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From Swastika to Jim Crow


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An Interview with the Filmmakers

Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler
Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler

Q: How did you happen upon the story of the refugee scholars who came to teach at all Black colleges?

Like several of our previous projects, we happened on the story of the refugee scholars by chance. In 1995, we saw a letter to the editor in The New York Times. The letter was decrying the fact that anti-Jewish sentiment was being stirred up by individuals like Khalid Mohammed, who was then giving inflammatory speeches at Howard University. The writer recalled an era, little known, when Black colleges extended a hand to help Jewish scholars who were fleeing Nazi Germany. The writer also cited a book, From Swastika to Jim Crow, that had been written on the subject, by a woman, Gabrielle Edgcomb, who was herself a refugee from Germany. It turned out that the letter writer, John Herz, lived in Scarsdale, just a few minutes away from us. He had been at Howard University in the 1940s, under the stewardship of Ralph Bunche.

We then ordered the book, which was in limited release, found it fascinating, and contacted Gabrielle, then living in Washington. She was a charming, warm and outgoing woman, sort of a fixture in liberal circles in D.C., and a veteran of the Civil Rights movement where she first heard some stories of scholars. Although she had limited research experience, she began primary source research into the subject, and managed to find a little financial help from, ironically, the German Information Service.

With a very small grant from the Lucius Littauer Foundation, we were able to travel to D.C., and then to North Carolina, to film Gabrielle, several African American students from the era, and one of the most beloved scholars, Ernst Manasse, then in a North Carolina nursing home. We were lucky; he died two years later. We were also able to do the first of two interviews with John Herz and his wife.

Unfortunately, for awhile, we were not able to raise further money for the production of the film, and sadly Gabrielle contracted lung cancer and passed away before we finally were able to complete the documentary, which now stands as a testament to her life and work.

Q: When you tracked down teachers and students, did you find that many of them had kept in touch over the years?

It varied. Some had kept in touch. Many did not. Also, most had died before the filming of the project. In some instances, like with Ernst Manasse, he continued to teach at North Carolina Central all his life, and in his last few years was working on a massive work dealing with Plato - he was an internationally renowned scholar in this field - together with one of his former students.

Q: During your interviews, did you uncover anything that surprised you?

I think the thing that most surprised us was the love that developed between these teachers and students - it was respect that leveled the playing field, so to speak, between scholars brought up in a very structured authoritarian university system, and students who had never been exposed to European cultural traditions. There seemed to be, at least with the scholars we dealt with, a strong sense of mutual respect, without the kind of patronizing attitudes one might expect. The scholars themselves emphasized that they were students, absorbing much from their pupils, and grateful for the opportunities that these Black colleges gave them.

Q: What do you hope viewers will take from the show?

We hope that viewers simply draw inspiration from these stories and use them as a vehicle for understanding that, despite the rhetoric, there is more that draws disparate groups together than potentially, and sometimes tragically, rips them apart. That is why we've embarked on the outreach campaign, together with ITVS and the Anti-Defamation League, designed to screen the documentary before mixed audiences, who then will engage in discussion regarding the issues raised in the film.

Story | Black-Jewish Relations | Racism | Black Colleges | Lessons | Talkback | Film | Resources | ITVS
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