Decades-Old Blood Libel Case Roils Town

Dwindling Jewish Community Still Haunted by 1928 Incident

naomi zeveloff

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published October 18, 2012, issue of October 26, 2012.
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At the behest of Louis Marshall of the American Jewish Committee, Massena Mayor Gilbert Hawes issued an apology, but he rejected calls by prominent Jewish leaders in New York City for his resignation. Meanwhile, Marshall and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, his great rival for leadership of American Jewry, treated the incident as a political football as they struggled to outdo each other.

Sold: Judy Witek, left, and Lenore Levine stand in front of the synagogue in Massena that was sold for $1 to the town’s chamber of commerce.
naomi zeveloff
Sold: Judy Witek, left, and Lenore Levine stand in front of the synagogue in Massena that was sold for $1 to the town’s chamber of commerce.

Back in Massena, some historical accounts say that the incident subsided quickly and that friendly relations between Massena’s Jews and gentiles resumed. But others contend that the antagonism continued unabated for weeks, culminating in a boycott of Jewish businesses led by the mayor. Ab Cahan, the Forverts’ legendary editor, condemned the boycott, but called on Jews to refrain from punishing the mayor further, because “it would create the impression that Jews are vengeful.”

Today, Massena’s Jewish community has dwindled to about 10 people from its onetime high of 20 families. The Jewish-owned businesses that used to line Main Street in downtown Massena — Clopman’s, Levine’s, Slavin’s and others — have all closed. Long without a minyan, the Adath Israel synagogue was sold to the Massena Chamber of Commerce earlier this year for $1. The only Star of David remaining in Massena is the metal one atop the gate to the local Jewish cemetery. Six years ago, someone placed a hula hoop atop the star and spray painted a swastika on the asphalt below. It is evidence, some say, that anti-Semitism still abounds in the St. Lawrence River Valley

The public library’s belated remembrance of the blood libel incident finds the small community in turmoil. Massena’s Jews are deeply divided over the fate of the synagogue building and the tallitot, prayer books, and Torah scrolls it once housed. The library series is also a source of contention; some Jews see it is an opportunity to educate Massenans about anti-Semitism and intolerance. But others would rather forget about the event — a moment of friction in an otherwise placid small-town history of gentiles and Jews.

At stake in both cases are the community’s memories. As Jewish life in Massena sputters out, the remaining individuals are waging an internecine battle over the story that Massena’s Jews will tell about themselves — and that the town will remember about its signal moment on a national stage.

In the Massena area today, there are only two people alive with direct ties to the blood libel incident. One is Barbara Griffiths Klemens, the onetime 4-year-old girl, now 88, who disappeared into the woods. The other is Harry Clopman, a 97-year-old World War II veteran with a full head of white hair. His family furniture store, Clopman’s, went out of business last summer, the last of the Jewish storefronts to disappear from downtown. Clopman lives in a one-story home across the street from the St. Lawrence River, the dividing line between the United States and Canada. Sitting forward in a recliner in his wood-paneled living room, he told me that the library is making a mountain out of a molehill with its remembrance of the blood libel.

“It was something we wanted to go away,” said his daughter, Miriam Catapano, who was sitting across the room. “There was no reason for it to be constantly brought up.”


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