Film shows exiled German Jews at black colleges in WWII

Greg Lowe

Life echoed art Wednesday night as For Members Only and Hillel Cultural Life cosponsored the viewing of a film that celebrates connections between the two group they represent.

“From Swastika to Jim Crow,” a documentary released in 2000, tells the story of German Jews who came to America to flee the Holocaust and ended up teaching at historically black colleges. An audience of about 16 people came to the viewing and subsequent reception Wednesday night in the Technological Institute.

Hillel Cultural Life member Shira Bergstein organized the event with Jennifer Hoskins, secretary/parliamentarian of FMO.

“It’s important to maintain the relationship between blacks and Jews because they share so much history in common,” Bergstein said. “There is so much they can learn from each other.”

Hoskins, a Weinberg sophomore, said the event was only one step in the ongoing relationship the two groups are planning. They also held a Black-Jewish Freedom Seder two weeks ago.

“I think it’s important that students of all races support each other and feel comfortable going to events put on by other groups,” she said. “Hopefully, this will start the ball rolling.”

The story the film depicts is one that appealed to both groups. About 1,200 Jewish scholars that made their way to the American universities after being forced out of Germany when the Nazis came to power. Some, like Albert Einstein, were eagerly welcomed. But the vast majority faced an academic climate that was hostile toward Jews, and about 50 of them ended up at black colleges in the South.

The film, based on a book by Gabrielle Edgcomb, shows the connections the scholars made with their students thanks to their similar histories of persecution.

One event them film relives is when a group of black students at Talladega College in Alabama in the early 1950s led a protest because one of their favorite professors was being denied tenure. The professor was Fritz Pappenheim, one of the Jewish refugees.

The film depicts black students as identifying more closely with their Jewish teachers than with other Southern whites. Some even thought that Jews were part black because they also faced discrimination.

“I got into a heated argument with my friends when I told them I had Jewish friends that were Caucasian. Their understanding of the Old Testament was that anybody who could be treated like that had to be black. They wouldn’t treat white people that way,” said Donald Cunnigen, a black student at Tougaloo college during the 1970s, in the film.

The film also shows how the close relationships Jewish professors formed with their students got some professors into trouble. Lore Rasmussen, who taught at Talladega, was arrested after eating with a student at an all-black restaurant.

“The police said, ‘Oh, a German spy sent by Hitler to fraternize with the blacks,'” he said in the film. “When I told them I had escaped from Germany as a refugee, they said, ‘You should be glad to be in a place where there is democracy and freedom.'”

Those who came to watch the film saw the full picture of the relationship, including the effect of the rise of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, which lessened the impact Jewish professors had at black colleges.

With all of this to digest, students and others at the screening discussed the history shared by blacks and Jews.

For some, this is a relationship that is continuing to change. Addison Bradford, 27, of Chicago said he came to the screening because he is Jewish and grew up in a black neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. He said the groups have less in common today than they did in the civil rights era.

“The persecution that both groups went through is not necessarily shared anymore,” Bradford said. “It’s a lot easier for a Jew to blend into society than an African American.”

But others, including Weinberg junior David Edelstein, disagreed and said they thought that Jews and blacks still had a lot of things in common.

“It shouldn’t take swastikas painted on doors to get those communities to work together on some sort of goal,” he said.