Julie Grant’s oral history of the “blood libel” incident in Massena in 1928, which aired this week on NCPR, is a must-listen for anyone interested in the cultural history of the North Country — or the United States, for that matter.
She spent weeks tracking down authors, historians, local residents and some of the people directly involved in the painful case of a little girl who went missing, sparking dark suspicions about the town’s Jewish community.
Some locals feared that the lost child might have been sacrificed as part of a secret Jewish blood-rite.
If this sounds like ancient history, the kind of bigoted thing that you find in dusty history books, it might surprise you that Grant was actually able to track down Barbara Klemens, the missing child who was at the center of the story.
She’s now 87 years old and her memories of the incident have dimmed with time. But this is, as they say, living history.
Grant explores, richly and complexly, the ways that perception of this story have changed over the years.
She makes clear that many locals — including some local Jewish families — think the “blood libel” incident has been overblown.
So for the moment, let’s set aside the particulars of the Massena case and consider the bigger context. When the incident in Massena occurred, America was a very different society. An uglier society.
Just a decade earlier, the starkly racist propaganda film “Birth of A Nation” was released, celebrating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The movie was praised by President Woodrow Wilson.
Through the the 1920s and 30s, anti-Semitism was mainstream in America. Towering figures like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were openly hostile to the Jewish community.
In 1939, before the US entered the Second World War, the Nazi-sympathizing “Bund” organization held a rally in New York City that drew 20,000 people.
Massena wasn’t the only North Country community infected by this culture of fear and ignorance.
In her story, Grant quotes author Amy Godine, who has written extensively about ethnic groups in the North Country. She points out that Jews were regularly denied entrance to some of the Adirondacks’ most posh resorts.
“[T]here’s a kind of acceptance of bigotry as part of the American way of life that’s taking shape during the 20s, thanks to fear of immigrants,” Godine concludes.
It appears that Jewish leaders in America actually publicized Massena’s blood libel case to help raise awareness about the dangers of anti-Semitism.
National push-back following the incident was part of a long campaign for equal rights and tolerance that was only beginning to reshape American society.
In his 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America” Phillip Roth explored what might have happened if America had continued down that dark road. What if anti-Semitism prevailed here, as it did in so much of Europe?
What if we had allowed ourselves to be convinced that Jews were really so evil and malignant that they would sacrifice Christian children?
And it’s not just Jews, obviously, who were the subject of this institutional bigotry. What if our society had continued down the path of Jim Crow-style racial apartheid?
What if we had continued forcing Native American children into boarding schools? What if gays and lesbians still faced imprisonment or a diagnosis of mental illness?
What if we continued to put Japanese in internment camps, or limited Chinese immigration because of the “yellow peril”? What if Roman Catholics were still ostracized as anti-American “Papists”?
Grant’s story is a stark reminder of our very recent past and it points to the debt of gratitude we owe to the Americans who fought for vital reforms.
Too often the last half-century is lampooned as a period of ‘political correctness’ or ‘hyper-sensitivity.’ The 1960s have been remade into a caricature, because we forget what so much of the rebellion and turmoil was about.
The simple truth is that not so long ago, America was a place where neighbors openly feared and reviled their neighbors because of the color of their skin, and because of their faith, or because of their sexual orientation.
I’m glad that all those decades ago Barbara Klemens was found alive and well. And I’m grateful that the incident in Massena helped, at least in a small way, to set our country on a better, more hopeful and moral path.