The Strange Silence of the Past – Part 2

The Strange Silence of the Past: A History of Jewish Lynchings – Part 2

"This is Her First Lynching" by Reginald Marsh (1934)

“This is Her First Lynching” by Reginald Marsh (1934)
Picture by Author from “Cartoon Cavalcade”, Edited by Thomas Craven, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1943

When my father was about 4 or 5 he sat on his grandmother’s lap while she read to him from a book of political cartoons.  She halted in shock when she came to a particular cartoon and shut the book in a display of emotion that my father had never seen before or since and simply said, “Oh, nobody should ever show this to children.”  The incident was unusual enough to remain vivid in my father’s memory for the past seventy years.  He later showed me the cartoon:  a crayon and ink sketch by Reginald Marsh of a young girl being held up by her grandmother who proudly says to another woman “This is her first lynching.”  My great-grandmother never read to my father from that book again.

On June 21, 1915, after Leo Frank had exhausted his appeals, the Governor of Georgia commuted his death sentence to life, and a fury erupted in its wake.  An attempt was made on Frank’s life by another prisoner from which he nearly died; his throat was slashed by a butcher knife, severing his jugular.  He was still recovering from his near death experience when he was expertly kidnapped in a scenario that reads like a spy novel of men recruited for their specific skills: an electrician to cut the prison wires, car mechanics to keep the cars running, a locksmith, a telephone man, a medic, a hangman, and a lay preacher.  While some members of the lynch gang kidnapped Frank, others handcuffed the warden, and still others emptied the prison automobiles of gas.  It was extremely well orchestrated.

They then spent the next seven hours driving 175 miles to Marietta, the home county of Mary Phagan.  Around 7:00am Leo Max Frank had the noose placed around his neck and was forced up on a table while the rope was thrown over an oak branch.  He was able to convince one of the men to remove his wedding ring and promise to return it to his wife.  His last words were, “I think more of my wife and my mother than I do of my own life.”  Then the table was kicked out from under him and he lingered several long moments as he slowly choked to death.

Workers Testify for Leo Frank

Workers Testify for Leo Frank

Leo Frank’s lynching was not only a tragedy for him, his family, and his friends, but we’re led to believe for the Atlanta Jewish Community as well.  While sites like Wikipedia report that half of Georgia’s 3000 Jews left after Frank’s murder, I find these numbers highly suspect.  While reviewing statistics complied by the Jewish American Yearbook, a reliable and primary source, I found that the total number of Jews estimated to be living in Atlanta in 1910 was 4200, and for Georgia it was estimated that the Jewish population was around 9300 (for 1907).  Ten years later (the next time such statistics are available) the estimated number of Jews in Atlanta was about 10,000 and for the state around 22,000.  These estimates were compiled for 1917, only two short years after Leo Frank’s lynching.

Was the influx of Jews to Atlanta prior to Frank’s murder so great that the 1917 numbers represent a loss that we can’t see because we don’t have estimates for 1915?  Perhaps, but I feel that this may not be the case.  There is a mystery here that is not easily solvable.  Combing through these records is time consuming and something that will take me quite awhile, so I won’t be able to come to any conclusions in the near future.

What I do know, is that in 1915 my great-grandparents left Atlanta and arrived in New York in time to be counted in that year’s state census, which began on June 1.  My assumption is that prior to 1915 they had been doing quite well in Atlanta.  While they initially lived above their own store in 1911, the very next year they listed a separate residence.  And in 1914 they moved their store to a separate location with a residence listed right next to it.  They were making their own little mark in the world.  Then they abruptly left.  When they arrived back in Kings County they were essentially destitute.  They had lost everything.

Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia circa 1910; less than two miles from where my great-grandparents had their first store

Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia circa 1910; less than two miles from where my great-grandparents had their first store

What happened to cause such a dramatic reduction in circumstances?  Was it merely the boycotting?  Was it the rioting following the commutation of Leo Frank’s sentence?  Was it something else?  I may never be able to find out.  What I do know is that there is this strange silence that surrounds the lynching of Jewish men here in America.  The efforts to extract information are bewilderingly difficult for a people that have quite the reputation for documentation and remembrance.  I do know that my grandfather and my father never knew of the Leo Max Frank trial and lynching.  It was an inexplicable event that shaped the course of their lives, and ultimately, mine.

I suspect what may have happened in Georgia and other Southern states is that a number of Jews decided to “pass”, that is, they changed their last names, perhaps their first as well.  Maybe they even joined a church as a pretense, lighting candles on Friday evenings in secret.  Sometimes survival is more important than the truth.

The events in Atlanta went on to be the catalyst for a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the formation of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, an organization committed to combating anti-Semitism.  Interestingly, when one looks at the number of Jewish immigrants allowed into the United States there is an abrupt drop off beginning around 1915.  From a high of around 140,000 Jewish immigrants in 1914 to about 26,500 the following year.  By 1919 it had dropped to just over 3000.  Then there was a startling rebound in 1921 to around 120,000 which then precipitously dropped, and by 1932 was now under 3000.  This was probably due to the Immigration Act of 1924, which was inspired, in part, by the anti-Semitism stirred up by the Leo Frank case.

