of that, but there 100 as well, 100 more.
JG: And so, they're not admitting Jewish people...
AG: No, they're not admitting Jews. Not that the Jews in Massena are interested in anything like this. It's not their world. But the point is, that's taking hold, and there's a kind of acceptance of bigotry as part of the American way of life that's taking shape during the 20s, thanks to fear of immigrants."
And the leaders that Massena’s Jews reached out played on those fears.
Jonathon Sarna is a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University. He says Jewish people all over were petrified by the rise in anti-Semitism in the U.S. and around the world.
"It’s only against that background of rising anti-semitism and fear that you can understand what happens at Massena."
Jewish people have been accused of ritual murders throughout history. There’s even a word for it: it’s called a blood libel. The Incident at Massena isn’t even the only such story in the U.S. at that time. But Sarnas says Louis Marshall and the Jewish Telegraph Agency played up the anti-Semitic angle in Massena to teach a lesson:
"And that by making sure this incident was widely known, he thought it would scare people straight, we might say. He thought that people would realize that this rise of anti-Semitistm was beginnign to turn America into Eastern Europe at its worst. So he was very eagar for people to hear about Massena."
Sarnas says Harry Clopman may be right, The Incident at Massena may have been blown out of proportion. But he says people needed to understand the seriousness of the threats against Jewish people at the time. It was only a few years later that the Holocaust started in Europe.
"But I understand perfectly well that the people of Massena ask, 'why us?'"
Today, the Massena phone book is still full of many of those immigrant names: Armenian, Italian, Polish, and Irish. But like many towns in the north country, there aren’t many Jewish people left in Massena. The synagogue sits empty. It’s for sale. And Massena is left with an identity that’s part fact, and part fiction.