Film Chat: From Swastika to Jim Crow

— by Hannah Lee

On Monday, the National Museum of American Jewish History again waived its admission fee and opened its doors on a day when it is usually closed to the public, and hosted a full day of programs in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The museum’s new exhibit is “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow,” about the experiences of Jewish refugee scholars who were driven from Europe by the Nazis who found teaching positions at black institutions in the American South of Jim Crow laws. And, in keeping with the spirit of the day, the museum organized a screening of the documentary film that inspired the exhibit, as well as a discussion with one of the filmmakers, Steven Fischler, of Pacific Street Films. Up to 900 people visited that day.

More after the jump.
Soon after Adolf Hitler took leadership in Germany in January, 1933, the Nazi Party issued laws to ban Jewish scholarship and pedagogy. These restrictive laws had huge support in the ivied walls of academia. According to Dr. Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, students were amongst the most rabid of Nazi sympathizers. By 1940, some 2,000 German and Austrian academics had been dismissed. These members of the intelligentsia, called “mandarins” for their revered status in society, were cast out in a world where few spoke fluent English and fewer probably had manual skills.

Limited assistance came from the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, founded in New York in 1933, which offered one-year grants to colleges to partially subsidize salaries of the refugees. While the Committee did rescue over 300 scholars from Nazi-run Europe, they were the ones with established reputations such as philosopher Martin Buber, physicist James Franck, and writer Thomas Mann.

The younger and lesser known academics arrived with tourist visas, desperately seeking work on their own. Walter Fales worked as a butler and cook until he landed a position in 1946 as Associate Professor of philosophy at Lincoln University, a traditionally black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Some 50-100 of these refugee scholars found haven in these black colleges, where the facilities were ramshackle but where the students had a keen thirst for knowledge. These professors became beloved on their campuses, despite their formal European customs such as insisting that their students wear jacket and tie.

Former students testified on the film to the pivotal role these Jewish mentors had on their lives. John Biggers arrived at Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia with a work-study scholarship for plumbing, but Professor Viktor Lowenfeld opened his eyes to the world of artistic creativity. Biggers became an artist, professor, and founder of the Art Department at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Civil rights activist and author Joyce Ladner recalled that she couldn’t afford the application fees for graduate school, so her professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS, Ernst Borinski, a former judge and law professor in Germany, paid them with his own money. When she reported the successful defense of her doctoral dissertation four years later, he sent a telegram with his congratulations and $100 for her to celebrate the milestone with her friends.  The telegram is in the exhibit.

How were these Jewish refugees received in the American South, where Jim Crow laws (the name taken from a minstrel routine) isolated blacks physically and culturally? Were they considered white or not? Donald Cunnigan was a former student and now a professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island, and he recalled the unusual status of these highly educated Jews in the South. While they were not accepted by the whites, they were regarded by the off-campus blacks as either non-white or even black — one told him that Jews were mentioned in the Bible and any people who’d suffered as they did in ancient Egypt must have been black!  Karen Brodkin, professor of anthropology at UCLA, addressed this topic in her 1998 book, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. In the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of races; most, including Jews, being considered neither black nor white.

The film does not address the Jewish life of these refugees, but the exhibit has a quote from John Herz, professor of international politics at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who recalled that the Düsseldorf rabbi came to visit his mother about religious instruction for her children.  His mother replied, “That decision I leave entirely to my children; music is my religion.”  However, Georg Iggers, professor of history at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, AR grew up in a religious family in Hamburg and he recalled that Jews could be culturally German and yet be observant of Jewish tradition.

An audience member asked the filmmaker Fischler if the rise of the black nationalist movement (“Black Power”) set back black-Jewish relations. The film referred to people who decried the role of whites on a black college, such as Professor Borinski who’d created a curriculum on race history. No, said Fischler, because the refugee professors were close to retirement age in the 60s and no one lost their positions for it, unlike earlier movements of xenophobia.

The catalyst for the film came from a letter by Professor Herz to The New York Times about the anti-semitic comments of speakers at Howard University and other black colleges in the late 90s. He referred to the 1993 book by Gabrielle Edgcomb, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, which inspired the filmmakers to make their documentary.

I noted how all the interview subjects were so articulate and highly accomplished and I asked if the filmmakers had conscious choice in their selection. They didn’t eliminate any potential candidates, said Fischler, and maybe only the students with the strongest memories and the closest relationships stepped forth. Only three of the refugee professors were still alive for the film.  Furthermore, many of the black students of the time did become prominent in their fields, noted Fischler.

In the 12 years since the release of the film, an audience member asked, what would they add to a sequel, if one were to make one? This traveling exhibit is their sequel, responded Fischler, making the material more accessible to a greater public.

“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” originally from the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, is on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History until June 2.