Time passed, the world changed.  When I was in my early twenties I traveled with a friend to Austria.  My father cautioned me not to let anyone know I was half-Jewish.  I laughed at him and said, “Dad, it’s the 21st Century.  No one thinks like that anymore.”

My Great-Grandmother, Jessie, at around age 56, 1938, the year before my father was born

My Great-Grandmother, Jessie, at around age 56, in 1938, the year before my father was born

Then, a couple of days ago, I came across an article from the New York Times published in 2000 titled “Georgia Town is Still Divided Over the 1915 Lynching of a Jew”:

“Still, there are echoes of the past. When Philip M. Goldstein, a major property owner in town and longtime City Council member, proposed selling a parcel of land on the town’s antebellum square for a 12-story mixed-use building, reaction was hostile.  [R]esidents at a public hearing responded not just with shouts and foot-stomping, but with anti-Semitic slurs. One elderly man approached Mr. Goldstein’s sister and spat out, ”Remember what happened to Leo Frank.”

 Mr. Goldstein . . . persuaded all but one local reporter not to publish the ugly remark. He also refused to discuss a swastika that was painted on a retaining wall at the disputed property . . . Mr. Goldstein demurred when asked about bigotry here. ”Questions of anti-Semitism, I generally don’t talk about them,” he said.

 Rabbi Lebow is saddened by Mr. Goldstein’s studied silence. He said Jews in the South, even these days, have a ”natural propensity to adopt a protective coloration to blend in” and are ”unwilling to stand up and say anything” when faced with the occasional act of anti-Semitism. He blames this fearful silence on the Frank case, which he calls ”the original sin of Cobb County.”

 In recent days, the rabbi said, he has received many phone calls from Jews begging him to keep silent about the issues . . .”

There are some places in this country where there is no 21st Century; there is only a litany of wounds that stretches back into the dust and sweat of the land.  Where the hush of secrets is heavy in an air unstirred by the wind and the trees whisper amongst themselves the things that they have seen in a language the past has already forgotten.

Sources

Murder Case, Leo Frank lynching Live on

Dallas Holocaust Museum exhibit looks at the 1913 lynching of a Jewish man

Wrongly Accused, Falsely Convicted, Wantonly Murdered

Leo Frank Is Lynched: Falsely accused of murdering a girl, a Jew is killed by a mob while imprisoned in Georgia

Jewish Virtual Library – Leo Frank

American Jewish Archives: Atlanta Jewry – 1900-1930

American Jewish Yearbook 1913/1914

American Jewish Yearbook 1923/1924

American Jewish Yearbook 1933/1934

Jewish Encyclopedia: The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia

Wikipedia – Leo Frank

Georgia Town Still Divided Over the 1915 Lynching of a Jew

Crime Library: The Lynching of Leo Frank

Jewish Currents: Activist Politics & Arts – August 15: Jews and Lynchings

Foundations of Holocaust: American antisemitism and the lynching of Leo Max Frank

10 thoughts on “The Strange Silence of the Past – Part 2

  1. This is extremely disturbing and unsettling. We have issues with racism here in Australia – mainly in relation to our indigenous population and ‘boat people’. With the refugees it is more a fear based issue of being inundated with too many people and harming employment – a rather foolish exaggeration but played up by the right in election times. Our indigenous population issues I think comes from guilt and the anger at being guilty leads to the need to prove that they are unworthy of consideration and assistance. Racism or bigotry in terms of religion is barely an issue even after attempts to drum up fear of Islam. I don’t think I’ve ever really heard anything in my life in regards to anti-semitism but it appears to be an issue for a lot of countries, which I find hard to understand. It does seem from an external perspective that the US does have some very troubling problems with militant groups in so many different areas be it religion, politics, gender debate, race and sexuality. I don’t know if it is bad as we hear as I don’t trust the media not to exaggerate material. But the overt anger of some of the blogs in terms of these things seems to indicate that there are some deep problems diving the people of America.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think you hit the nail on the head, “guilt and the anger at being guilty”. I think guilt makes people feel helpless and ashamed, and anger often feels like control. We definitely have a small but very vocal minority here in America that seems to direct the national conversation on all issues. More troubling to me is the unintentional racism that denies people opportunities or targets them for police profiling. These things are so much harder to combat.

      It’s interesting how racism and bigotry manifest in different countries. In our country, indigenous racism is really invisible. It’s still extremely prevalent, but no one seems to think it’s a problem. Like Australia, indigenous children were removed from their families so that they could be “properly educated and raised” all the way up until the 1970s. There is still such a legacy of harm that is ignored by most of our country. Very sad.

      Thank you for taking the time to read my essay and relate your perspective and experiences. I really appreciate it!

