This week we mark the 100th anniversary of the most traumatic moment in the history of Atlanta’s Jewish community: the lynching of Leo Frank.
The 31-year-old factory superintendent was — by marriage, by religion, by organizational membership — one of our own, and his slaying a century ago Aug. 17 (and possibly the lynching of another Jewish man convicted of murder in Georgia, Albert Bettelheim, two days earlier) served as an act of terrorism.
The prison officials who did nothing to protect Frank in Milledgeville, the two dozen prominent citizens of Marietta and Cobb County who carried out the abduction and hanging, the thousands of people who made a celebration of seeing and photographing the body dangling from an oak tree, and the law enforcement officials who did nothing to solve the crime combined to threaten the Jewish community.
The threat worked: Those Jews who didn’t move north largely withdrew from public life in Atlanta through World War II.
Our biggest disappointment in the commemoration of the Frank lynching is that we have not seen a coordinated communal effort to match the communal threat of a century ago.
It’s a sign of the creativity and dedication of so many community members that we have a rich mix of centennial events, as listed on Page 16. But it’s a sign of our disunity that those events reflect no broader vision or logical progression.
It’s painful that the two oldest congregations in Cobb County, Congregation Etz Chaim and Temple Kol Emeth, not only couldn’t come together to mark the tragedy that happened a few miles west of them along Route 120, but couldn’t even get out of each other’s way. We’re all poorer for having to choose between their simultaneous events Aug. 16.
If you’re a part of Jewish Atlanta, you should attend at least one of the many commemorations. It’s important to know our history.
Want an academic discussion? The Georgia Historical Society brings the expert, Steve Oney, to town Aug. 13.
Want more of a legal examination? The Anti-Defamation League offers Attorney General Sam Olens, lawyer and former Gov. Roy Barnes, and new ADL National Director Jonathan Greenblatt on Aug. 17.
Want to hear a local prosecutor’s well-researched, well-practiced thoughts? Catch Van Pearlberg at Congregation Ner Tamid on Aug. 15.
Interested in helping say Kaddish for Frank? Etz Chaim on Aug. 16 and Ner Tamid on Aug. 17 offer the opportunity.
Want to lobby for a full exoneration of Frank? Kol Emeth’s event Aug. 16 is the place to be.
This anniversary also is a reminder of the value of the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and its Cuba Family Archives. Without the Breman’s work to preserve, curate and share Jewish Atlanta’s history, the proper observance of the centennial would be impossible.
You can see images from the Cuba Family Archives on this week’s cover and throughout the in-depth article starting on Page 14. You can see samples of the Frank-related items in the lobby display at Etz Chaim and elsewhere. You can visit highlights of the Frank collection in a special exhibit at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw.
When the centennial excitement fades away, the Breman will still be protecting those precious artifacts and the story they tell, ensuring that we need never forget our history.