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SLU professor talks about 1928 Blood Libel incident in Massena

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MASSENA - An associate professor of religious studies at St. Lawrence University says Massena residents were probably very anxious to put a 1928 blood libel incident behind them and move on.

But they couldn’t, Rabbi Michael Greenwald told a full house at the Massena Public Library Wednesday night.

“It was over,” he said. “What happened, however, was folks from New York City got involved and it became much a much bigger thing than it needed to be.”

Mr. Greenwald was the guest speaker for a lecture on anti-Semitism to kick off a month-long community read centering around the book “The Blood Lie” by Massena native Shirley Levine Vernick.

The book is a fictionalized account of the events in September 1928 when a 4-year-old girl named Barbara Griffiths went missing in Massena and the Jewish community was falsely accused of kidnapping and ritual murder.

Two days before Yom Kippur, on Sept. 22, 1928, Ms. Griffiths, who Mr. Greenwald said is now 88 and lives in Canton, went for a walk and didn’t return. After a search by local residents and police, a rumor began to circulate that she had been kidnapped and killed by the town’s Jews for a religious ritual associated with the upcoming holiday.

“She disappeared Saturday afternoon before Yom Kippur, which was to start Sunday night. She was still missing Sunday morning,” Mr. Greenwald said.

On Sunday search crews were set up by the volunteer fire department, which he said at the time had several Ku Klux Klan members. A Greek restaurateur also started a rumor that “the Jews did it,” according to Mr. Greenwald.

The state police visited and questioned Rabbi Berel Brennglass, then-leader of the Adath Israel synagogue.

“He dressed the state police down. Then he went to the mayor (W. Gilbert Hawes) and dressed him down,” Mr. Greenwald said.

The girl was found in the woods later that afternoon, about a mile from her home, and said she had become lost during her walk and slept in the forest.

“By the time the services began, it was all over. The girl was found. She’s still alive and well and living in Canton,” he said.

The incident wasn’t widely known about in the town at the time, according to the associate professor.

“It was not the whole town (that knew about it),” he said. “Most of the people didn’t know about it. Most of the Jews didn’t know until they went to the synagogue.”

While the incident was over, some people wouldn’t let it rest. The state governor at the time called the Mr. Hawes and said he needed to apologize.

“Eventually Hawes did and people wanted to let it lie. Then this book came out in 1978,” Mr. Greenwald said. “It’s something people won’t let go away.”

That book was called “The Incident at Massena; The blood Libel in America” by Saul S. Friedman.

“There were several different stories. The most frequently cited is ‘The Incident at Massena,’” Mr. Greenwald said.

However, he noted, Massena residents who were around at the time begged to differ with Mr. Friedman’s account. Among them was Sam Jacobs, who was 9 years old at the time of the incident.

“A year after the book came out, he published a rather lengthy review of the book and included his version of the incident,” Mr. Greenwald said. “In Sam’s review, he said just because it in scholarly print doesn’t mean it’s true.”

“It’s unfortunate that this is the only major piece of work out there,” Mr. Greenwald said.

Shirley Levine Vernick penned “The Blood Lie,” which was published in 2011, offering a fictionalized account of the 1928 incident. Members of the Adath Israel synagogue purchased 300 copies of the book for distribution this month, and they have also sponsored all of the month’s events.

Ms. Vernick will be part of a book discussion with North Country Public Radio at 7 p.m. Oct. 25 at the library. Ellen Rocco will serve as moderator, and Ms. Vernick will discuss the book and answer questions.

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