      🙂

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  2. I find it interesting that the governor commuted his sentence and that the criminals felt they had to handcuff the warden and drain the prison cars of gas. I think when we comb the past, we find so much grief, division and hatred. Almost every group has been the victim of some other group(s). This in no way diminishes the horror – in fact, it makes it worse. In Ireland we traveled the Famine Road in the west, the area where our ancestors came from. The treatment of the Native Americans has many horrors, ripples from slavery still cause unrest, Armenians were slaughtered and on and on and on it goes. Some day – some sweet day – we will all look at these atrocities and feel that we are one with the victims, regardless of ethnicity/color/creed. Some day we will stop the nonsensical division of humans into “us” and “them.” Some sweet day our eyes will be opened and we will see that there is no “them” – there is just us. And the angels will sing!

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  3. You really have an incredible flair for writing essays like this that make a reader sit up and take notice. Extraordinarily difficult material to handle and you did a wonderful job with it. My father was a child holocaust victim and I have stories handed down to me that I would love to turn into essays but I cannot seem to find the perspective that isn’t weepy. How did I miss Part I however and where might I find it? Superb and well-documented significant posting, Jessica.

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    • Stephanie,

      First let me say how sorry I am to hear that your father went through something so profoundly difficult. I don’t even have the words to begin to express how that makes me feel and I can well imagine how hard it must be for you.

      While this topic is ‘personal’ to me, it’s far enough removed for me to be able to write it without becoming too upset. What disturbs me most is the self-imposed silence. This is part of our history and we deserve to know about it, not so we can beat our chests or cover ourselves in ashes, but just because it’s part of our history. My grandfather lived his whole life not understanding why he had to leave a home he loved. My father, who was part of the Zionist movement, had never heard of any of the lynchings and was absolutely astounded.

      I know it’s a depressing topic, but I felt it was important to reclaim some of that history. The first part is here:
      http://jmgajda.com/2014/03/23/the-strange-silence-of-the-past/

      But I understand if you don’t really feel like reading it. No worries! 🙂

      Hope all is well with you!

      -Jessica

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The last paragraph is… perfect! I feel literally gutted by it… It is true, the 21st century in some places (and I know them too well) is like ‘anti-semitism? no such thing here’. Yet the Jew, actual or not, is to be blamed for so much… Mostly for scramer’s own incompetence.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Isn’t it funny, the things that remain in our memories, driving us to resolve them? How amazing that your father found the cartoon, and that you could share it here. How horrific that it and many others ever existed.

    (Likewise, your other pictures support your essay admirably. And your sources! What finds!)

    The effort that the kidnappers went through sounds more like a drunk idea gone wild, than a rational plan, but then, how could a lynching be otherwise? I imagine each participant being included for their whimsical talent more than necessity. It sounds more like a theatrical dark comedy than a political statement. What a way to attack and oppress a population!!!!!

    I appreciate your seriously questioning the Wikipedia claim. I have found Wikipedia misleading in so many cases, I only use it to lead me to references, or give me very basic, elementary information, or as a reminder of what I used to know. I appreciate your efforts to correct the sources of (mis)information for Wikipedia.

    My grandfather’s immigration experience can confirm your finding that New York City was a safe haven for Jews around 1900. When he arrived, his Greek relatives helped him choose and change his name to Golden to help him “pass”, a name as common among Jews as Smith is among the English.

    What a powerful quote from the New York Times. I am familiar with anti-Semitism in small towns in New York state. I was a member of a school district’s Diversity Committee. The teachers, superintendent and Board decided that the school didn’t have a diversity problem, in spite of the evidence we presented. The meetings gave me the guidance that I needed for talking effectively with my kids about diversity issues. I am saddened but not surprised by the conditions in Georgia.

    Stunning literature: “there is only a litany of wounds that stretches back into the dust and sweat of the land. Where the hush of secrets is heavy in an air unstirred by the wind, and the trees whisper amongst themselves the things that they have seen in a language the past has already forgotten.”

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  6. Wow. This article is rich. Related like a story that needs to be told. Thank you for being willing to tackle such an unpleasant subject in such a thorough way; it is time, is it not? Some things are too painful to be contemplated until decades later, apparently. Thank you for the picture ( I shudder to call it a cartoon); I was reading an article by Ida B. Wells today and wondered if perhaps she was being a bit sensational in her depiction of the amusement of the crowds. I see she wasn’t. How terribly sad.

    As a follower of Jesus Christ, (I don’t want to say Christian for fear of being associated in your mind with the atrocities committed by so many claiming that precious title), I beg, if I may, your pardon in a token way for the pain that has been inflicted on your precious people in such a blasphemous way in the name of the Messiah Jesus, the king of the Jews. How his enemies know how to distort His heart. He came to the Jews, loved them even when they rejected Him as their king, and still has a plan for them that is beyond our comprehension. I am so honored to get to love Him as an adopted child of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Any true Christ-follower better know that they are in line only after and because of the nation of Israel. May God bless you in your work to bless His people. I love you and your cause.

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