Amid a surge of bomb threats and vandalism at Jewish institutions nationwide, members of Atlanta’s Jewish community have felt a familiar wave of apprehension about what may come next.
Because all of that, and worse, has happened in the city before.
Six decades ago, during the turmoil of the civil rights era, 50 sticks of dynamite blasted a ragged hole in Atlanta’s largest synagogue. A generation earlier, in 1915, Jewish businessman Leo Frank was lynched during a wave of anti-Semitism.
Some fear that history is once again arcing toward the viperous climate that set the stage for the earlier violence.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the attacks and threats and desecration of Jewish cemeteries in recent days,” said playwright Jimmy Maize, whose play “The Temple Bombing” is on stage this month at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. “I have to say that writing this play feels too much like history repeating itself.”
His play, which addresses anti-Semitism, fear and courage through the drama of the 1958 explosion, was inspired by a book by Atlanta author Melissa Fay Greene.
“We learned over several decades the power of hate speech,” Greene said. “It can lead to people being harmed and killed.”
This past weekend, more than 100 headstones were discovered toppled or damaged at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. In New York, a Rochester cemetery was targeted this week in the latest in a string of anti-Semitic incidents around the county. Cemetery officials said Thursday at least a dozen grave markers were desecrated.
In Indiana, an apparent gunshot fired into a synagogue Tuesday has drawn the attention of the FBI. And Jewish community centers and schools in several states also have been targets of recent bomb scares.
Atlanta has played a prominent role in American Jewish life since the late 1800s. Jewish immigrants began some of its most successful businesses, according to the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
Atlanta was at the forefront of the new, industrial South, and many of its factories were Jewish-owned, said Jeremy Katz, archives director at Atlanta’s William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.
Jewish businessmen gained respect and became community leaders. But their success also led to anti-Semitism from Southerners who felt left behind by the changing economy, said Stuart Rockoff, the former historian for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
“There was this push and pull, and it was kind of a powder keg that ignited with the Leo Frank case,” Katz said. “Before the Frank case, Jews were fairly accepted in the community because social lines were drawn by color of skin rather than religion, so Jews really flourished in the South.”
Everything changed on a spring day in 1913, when 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan was found strangled in the cellar of Atlanta’s National Pencil Company. Frank, the factory’s manager, was arrested and put on trial. As newspaper articles inflamed anti-Semitic passions in and around Atlanta, he was convicted and sentenced to death.
Georgia Gov. John Slaton, convinced Frank was innocent, commuted his sentence to life in prison. In August 1915, a mob snatched Frank from the state prison in Milledgeville and drove him to Marietta, where Phagan had lived, and hanged him from an oak tree.
“The Leo Frank case showed that Jews were not immune from that type of violence and discrimination,” Rockoff said.
In the following years, many Jews didn’t speak of the Frank case.
But by the late 1940s, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild at The Temple in Atlanta had begun speaking out against racial injustice in Atlanta, said his son, William Rothschild. Some believe that made the synagogue a target for extremists.
The bomb exploded about 3:30 a.m. Oct. 12, 1958. A few hours later, during Sunday morning classes, “there would have been hundreds of children in the building,” said Peter Berg, now senior rabbi at The Temple. But the children hadn’t yet arrived, and no one was injured.
“I remember feeling emptiness,” recalls Carol Zaban Cooper of Atlanta, who was 14 when her synagogue was bombed, and went on to become active with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. “I felt hollow, numb.”
Alfred Uhry, author of the play and movie “Driving Miss Daisy,” attended The Temple as a child and had just moved to New York when it was bombed. He recalls the horror of seeing a photo of the destruction in The New York Times.
“It showed a side of the building blown off, and I had gone to Sunday school there,” Uhry said.
A bombing suspect’s first trial ended with a hung jury and the second with an acquittal.
Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield said “every political rabble-rouser is the godfather of these cross burners and dynamiters who sneak about in the dark and give a bad name to the South.”
Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill called it a harvest of hate. One day after the blast he wrote, “It is the harvest of defiance of courts and the encouragement of citizens to defy law on the part of many southern politicians.”
“To be sure, none said go bomb a Jewish temple or a school,” he added in the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial. “But let it be understood that when leadership in high places in any degree fails to support constituted authority, it opens the gate to all those who wish to take law into their own hands.”
Racial hatred put everyone in danger, McGill wrote.
“When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.”