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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After Barbara Griffiths went missing, Clopman said, he joined the search party for her rescue, but left early to go to Yom Kippur services. He heard nothing of the blood libel rumor until Brennglass arrived at Adath Israel “all excited”: He had just been questioned by law enforcement. “The rabbi gave them a good tongue lashing,” said Clopman, who was 13 at the time. “It was forgotten after that.” No Jewish businesses were searched for the Griffiths child, nor were they boycotted in the ensuing weeks, he said.

Clopman said he felt sorry for the Massena mayor, whom he believes was raked over the coals by the New York Jewish establishment. “That man was never the same after that,” he said.

Clopman blames a 1978 book, “The Incident at Massena,” for turning a local skirmish into a Jewish historical event. The book was written by Saul Friedman, a professor of Jewish history at Youngstown State University, in Ohio, who first read about the blood libel incident in an endnote in “The Devil and the Jews” by Joshua Trachtenberg. “The Incident at Massena” portrays the blood libel affair as the inevitable outcome of “mesozoic hatreds” against Jews and other outsiders in Massena. “All that was needed to release this pent-up fury was an excuse,” Friedman writes.

But “The Incident at Massena” is hardly accepted as unqualified truth in Massena. Local critics often refer to a book review by Sam Jacobs, a Jewish entrepreneur who died last year. Writing in Judaism, a now defunct quarterly journal, in 1979, Jacobs suggested that Friedman had sensationalized the event by painting a picture of “a village seething with mass hysteria.” The author made “no real attempt to sift through and evaluate the information; much of it may have been hearsay or worse,” he wrote. As far as Clopman is concerned, the book is a “bunch of damn lies.”

Friedman was unable to respond due to his advanced age.

But for other Massena Jews, the book’s more dramatic elements ring true. Shirley Reva Vernick, who grew up in Massena but now resides in western Massachusetts, learned about the incident from her father, who was a teenager at the time. “State troopers came to my grandfather’s house late at night and made him go downtown and open his store so they could see if the corpse of Barbara Griffiths was stashed there,” she said. Even after the girl was found, many suspected that the Jewish community released her when they realized the state police were on the case. “My father and his five siblings experienced harassment, jeering,” she said. Parents began accompanying their children to school. “At least one family moved away,” Vernick said.

Last year, Vernick published a fictional account of the incident, “The Blood Lie,” that hews closely to her family’s version of the event. The young adult novel was the inspiration for the Massena Public Library’s month-long series on Jewish life. The series, which includes a performance by a Vermont klezmer band and a screening of “Fiddler on the Roof,” culminates on October 25 with a public discussion of Vernick’s book. Three hundred copies of “The Blood Lie” were distributed in Massena; the book is now part of the English literature curriculum at public schools in the area.


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