Review: The Accusation — Blood Libel in an American Town

This eye-opening and timely book includes weaving into a local story the larger history of the European blood libel, says Howard Cooper


When four-year-old Barbara Griffiths disappeared in the woods, on a Saturday afternoon in September 1928, in the small town of Massena (pop. 10,000), in upper New York State near the Canadian border, her family organised a search party, called the police and, within a hour, 300 people were combing the area looking for the child.

At the time, a couple of dozen Jewish families lived in the town, mostly Eastern European immigrants, including Edward Berenson’s great-grandparents. Thus the author — born in Massena, like his father before him — has a personal stake in the story of what unfolded next: the first — and, to date, only — occurrence on American soil of the age-old accusation, originating in medieval Europe, of the Jewish ritual murder of a Christian child.

The accusation emerged overnight (it doesn’t require modern social media for unsubstantiated rumours to run wild) though Berenson, in his fine-grained examination of the social, economic and political background to this affair (including his interviews with elderly residents of the town who recalled the events) is careful not to foreclose discussion on who was responsible for the libel: “possibilities include a Greek café owner, an unidentified ‘foreigner’, a French Canadian, and firefighters [who were leading the search] belonging to the Klu Klux Klan”.

On the Sunday morning, two of the town’s Jews — the young, troubled son of the synagogue president, and a man called Morris Goldberg — were interviewed by the Mayor and the police, and in the afternoon, prior to Kol Nidrei that evening, the local rabbi, Berel Brennglass, was hauled in for questioning about Jewish ritual practices.

Berenson’s skill in this eye-opening and timely book includes weaving into this local story the larger history of the European blood libel, and how it migrated into the New World — in the 1920s it was rife in Montreal — along with other manifestations of right-wing nationalist antisemitism.

Late on Sunday afternoon, the lost child — who had fallen asleep when she couldn’t find her way — emerged from the woods, bewildered and disorientated but unharmed.

But that was too late to stop the news of the “blood libel” being taken up by the Jewish political establishment who — shockingly — turned it into a national cause célèbre as part of a battle for influence between Louis Marshall, president of the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi Stephen Wise, leader of the rival communal organisation, the American Jewish Congress.

That both were also using this local incident to try to influence Jewish voters to vote for opposite candidates at the imminent 1928 American presidential election — Marshall, pro-Republican; Wise, pro-Democrat — is one of the additional (but timeless) themes brilliantly illustrated by Berenson, who ends his fine book by describing his 2018 conversation with the ever-alert Barbara Griffiths Klemens, who was still going strong at the age of 94 but had no memory of ever being lost in the woods.

Her death this August — after the completion of this book — adds a poignancy to Berenson’s remarkable tale.

Howard Cooper is a rabbi and psychotherapist

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