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From Swastika to Jim Crow


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nazi soldiers blocking entrance to german university
Nazi soldiers bar German Jews from entry

It was a great good luck of mine to find my first teaching job at a Black university where I felt I had so much in common with teachers and students. -Prof. John Herz, Howard University

professor at black university
Prof. Ernst Borinski at Tougaloo College

Only months after Hitler seized power in 1933, Jewish intellectuals who had held prestigious positions in Germany's renowned universities were targeted for expulsion. Those who dared to oppose the edicts were met with brutal suppression. Often leaving with little more than the clothes on their backs, many of these scholars fled to America, hoping to continue their academic careers. They soon found themselves in a strange and mysterious country, a nation reeling from the Depression and ripe with anti-Semitic and anti-German sentiment. While the most famous refugees, like Albert Einstein, were welcomed into the hallowed halls of Eastern academia, most of these refugee scholars faced an academic world that was aloof, if not downright hostile. Much to their surprise, many of them were welcomed into a group of colleges that the vast majority of white American professors ignored - the historically all-Black colleges in the South. For the Black colleges - including Howard University, Hampton Institute, and Tougaloo and Talladega Colleges - the refugee professors provided the opportunity to add great talent to their faculty; for the professors, the arrangement provided a new home, a classroom of students eager to learn, and an insider's look at an America that few ever see. While most of these pairings between Jewish refugees and Black colleges began as marriages of convenience, very often they blossomed into love matches that lasted a lifetime.

"They found a place where they could make a contribution, and they found a place where they could pursue their intellectual life. They found a place where they could make a difference."
- Dr. Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary

Through interviews with several surviving academics and many of their former students, a fascinating story unfolds of men and women who found a true home in a community that, on the surface, was as remote as possible from the world they had known. Living in the rural South during segregation, the refugees didn't fit on either side of the line. Ostracized by their White neighbors, they socialized mostly within the university. If they invited their Black students and colleagues home, they risked a visit by the Ku Klux Klan.

Anti-Jewish propaganda

"I've heard Dr. Manasse say that when he first came to America as a freshly-minted Ph.D. from one of the most respected and revered institutions in Germany - perhaps in all of Europe - that he found it strange that he encountered nearly as much anti-Semitism here as he did in Europe."
- Eugene Eaves, provost
former student, North Carolina Central University

But professors and students shared a profound connection - a common history of oppression and the knowledge of what it is like to be despised and persecuted based on race or religion.

"[Art Professor Viktor Lowenfeld] was interested in our inner feelings.... We lived a restricted life of segregation and discrimination, so art became the way that we could speak. Viktor chose Hampton because it was a Black school. He understood racial prejudice in America, and felt that he should cast his lot with those people who were working against racism."
- John Biggers, artist
former student, Hampton Institute

From the 1930s to the rise of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, FROM SWASTIKA TO JIM CROW is a mesmerizing chronicle of Jim Crow America and a profoundly moving tale of two seemingly different groups - the formal, heavily-accented European scholars and their young, Southern Black students - who enriched each other's lives in ways still being felt today.

Story | Black-Jewish Relations | Racism | Black Colleges | Lessons | Talkback | Film | Resources | ITVS
From Swastika to Jim Crow the subjects resources the film talkback lessons learned black colleges racism in Europe and the U.S. black-jewish relations