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Book discussion provides forum to discuss anti-Semitism

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MASSENA - Even decades after a 1928 “blood libel” incident in Massena, the author of a fictionalized account of that event said details are still sketchy.

And that, Shirley Reva Vernick said, is the reason why she chose to make her 2011 book fiction rather than a true-to-life account of the event.

“There is so little known. I didn’t think I could get something accurate,” Ms. Vernick told a standing room only crowd that gathered at the Massena Public Library for a discussion of her book, “The Blood Lie.”

Another reason she fictionalized it, she said, was because “I wanted to put myself in the head of the main character.”

Ms. Vernick’s book has been the focal point for a month-long community read at the library. A donation from the Adath Israel congregation allowed the library to purchase 300 copies of the book, which were distributed to interested patrons.

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

Ms. Klemens was present with her daughter for Thursday night’s book discussion moderated by Ellen Rocco, North Country Public Radio.

Two days before Yom Kippur, on Sept. 22, 1928, Ms. Griffiths 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.

Local police searched businesses owned by Jewish residents and, on Sunday, search crews were set up by the volunteer fire department. The state police also visited and questioned Rabbi Berel Brennglass, then-leader of the Adath Israel synagogue.

Ms. Griffiths 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.

“My father took me up into the woods the next day,” Ms. Griffiths said Thursday, and she showed him bushes she had seen while lost in the woods the day before. “It didn’t impress me terribly.”

The incident caused some strain in the community, where several Jewish families owned stores, according to Ms. Vernick.

“There were boycotts that went on for weeks,” she said.

Some of those in the audience said they were aghast that an incident like that could occur in Massena.

“I think it’s just amazing that it happened here and we’re living here. It seems like it was the only place where blood libel happened. Why would it happen in Massena?” one woman wondered.

Another woman said she was born in Massena and grew up in the community.

“I never knew about it until three years ago when I read ‘The Incident at Massena.’ It was horrible. Other people felt the same way,” she said.

“The Incident at Massena: The Blood Libel in America” by Saul S. Friedman chronicled the 1928 event. But until his book was published in 1978, many were unaware of the incident. Ms. Vernick said she didn’t learn about it from her father until she was in college.

“The inclination is to just adapt and not draw attention to yourself,” Ms. Rocco suggested.

But there was still a sense of anti-Semitism that continued long after the 1928 incident, according to Ms. Vernick, who grew up in Massena with her parents and four older siblings.

“I did not feel a strong anti-Semitism. I did experience something from people who weren’t my friends. There were also situations where I was made to feel like the token Jew at a party. I would not call it anti-Semitism, but I felt a sense of people not knowing. It was much, much milder than what my father had experienced,” she said.

Her life, however, gave her insight while creating the characters and writing “The Blood Lie.”

“I felt like I was in a good position to get inside the heads of those characters differently than an outside. I felt like it allowed me to be kind of like a kindred spirit,” Ms. Vernick said.

The book is geared toward a specific audience, she said.

“I intended for the book to be what they call today a young adult book with a crossover. I intentionally geared it toward young adults. Hopefully adults find it engaging, too,” she said.

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