55 years after the Temple bombing

Oct. 13, 1958 - Atlanta, Ga - Mayor William Hartsfield at the site of the Jewish Temple Bombing.

Credit: Dwight Ross

Credit: Dwight Ross

Oct. 13, 1958 - Atlanta, Ga - Mayor William Hartsfield at the site of the Jewish Temple Bombing.

The bomb went off as Atlanta slept, a mighty roar in the pitch-black hours of a chilly Sunday morning.

Considering that the squad cars that saturated the city's northeast neighborhoods could find no signs of an explosion, the calls that kept coming into police headquarters over the next several hours seemed all the more confounding. The blast "almost knocked my car off the expressway, " one caller said. Another likened the noise to "a plane breaking the sound barrier."

Just after dawn, the custodian at The Temple arrived to unlock the Peachtree Street synagogue and tidy up its Sunday school classrooms. What he saw would appear the next day on the front pages of newspapers across the country: A firebomb had blasted a huge hole in a side wall, wrecking an office, an assembly hall and several classrooms. Flecks of plaster and shards of glass littered the sanctuary.

Although 30 years have passed since the dynamiting of The Temple, the emotions of that day still seem fresh.

"I remember thinking, 'Some of these people must hate us very much to do something like this, ' " says Janice Blumberg, now 64, then wife of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild and the fourth generation of her family to be active in the synagogue. "I was in shock. My emotions really centered on the fact that this was the only synagogue I'd ever known. It was my home."

The bombing, the most violent episode of the civil rights era in Atlanta, occurred on Oct. 12, 1958. Although the synagogue plans to commemorate the 30th anniversary next month with a talk by Mrs. Blumberg and a panel discussion on anti-Semitism, the remembrance actually began this week with the first of two benefit performances of "Driving Miss Daisy." The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, based on the relationship between an elderly Jewish woman and her black chauffeur, includes a critical scene in which he is about to drop off Miss Daisy at The Temple, but quickly drives away upon seeing the wreckage. The scene is a turning point because Miss Daisy begins to see parallels between the bombing and the lynchings of blacks described by her chauffeur.

The play was written by Alfred Uhry, who attended the synagogue as a child growing up in Atlanta.

RELATED: 'The Temple Bombing' staged by Alliance Theatre recalled its origins and aftermath

A string of bombings similar to the one at The Temple occurred throughout the South in the fall of '58: A week earlier, a dynamite blast had torn through a high school in Clinton, Tenn.; explosions rocked Jewish centers in Nashville, Tenn., and Miami and a synagogue in Jacksonville, Fla. And an unoccupied black church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed. White supremacist J.B. Stoner was ultimately convicted.

Rabbi Rothschild, who died in 1973, championed civil rights in the period when Southern resistance to integration was hardening. He was a symbol of black-Jewish cooperation in the movement.

But despite his unpopular stances and the rash of violent acts throughout the region, there was a sense among the congregants that The Temple was somehow inviolate, immune from attacks by the lunatic fringe. By daybreak on that cool October morning, it became clear to many that it was not.

The custodian first informed the synagogue's executive secretary, who in turn telephoned the rabbi's house. The call came as the Rothschilds were asleep in their Buckhead home, and the rabbi, a man known not to shrink from controversy or hardship, calmly got dressed.

"They bombed The Temple, " he said quietly.

RELATED: Photos recall the Temple bombing

Thoughts raced through Mrs. Blumberg's mind, as did the image of her great grandfather, who had become the rabbi at The Temple, then known as the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, in 1877. "How can they do this to us?" she remembers thinking. "This isn't real. This isn't America."

The rabbi's wife then began calling parents, telling them to cancel the Sunday school carpool. By the time Jewish children would have begun filing into the classrooms, Rabbi Rothschild, synagogue president William Schwartz Jr. and Mayor William Hartsfield were sifting through the ruins.

"We rushed right over there, " says Mr. Schwartz, who later served as ambassador to the Bahamas during the Carter administration. "At first sight, it didn't look like we had a synagogue. There was a gaping hole in the north side of the building."

The police estimated the damage at $200,000. Although the explosion shook loose bits of plaster and broke window panes in the sanctuary, it did most of its damage in the areas where children received religious instruction and the synagogue conducted its administrative business. Authorities said more than 30 sticks of dynamite had been planted sometime during the night.

While Rabbi Rothschild picked up a twisted menorah out of the soot, Mr. Schwartz came upon shreds of blue cloth that had once been choir uniforms. "We were furious and angry that we still lived in a time when a religious institution could be desecrated, " Mr. Schwartz says.

