A native of a village in upstate New York turns in a strange and riveting story of anti-Semitism in an era not far removed from our own.
On Sept. 22, 1928, a 4-year-old girl disappeared into the woods outside Massena, New York. Within hours, writes Berenson (History/New York Univ.; Europe in the Modern World: A New Narrative History Since 1500, 2016, etc.), hundreds of people had assembled to search for her. “Several hours into the search,” he writes, “someone—it’s unclear who—floated the idea that Barbara had been kidnapped and killed by the Jews.” That accusation quickly took root even if Jews were well known as residents in “an ethnically and religiously diverse population” that had once been almost all white and Protestant in the agricultural era but, once industry arrived, introduced an immigrant population, most from neighboring Canada but many from Eastern Europe and Italy. Berenson’s grandfather, a chemical engineer from Boston, was a newcomer as well to a town with 20 Jewish families who “suddenly found themselves transported back to the Old World of anti-Jewish hostility from which they fled.” When it developed that the “blood libel,” the charge that Jews killed Christian children for blood to use in religious rituals, had not been fulfilled and the girl was safe, things slowly returned to something approaching normality—save that there are now only 10 Jews in Massena, and its small synagogue closed in 2012 even as the town has sunk into poverty. In this fluent account, Berenson explores the effect of the incident, the blood libel charge having been common in Europe but altogether rare in the U.S. even in those days of rising fascism. Moreover, he examines the history of blood libel, tracing it to medieval England, which was long used to excuse pogroms and other persecution in an ugly history that culminated in the Holocaust.
An excellent work of scholarly detection, especially timely in an age when the immigrant “other” is under constant suspicion.