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Massena, N.Y. — One of the synagogue’s assets, a stained-glass window panel, now belongs to the daughter of Barbara Griffiths Klemens, the onetime four-year-old who wandered off into the woods 84 years ago. Klemens’ daughter brought her to Adath Israel in August when the Chamber of Commerce was auctioning off items that remained in the building’s basement. It was the first time Klemens had set foot in the synagogue where the Jewish community gathered in fear of being blamed for her disappearance.
Today, Klemens lives with her husband on a tree-lined street in Canton, a village 45 miles from Massena. Trim with a gray bob and a round face, Klemens ran a yarn store from her home for decades. We sat down at a card table in her living room, where she had played bridge the night before with several friends from the neighborhood.
“I don’t remember anything directly,” she said. What she can recall comes from stories her family told her and the articles and books she read over the years. On that day in September, her mother sent her outside to call her brother, who was collecting twigs for slingshots, and bring him home for a lollipop. Klemens couldn’t find him, and walked into the woods herself. She eventually fell asleep, oblivious to the search crew calling her name. (Some accounts from the time speculate that she did hear them, but was afraid.) The next morning, she stumbled into a street where she encountered two girls who were thumbing a ride to nearby Raymondville. She vaguely remembers how the girls looked. “They were girls with curls,” she said.
Klemens eventually left Massena to study physics in Albany. She worked for a year in the state health laboratory, mixing vaccines for whooping cough. She and her husband returned to the North Country 66 years ago. Klemens is the mother of three children, one of whom is now deceased. She has six grandchildren, and one great grandchild.
I asked Klemens if she ever felt bad for her part in the blood libel incident. She said she felt sorry for her mother, who must have been worried sick. Her mother was pregnant at the time that Klemens disappeared, but something — Klemens can’t quite remember what — happened to the baby. Her mother might have miscarried because of a blood clot.
Before I left, Klemens showed me a manila folder filled with newspaper clippings about the blood libel incident, dating back to 1928. “Tot Tells of Night in Wood,” “Missing Girl Is Found Safe,” “Four-Year-Old Child Lost in Woods Twenty-Four Hours.” I asked her why she saved them.
“Anything about the family, I save it,” she said. “Probably, mostly, because it’s about me.”