Anniversaries are so easy to take for granted, if not forget, and their observance can devolve into mindless routine.
That’s especially true for positive events such as wedding anniversaries — another year, another dozen roses — but can also become the reality for painful memories. How many of us will give more than a passing thought to the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks next week or the 74th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack Dec. 7?
We often need round numbers to focus on the past, which is why this August was doubly important. It gave us the centennial of Leo Frank’s lynching — likely the last time the most traumatic moment in the history of Jewish Atlanta will grab national attention — and the 10th anniversary of the near-drowning of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — an event we might not obsess over again for 15 more years, if not longer.
Part of the reason negative anniversaries fade in importance is a sense that we know everything, so we’re just going through the motions each year. But that wasn’t the case with the Frank and Katrina anniversaries.
During the events marking the Frank centennial, we didn’t hear just the familiar facts surrounding the lynching and the murder of Mary Phagan. We learned new details about the 1980s fight for a pardon for Frank, such as how some horse trading over an appeal in a death penalty case played a part in blocking a pardon exonerating Frank and how a Harvard student helped push through a revised pardon.
We heard about the mob attack on a Jewish store owner and his family in Marietta after the lynching from that merchant’s grandson, Marietta City Council member Philip Goldstein.
We also gained a place to remember and mourn Frank at Congregation Etz Chaim with the installation of a stone marker and planting of an oak tree using dirt from the lynching site.
Dave Schechter’s reporting for our Aug. 14 cover story turned up evidence not only that Frank likely wasn’t the only Jew lynched in America, but that he might not have been the only Jew convicted of murder who was lynched in Georgia in mid-August 1915. My new history obsession is learning about Albert Bettelheim and how he met his death two days before Frank. If anyone out there knows anything about him or his case, please share.
As for Katrina, we didn’t dive into what happened Aug. 29, 2005, as much as we tried to assess the state of the Jewish community a decade later and caught up with some of the people we talked to 10 years ago. Because of my ties to New Orleans — I was born and went to college there but didn’t grow up there, and my grandmother and uncle still live there — and the fact that the day the hurricane made landfall was also my first day on the job at the Atlanta Jewish Times, Katrina feels personal even though I was nearly 500 miles away when it struck.
I hope our stories last week and this week provide a more positive ending to the Katrina story. Whatever the struggles of New Orleans at large, its Jewish community has a new strength and vibrancy after a period of stagnation, and Jewish Atlanta has benefited from the addition of some people who stayed after fleeing the storm.
Leo Frank, meanwhile, remains a tragic figure. I am doubtful about the prospects of renewed efforts to win him exoneration from the state, but at least those efforts keep his memory alive.