Volume 22, Number 31 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 11 - 17, 2009
BEYOND SWASTIKA AND JIM CROW:
JEWISH REFUGEE SCHOLARS AT BLACK COLLEGES
Through February 21, 2010
At the Museum of Jewish Heritage
Edmond J. Safra Plaza; 36 Battery Place
Call 646-437-4200 or visit www.mjhny.org
Image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY
John Biggers’ “The Gleaners” / oil on canvas, 27 1/4” x 40” (1943)
Empathy and education among two persecuted groups
Exhibit examines Jewish and Black academic convergence
BY ELENA MANCINI
With the recently extended exhibit “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” the Museum of Jewish Heritage explores a rarely acknowledged and fascinating slice of common history between two socially oppressed groups that remains under-investigated.
The exhibit examines the vibrant cultural and social exchanges that took place between Jewish Refugee Scholars from Nazi Germany and the student population at Black Colleges from the early 1930s through the 1970s.
The death of refugee scholar John Herz, in 2005 and the access to his documents inspired filmmaker Steven Fischler to propose this story as a museum exhibition.
Fischler had already created (along with Joel Schumacher) a 2000 PBS documentary which used German-Jewish Third Reich refugee Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb’s 1993 book “From Swastika to Jim Crow” as a point of departure.
Fischler explains that the inspiration to raise awareness about this unique historical moment between two socially marginalized groups began over ten years ago when he witnessed a Black anti-Semitic lecture delivered by a member of the Nation of Islam at Howard University. Herz’s New York Times op-ed response to the cultural dissonance between both communities led Fischler to pursue Edgcomb’s story further. The documentary, Fischler stated, “has been very well received by people who had no idea about it.”
The museum’s multi-media exhibit displays documents that include correspondence between the refugee scholars and the American University administrators, period newspaper articles, photographs and personal memorabilia and refugee and student reflections recorded in the documentary. These items help paint a powerful picture of how the darkest moments in German and American histories brought together two unlikely groups in ways that defied normative social codes and proved to be mutually rewarding.
The historical impetus for the intersection of these two groups was the expulsion of Jewish Civil Servants (professors belonged to this category) from Germany as decreed by the Nazi government in 1933 — and a Depression-plagued, racially-segregated United States. While famous Jewish intellectuals and university professors were offered positions at prestigious universities (as was the case with Einstein with Princeton), less prominent academics fled Germany in the vague hope of finding a less threatening existence in the United States.
Despite the fact that many of scholars enjoyed successful careers in Germany, their prospects for university employment in the United States were grim. Fischler, who was able to interview a number of the surviving refugee scholars — including Herz and Ernst Menasse of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central College) — illuminates the fear and uncertainty that these scholars confronted in the States. “Many of the scholars were on student visas. Jobs were lifelines for these European scholars.” The high rate of unemployment, anti-German sentiment and the immigration quotas at the time of the refugees’ migration to the States were among the obstacles that these scholars faced in their attempts for integration.
Anti-Semitism also informed the hardship of these refugee scholars and was the basis of Harvard’s rejection of John Herz’s application. Herz was a professor of international law, with publications on human rights and the fallacy of racism.
After many years of not being able to secure a full time university position, he accepted an offer to teach at Howard University in 1941. The historical documents on display and the footage from the documentary amply reveal that Howard provided Herz with an environment that not only allowed him to thrive as a scholar, but gave him the opportunity to forge meaningful connections with the student population.
Herz — who had been recruited by U.N. General Secretary Ralph Bunche to work for the State Department — claimed that a mutual understanding of racial terror and persecution made it easier for him to teach about state-run oppression to Black students.
The refugees’ need for work suitable to their training and the expansion at Black colleges made these institutions a welcoming place for the scholars. Nevertheless, Fischler cautions the fact that the scholars, “never self-identified as a group, and never saw themselves as a movement.”
The diversity of the cities and institutions that hosted these scholars alone attests to the fact that there was no broad, cohesive vision of racial harmony. Tougaloo College, Mississippi, Talladega College, Alabama, Hampton Institute, Virginia and North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham were among the colleges that employed the scholars featured in the exhibit.
While the Black colleges provided the refugee scholars with an intellectual home, the broader atmosphere of the segregated South caused them to experience displacement on two levels — or what Edgcomb called “the double exile experience.” In documentary footage, the refugees describe their difficulties understanding color-based discrimination and how it confused their own sense of identity.
As victims of Nazi persecution, they suddenly found themselves in the awkward position of being identified with the majority culture because of their color. In many instances, their identity was further complicated by the fact that they were often suspected of treasonous activities because of their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement (and, in certain instances, because of their ties to the Communist party). Many of these academics — such as Ernst Borinski, a charismatic professor of sociology at Tougaloo College — became targets of the State Sovereignty Commission for their activities in the Civil Rights movement.
The exhibit gives eloquent testimony to the fact that the cross-cultural exchanges between students and professors occurred on a multitude of levels. Institutionally, the presence of the refugee scholars had a remarkable influence on the academic curriculum at Black Colleges.
While many of the Black Colleges at the time were trade school-oriented, administrators capitalized on the experience of these world-class scholars to expand the college course offerings to include subjects like philosophy and physics. Much of the footage and the artifacts reveal a great deal of personal interaction between the students and the professors. Professors maintained the German tradition of holding seminars and often hosted these in their own homes.
Beyond their passion for teaching, they demonstrated a genuine interest in their students’ success. They actively encouraged students to pursue advanced degrees. Dr. Joyce Lander of Brookings Institute recounts of how, when she did not have the money to pay for her graduate school admission fees, Borinski gave it to her and gifted her with one hundred dollars when she received her doctorate. Featured in the exhibit are also the stories of other students of the refugee scholars who achieved notoriety — including former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders and artist John Biggers.
The museum shows many other heartwarming displays of courage and sacrifice in the face of adversity. It underscores the poverty and the drive of the students as well as the professor’s commitment to their profession and the connectedness they experienced toward their students. The overriding message of the exhibit is captured succinctly by its curator, Bonnie Gurewitsch: “Two groups of persecuted minority people came together with empathy and a shared desire to make education the key to success for black students.” Gurewitsch also stated that there are plans in the works for this exhibit to travel to other museums throughout the world.