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Service honors Jew who was lynched in 1915

On the 87th anniversary of Leo Max Frank’s burial, Queens Jewish leaders, members of his family and members of the Anti-Defamation League gathered to remember the only Jew ever lynched in the United States at his Ridgewood grave site.

Against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism around the globe, the event on a hot Thursday morning at Mount Carmel Cemetery honored Frank, who was convicted of a crime he did not commit. He was killed outside Marietta, Ga. on Aug. 17, 1915 by the Ku Klux Klan after the governor commuted his death sentence to life in jail in an act that harked back to the Dreyfus affair in France .

Frank was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his office employee, Mary Phagan in 1913. In 1894 Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer, was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason. But unlike Frank, Dreyfus was exonerated.

“We hope as an organization this service had an impact,” said Joel Levy, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New York Office. “Next year is the 90th anniversary of the Anti-Defamation League and when Frank was convicted. We hope to have a significant ceremony commemorating the events.

“Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is still with us despite the progress made in the United States,” he said. “We need to stand up and fight against anti-Semitism and make a significant stand in his memory.”

Anti-Semitism throughout the world has been on the rise recently. There has been desecration of Jewish cemeteries in France, Italy and Staten Island. A temple was also blown up a few months ago in Tunisia.

Born in Cuero, Texas on April 17, 1884, Frank grew up with his family in Brooklyn and attended Cornell University before he headed down South to manage his uncle’s pencil factory.

“Unfortunately for Frank,” said Jeff Gottlieb, president of the Queens Jewish Historical Society, “he had a zealous district attorney who did not share information and he was convicted.”

He said Frank was found guilty of the murder in 1913 even though he did not kill his employee. Then when Georgia Gov. John Slayton commuted Frank’s sentence in 1915, the KKK swooped in and took him from prison.

According to the Jewish calendar, which is based on the lunar cycles, the anniversary of Frank’s Aug. 20, 1915 burial date was Aug. 15, 2002. Next year it will be Sept. 4, 2003.

Atlanta had an influx of Russian Jewish immigrants in the late 1880s who helped build the largest Jewish population of any southern city at that time.

Catherine Smithline, Frank’s grand niece, said the family has kept a very low profile, but other people have kept her great uncle’s name alive.

She said she did not hear too much about her great uncle directly from her family, but people told her Frank was always optimistic about this chances before he was convicted.

“He thought he would be OK,” Smithline said. “He always knew he was innocent and justice would prevail. He didn’t expect this.”

Before the Klan hanged him from a tree, Frank gave his wedding ring to one of the mob’s members to be delivered to his wife and wrote a note in German that was lost, Gottlieb told the crowd of more than 40, including 14 ADL interns,

He said Frank’s last words were ‘I love my wife and mother more than I love my life.” The mob then kicked the table out from under his feet. The noose reopened a stab wound in his neck and as he strangled. blood seeped out of the cut and covered Frank’s torso.

Two of the organizations formed at the time were the Anti-Defamation League in 1913 and the KKK in 1915.

Frank was pardoned in 1986 after a witness who came forward in 1982 said Frank did not kill the girl.

Saul Grossman, a history buff from Kew Gardens Hills who discovered that Frank was buried in Queens, said Alanzo Mann, a former office boy at the Georgia pencil factory owned by Frank’s uncle, swore before a court that he saw another man carrying Phelan’s limp body from the factory.

He said Mann told the court that man was Jim Conley, who supposedly warned the young Mann that he better not say anything about what he had witnessed or he would be in trouble. When Mann asked his mother what he should do, she told him to keep his mouth shut.

“Saying Kaddish or Yarzheit at his grave is only fitting,” Grossman said. “There is nothing about his role in Jewish history. His memory lives in a vacuum.”

Manny Behar, executive director of the Queens Community Jewish Council, said the Frank case was used to incite hatred against Jews by the masses at that time.

“Unfortunately, this is still alive today,” he said. “What we should take away today is the fight against anti-Semitism and all hatred. Leo Frank was the only Jew lynched by the KKK, but many African Americans were killed the same way in the South.”

Aissatou Dia, 17, from Corona and one of the 14 ADL interns at the service, said she had heard about Frank, but never knew he was lynched. She said it was important to hold the ceremony to let people know what happened in the country’s past.

“It is good for people to remember,” Smithline said, “and hopefully nothing like this will happen again.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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