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Book on U.S. blood libel is thin on material

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The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town by Edward Berenson (Norton)

A little-known and shocking episode of American Jewish history is recounted in The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town, written by Edward Berenson, a prolific author and professor of history at New York University.

The town referenced in the title is Massena, N.Y., which lies along the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River, about midway between Cornwall, Ont., and Montreal. The central event of the narrative occurred on Sept. 22, 1928, when a local four-year-old girl named Barbara Griffiths, looking for her older brother, strayed into the woods surrounding Massena and disappeared. Hours later, her brother returned home without her, and a massive search for the girl began.

By that evening, someone – Berenson could not identify who – began to circulate the notion that Barbara had been kidnapped and killed by Jews. “She was the victim, voices said, of ritual murder, of the Jews’ supposed need to ritually kill Christian children and harvest their blood,” Berenson writes. The idea spread quickly across town, and before long, a mob had gathered outside the solid limestone building that served as the town hall.

Back then, Massena was a town of about 10,000 people, including perhaps a couple hundred Jews. Many Jewish families owned shops or businesses and had a prominent presence along the town’s main street. When the blood libel accusation reached the ears of a local state trooper, he took it seriously enough that he began making inquiries. He then briefed Massena’s mayor, and the two continued their investigation. In pursuit of answers, they summoned the rabbi of Massena’s Jewish community, Berel Brennglass, to the town hall to answer to the charge. The rabbi had to wade through a crowd of some 300 to 400 people – a crowd that was variously described as “hostile and menacing” and “calm but watchful.”

Rabbi Brennglass wrote down his version of events for posterity: “I was asked by the trooper the following questions: Do you know that a child was lost? I answered yes. Have you a holiday tomorrow? Answer: Yes (Yom Kippur). Could you inform me if your people in the old country are offering human sacrifices on a holiday? Answer: I am dreadfully surprised to hear such a foolish, ridiculous and contemptible question from an officer in the United States of America, which is the most enlightened and civilized country in the world. Do you realize the seriousness of this question? The trooper said then that a foreigner told him so. I told him that it is a false and malicious accusation.”

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Berenson, who was born in Massena, had heard about the blood libel from his parents when he was very young, and of the effects it had on the Jewish community (his grandparents had been shopkeepers in Massena and his father was born there). An eyewitness of the affair – Alice Rosen, who was 102 years old when Berenson interviewed her – said that many of Massena’s Jews were recent immigrants who were convinced that a pogrom was about to take place.

After describing the events that occurred following the girl’s disappearance, Berenson leaves the story hanging as he recounts at considerable length the history of Massena, as well as the local Alcoa smelting plant, the Ku Klux Klan, and anti-Semitism in America. He also discusses the rise of anti-Semitism in neighbouring Quebec. It was possible, he suggests, that French-Canadian workers in Massena may have been the first to float the vile rumour of local Jews using the blood of a Christian child in their religious rituals.

The Accusation provides an extensive history of blood libel accusations from medieval days to the early 20th century in Italy, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Russia, South America and other places, as the ugly virus spread to practically every place where there were Jews. As this book shows, not even the United States – the strongest western liberal democracy – had full immunity against this hardy perennial hatred, although the Massena incident, which briefly made headlines across the country, is apparently unique in the annals of Jewish American history.

And what of the lost child, Griffiths? It takes Berenson about 150 pages to return to the narrative thread of her disappearance. Only then does he reveal that she “suddenly stumbled out of the woods, bewildered and disoriented but unharmed. At about 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, just over 24 hours after she had disappeared, the four-year-old was spotted in a farmer’s field less than a mile from her house.” Griffiths had shivered through a night in the woods and, after a short recovery, was back to her usual self.

One of the most interesting elements of Berenson’s inquiry into the Massena affair is the strong differences that arose between two leaders of the American Jewish community, Louis Marshall, president of the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress.

Marshall was appalled when Rabbi Wise accepted the town mayor’s initial apology without demanding his resignation. Marshall wanted a more formal letter of contrition along with the mayor’s resignation, as he considered him to be “guilty of the most serious offence ever perpetrated in this country upon the Jewish people, infinitely worse than anything that Henry Ford ever did.”

New York Gov. Al Smith was of the opinion that Marshall’s demands were excessive and would make the mayor “a victim and a hero.” Ultimately, public opinion was strongly in favour of Rabbi Wise’s handling of the affair. For Canadians, the relationship between the two Jewish organizations seems reminiscent of the recurrent opposing stances on matters of Jewish interest between the generally moderate Canadian Jewish Congress (later the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) and the typically more hardline B’nai Brith Canada.

Back in the days when magazines mattered, this subject might have made for a great magazine story. But the author spreads his material a little too thinly in attempting to present it as a book, even a book of modest size as this one is (272 pages including elaborate footnotes). I fear it is really meant for readers with a specific interest in blood libels throughout history, as there’s not enough here, despite the sensational premise of the title, to capture the attention of the general reader.

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