The news of the bombing spread quickly. At the Biltmore Hotel, a little more than a mile from the synagogue, members of a wedding party were getting dressed when they learned that there had been an attack on a local temple. It was the one where the ceremony was to have taken place.

"My mother was calling me from the Biltmore, saying, 'What if this thing had gone off and the kids had been in session in Sunday school, ' " says Nancy Thal, who had planned to be married that day in Rabbi Rothschild's study.

Mrs. Thal, saying "I've always had trouble remembering details from that day, " still insists the incident did not mar her wedding day. The ceremony was moved to a synagogue in Peachtree Battle. Rabbi Rothschild "came rushing in the side door. He was right on time."

That evening, the Rothschilds received a call from a man who claimed to be one of the bombers. He said more dynamite was about to go off under their house. It turned out to be a false alarm, but the Rothschild home was put under police guard.

While all this was happening, Mr. Uhry was on his way back to New York from Providence, R.I., where he had spent the weekend visiting his fiancee.

He stopped by a Manhattan newsstand the next morning, picked up one of the tabloids and saw a photograph of the damaged temple on the front page.

"Have you ever seen something you knew bombed and blasted away?" says Mr. Uhry, who at the time was trying to make a living in New York by composing jingles. "I had attended that Sunday school. I had been confirmed there. It was the damnedest feeling."

Suddenly, childhood memories came back to Mr. Uhry. He remembered how he had once crawled out of a Sunday school classroom window and walked along a ledge to where he could peer into an adjacent classroom. There sat his sister, and Mr. Uhry made faces at her.

"We all went every Sunday, and there was this picture in the paper."

After an investigation by state and federal authorities, five men with connections to racist and anti-Semitic organizations were charged with the bombing. But only one of them ever went to trial.

In the first of two sensational trials in December 1958, the jury could not reach a verdict; in the second, the jurors returned a not- guilty verdict. The case remains unsolved.

Despite the fact that no one was ever convicted of the dynamiting, temple members say the Jewish community came away from the episode feeling good about the city and its people.

"There was a fantastic outpouring of sentiment - telegrams, messages, phone calls, " Mr. Schwartz says. "There was a feeling of strength and unity, and believe it or not, well-being."

That show of support also put some underlying fears to rest.

At the time of the bombing, "there were still some old families in trauma over the [Leo] Frank case, " Mrs. Blumberg says, referring to the 1915 lynching of a Jewish factory manager accused of murdering one of his employees. But as the city rallied behind the old-line synagogue, "it wiped out all those remnants of fear."

Although those inside The Temple blamed the attack on a small cadre of extremists, Ralph McGill, then editor of The Atlanta Constitution, also condemned those who encouraged others to flout the law. In an editorial cited by the committee which awarded him The Pulitzer Prize that year, Mr. McGill wrote: "It is not possible to preach lawlessness and restrict it.

"To be sure, none said go bomb a Jewish temple or a school. But let it be understood that when leadership in high places in any degree fails to support constituted authority, it opens the gates to all those who wish to take the law into their hands."

RELATED: Read the full text of McGill's editorial, 'A Church, a School.'

Of all the central figures from the episode, Rabbi Rothschild emerges as a practical and humorous man who was able to put the attack in perspective. Mrs. Blumberg, who has since remarried and now works as a writer in Washington, D.C., remembers the title of the sermon he delivered on the Sabbath, five days after the bombing: "And None Shall Make Them Afraid."

The sanctuary, with its shattered windows, filled to capacity that night.

By then, the rabbi understood the impact of his role as a civil rights leader, his son says.

"At that point, Dad realized that unlike the Second World War, where he had been a rabbi at Guadalcanal, his fight for human rights and dignity could put all our lives in danger, " William L. Rothschild says.

On Oct. 12, Mr. Rothschild, an Atlanta lawyer and rabbi who was 9 when the bomb went off, will moderate a panel discussion at The Temple titled: "The Temple Bombing: 30 Years Later, Have We More Or Less To Fear."

Mr. Rothschild says he never saw the wreckage because "Dad did not take me down there" until the following Sunday, when the area was boarded up. The entire incident remained somewhat of a mystery in his young mind until one Sunday five years later. Riding in a car with his father, he heard a news report about another church bombing in Birmingham. This church was occupied, however, and four black girls were killed.

He could sense - and share - his father's sorrow.