Massena, N.Y. — The only recorded blood libel accusation against American Jews occurred in 1928 in Massena, N.Y., a small industrial town on the Canadian border that for the next 84 years never brought up the episode. But today, Debbie Fuehring, program director at Massena Public Library, is eager to show a visiting reporter the box of rugelach and mandelbrot she had shipped in specially for the library’s October Jewish history program. The delicacies will be served during the program, at which, for the first time, Massena will publicly discuss the blood libel affair.
“We want to educate the children and the people of Massena,” she said. “It’s good to be aware of intolerance.”
The public reckoning comes at an unusual moment in the town’s history. As it happens, Massena’s Jewish community, which traces its roots back to the 19th century, is liquidating its presence after years of shrinking membership. It’s a common story in America today. Jewish communities once proliferated across New England, the Deep South and even the Far West, as immigrant peddlers and shopkeepers found homes and acceptance, they thought, in the nation’s countless towns and villages.
Massena is no different from many of these towns. But here there is a twist, and questions that linger about the acceptance those Jews found.
With a population just shy of 13,000, Massena is the northernmost town in New York state, an hour and 45 minute drive from Montreal. Once an industrial center of the North Country, the town’s economy has contracted in recent decades due to the consolidation of two aluminum production plants and the closure of a General Motors Co. facility. Downtown Massena is now pocked with empty storefronts. The immigrant groups — Italians, Irish, French Canadians and Eastern European Jews — who once flocked there have largely disappeared.
The 1928 blood libel incident began on the eve of Yom Kippur, when a 4-year-old Christian girl named Barbara Griffiths disappeared into the woods adjacent to her home. The local fire department, which at that time included many active members of the Ku Klux Klan, organized a search for her. Meanwhile, a state trooper stopped off at a local diner owned by a Greek immigrant, who speculated that Griffiths was abducted by the Jewish community for ritual sacrifice on the holiday. The state trooper brought Rabbi Berel Brennglass in for questioning as an angry mob gathered outside. Brennglass famously dressed down the troopers and delivered a rousing sermon at synagogue that evening, at the Kol Nidre service.
The next day, Griffiths reappeared from the woods, unharmed. But the story had already traveled far beyond the town. Jewish newspapers printed screaming headlines: “Ku Klux Klan Throws Blood Libel on Jews of Massena NY,” proclaimed the Yiddish Morgn Zhurnal. The Forverts, this paper’s predecessor, described a near pogrom, with Jews “horrified and fearing for their lives.” And the Jewish Daily Bulletin published the story on its front page, alongside reports on a synagogue plundering in Berlin and attacks on Jews at the Wailing Wall.