Named after the man who created it in 1996, the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, Georgia helps preserve and present Southern (United States) Jewish history. In fact, it may be the largest repository of Southern Jewish history in the world. I had the privilege of visiting this museum in 2014.
Prior to my visit to the Breman Museum, I visited Atlanta’s beautiful Oakland Cemetery, which was established in 1850. Because of its historic significance, Oakland offers a variety of cemetery tours throughout the year. Fortunately, for me, it was offering its Jewish history tour while I was in Atlanta. During that tour, I saw the unmarked grave of Leo Frank’s wife, Lucille. Instead of a headstone, her grave was just an angel statue placed between her parents’ gravestones. Meanwhile, her husband, Leo Frank, is buried in New York, where he was raised. I will discuss Leo Frank in more detail further below.
In addition to my Aunt and Uncle, the only other person on Oakland Cemetery’s Jewish tour happened to be the archivist of the Breman Museum. When we told him that we were planning to stop by the Breman Museum soon, he kindly offered to give us a behind-the-scenes tour during our visit. True to his word, he gave us a tour of the Museum’s archives when we visited!
The Breman Museum has a permanent exhibit about the Holocaust called “Absence of Humanity: The Holocaust Years, 1933-1945.” However, due to a lack of time, I only glanced through it briefly. In addition to its permanent exhibit, the Breman Museum also displays different temporary exhibits that focus on Southern Jewish history. While I was there, it had a display called “Return to Rich’s,” which focused on Rich’s, a department store in Atlanta that operated between 1867 to 2005. Its founder, Morris Rich (previously, Mauritius Reich), was Jewish.
In addition to its exhibits, the Breman Museum also has a number of Holocaust survivors and their descendants take turns sharing their testimonies to Museum visitors. While I visited the Breman Museum, I had the opportunity of hearing a Holocaust survivor tell his story. I had heard numerous survivors living in the Midwestern United States tell their stories before, but this was the first time I had heard the testimony of a survivor living in the Southern United States. There were two main differences that I noticed between a Southern and a Midwestern Holocaust survivor. First, the Southern Holocaust survivor that I heard had a Southern twang in his European accent. Second, the survivor mentioned that upon his arrival to the South, he immediately noticed the Jim Crow laws, which segregated the African American and White populations from each other. They reminded him of how the Nazis enforced similar laws against the Jews at the beginning of the Holocaust. Since the Midwestern United States did not enforce Jim Crow laws, this narrative was absent from the testimonies of Holocaust survivors living there.
My discussion of the Breman Museum would be incomplete without mentioning Leo Frank, the man who unintentionally played a major role in Southern Jewish history. Leo Frank was the only Jew who has ever been lynched in the United States. The lynching occurred in Marietta, Georgia, which is about a 25-minute drive northwest of Atlanta. In 1913, Frank was arrested and convicted of raping and killing a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan, who was one of his employees at the National Pencil Factory. However, in 1915, prior to his scheduled execution, the local governor changed Frank’s sentence from death to life imprisonment, because he doubted Frank’s guilt. When local people heard about the change in Frank’s sentence, they decided to take matters into their own hands by illegally removing Frank from prison and hanging him on a tree. In 1986, the state of Georgia, while not declaring Frank innocent, posthumously pardoned him, since he died in an illegal manner. Today, most scholars believe that Frank was innocent, and that the Factory’s janitor, Jim Conley, was probably the real suspect. However, Mary Phagan’s family still believes that Frank was guilty.
Whether or not Frank was guilty, it is clear that antisemitism played a large role in his lynching. In 1913, American Jews created the Anti-Defamation League to combat antisemitism, largely because of the ongoing Leo Frank case. Unfortunately, the Leo Frank case also influenced the creation of another group as well. In November of 1915, three months after Leo Frank’s lynching, a group of men, including those involved in Frank’s lynching, climbed Stone Mountain, located right outside of Atlanta, and burned a cross there. That cross-burning event ushered in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Further proof that antisemitism was connected to Leo Frank’s case can be seen on a modern website called https://www.leofrank.org/. At a first glance, the website appears to be a general resource for information about the Leo Frank case. However, if you dig deeper into the articles posted there, you will quickly realize that many of them are unbiased and downright antisemitic. Undoubtedly, the website’s goal is to disprove Frank’s innocence, even though most scholars today believe that he was.
The Breman Museum created a traveling exhibit about Leo Frank called Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited. It has frequently gone on tours throughout the country. Although I have never seen this exhibit, I did see an object from it: Mary Phagan’s baby shoes. The archivist of the Breman Museum showed them to me when he was giving me a tour of the Museum’s archives. It was the only part of the exhibit that he was able to show me, because the rest of the objects were too hard to get to, since everything was packed up when I visited.
If you enjoy watching films, I recommend the following resources to learn more about Leo Frank. The 2009 docudrama, The People v. Leo Frank, provides a helpful overview about the case. If you want to see a somewhat fictionalized version of the case, check out the 1937 film, They Won’t Forget. However, if you want a more faithful dramatization of the event, watch the 2-part television miniseries from 1988 called The Murder of Mary Phagan. Finally, although it is not a film, there is actually a 1998 Broadway musical about Leo Frank’s case called Parade, which won two Tony Awards.
Sources and Further Reading
“About William Bremen.” William Breman Heritage Museum. https://www.thebreman.org/About/William-Breman (accessed May 23, 2021).
“History.” Historic Oakland Foundation. https://oaklandcemetery.com/history/ (accessed May 23, 2021).
“Leo Frank (1884-1915).” Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/leo-frank (accessed May 23, 2021).
“Leo Frank Case.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/leo-frank-case (accessed May 23, 2021).
Leo Frank Case Archive. https://www.leofrank.org/ (accessed May 23, 2021).
“Leo Frank Trial Collection, 1909-1961.” Brandeis University. https://www.brandeis.edu/library/archives/spotlights/special-collections/2009/leo-frank-trial.html (accessed May 23, 2021).
“Lucille Selig Frank.” Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/6896060/lucille-frank (accessed May 23, 2021).
The Murder of Mary Phagan. Directed by William Hale. Los Angeles: Orion Television, 1988.
“Our History.” Anti-Defamation League. https://www.adl.org/who-we-are/history (accessed May 23, 2021).
The People v. Leo Frank. Directed by Ben Loeterman. Boston: Ben Loeterman Productions, 2009.
“Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited.” William Breman Heritage Museum. https://www.thebreman.org/Exhibitions/Available-for-Travel/Seeking-Justice-The-Leo-Frank-Case-Revisited (accessed May 23, 2021).
“Stone Mountain.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/geography-environment/stone-mountain (accessed May 23, 2021).
Surrain, Aaron. Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Leo Frank.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Frank (accessed May 23, 2021).
They Won’t Forget. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 1937.