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Massena is a quiet city in upstate New York that sits beside the St. Lawrence River across the water from Canada. The Jewish population of Massena is small and supports one synagogue. Massena seems an unlikely location for a major event in American Jewish history, but it was.
In 1928, a “blood libel” accusation against the 100 or so Jewish residents then living in Massena tore the city apart. Blood libels have been a part of Jewish history at least since 1144, when the Jews of England were accused of having purchased a Christian boy–the child martyr, William of Norwich–to torture and crucify him. At the heart of the blood libel is the charge that Jews murder Christian children to procure their blood, or more rarely their internal organs, to make matzoh at Passover. Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, accused the “cursed Jewes” of infanticide in “The Prioress’s Tale.” The myth of Jewish ritual sacrifice continued to persist through the centuries. It occasionally resonated on the fringes of American society, no place more openly and angrily than in Massena, New York.
On erev Yom Kippur, 1928, the New York State police brought in Rabbi Berel Brennglass of Massena’s Orthodox congregation Adath Israel for questioning. Four-year-old Barbara Griffiths of Massena had disappeared and Albert Comnas, an immigrant from Salonika, Greece, charged the Jews of Massena might have kidnapped little Barbara and ritually murdered her for her blood because the highest of Jewish holy days was about to begin. The police interrogated Rabbi Brennglass for more than an hour about Jewish practices in respect to human sacrifice and the use of blood in food. Fortunately, during the interrogation, Barbara emerged from the woods where, having become lost, she had spent the night in the tall grass.
Her reappearance did not fully calm some townspeople. They suggested that the Jews had released her only on discovery of their plot. Choosing to believe this was true, Mayor W. Gilbert Hawes organized a boycott of Massena’s Jewish-owned businesses. Massena’s dismayed Jewish community leaders called on Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, to intervene. Wise asked his friend Al Smith, New York’s governor, who was running for president on the Democratic ticket that year, to speak out in defense of Massena’s Jews. Smith assured Wise that while he could do nothing about the mayor’s actions, because they were not under his jurisdiction, he would make certain that the actions of the state trooper in the case were thoroughly investigated.
The incident ended in the next two or three weeks. The New York Times picked up the story and made it a national event. Mayor Hawes, a Republican with his eyes on his pending re-election campaign and apparently under pressure from the national Republican Party, issued a public apology. His statement read in part, “In light of the solemn protest of my Jewish neighbors, I feel I ought to express clearly and unequivocally my sincere regret that by any act of commission or omission, I should have seemed to lend countenance to what I should have known to be a cruel libel imputing human sacrifice as a practice now or at any time in the history of the Jewish people.” Hawes was reelected for a sixth consecutive term.
Historically, blood libels have not been leveled exclusively at Jews. Ironically, the early Christians were purported to practice infanticide and baby eating. Perhaps this was a residual charge associated with the Jewish origins of early Christianity. The Spanish New World explorers justified their conquest of the Central American Indians because the Aztecs performed “ritual crucifixions” at Easter (a logical impossibility, since the Aztecs knew nothing of Christian history). As recently as the Bosnian war, Serbian militiamen accused their Muslim opponents of crucifying and decapitating Christian children and floating their corpses down the Drina River.
However, the blood libel charge has clung consistently to Jews for at least a millennium. Moreover, that it could arise in the United States in the twentieth century gives pause. As Rabbi Brennglass reminded his congregation at Kol Nidre services in 1928, “We must forever remind ourselves that this happened in America, not tsarist Russia, among people we have come to regard as our friends. We must show our neighbors that their hatred originates in fear, and that this fear has its roots in ignorance. We must show them they have nothing to fear from us. We must tell the world this story so it will never happen again.”