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Refuge South

January 28, 2001

'From Swastika to Jim Crow': Finding Their Refuge in the Segregated South


LATE one afternoon in the spring of 1996, three documentary filmmakers pulled their station wagon off a two-lane road in North Carolina and up to a nursing home, their third or fourth such stop of the day. One of the trio presented himself at the front desk and asked the receptionist, "Do you have a resident named Ernst Manasse?" She consulted a roster and pointed down a hallway.

In a room at its end the visitor found a man in a wheelchair, hospital band on his wrist, skin flecked with age spots, head drawn turtle-like into his chest. "Are you Professor Manasse?" the filmmaker said, and the man answered yes in a German accent that was the ultimate confirmation.

Within minutes, the visitor, a producer named Steven Fischler, summoned his partner, Joel Sucher, and an assistant director, Martin Toub. They set up their equipment in the nursing home's sun room and began to question Mr. Manasse about his life's work. A few months later, before they had the chance to conduct a second interview, the professor died.

But that single encounter proved pivotal in the film that those three men and the director Lori Cheatle would complete nearly four years later, "From Swastika to Jim Crow," a chronicle of German Jewish scholars who were ousted from their universities by the Nazi regime and wound up teaching at black colleges in the American South. "This was a different world" is how Mr. Manasse put it during his sole session with the filmmakers, recalling his arrival at North Carolina Central College in Durham in 1939, where he taught German, Latin and philosophy. "It was a little country college. But it was my salvation."

Now the story of the brotherhood and mutual need that linked the persecuted German Jews to their students in the segregated South will open PBS's commemoration of Black History Month on Thursday night. It bears witness to a chapter of Jewish and African-American history that has remained almost unknown except to those professors and students it directly affected, and might have gone to the grave with Mr. Manasse and other essential figures.

"We've always been interested in these little stories, these overlooked pieces of history," Mr. Sucher said in a recent interview in Manhattan. "My God, Jewish professors at black colleges. I knew right off there had to be drama to these stories. My only problem in approaching these stories was whether they were too good to be true."

Indeed, as the child of Holocaust survivors and as a filmmaker who has dealt often with social issues and radical politics, Mr. Sucher keenly appreciated how combustible any effort to espouse a special relationship between Jews and African-Americans, based on each group's experience of persecution and genocide, can be. A documentary in the early 1990's, "The Liberators," described the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau death camps by black soldiers — only to have the claim, inspired by a passionate desire to create a black-Jewish connection, unmasked as false. (Black GI's did liberate another camp, Gunskirchen.) Jews and African-Americans have argued bitterly about whether the term Holocaust belongs uniquely to the Nazi extermination or applies as well to the slave trade.

One of the indirect catalysts for "From Swastika to Jim Crow," in fact, was an especially noxious denunciation of Jews made at a black college. A few weeks after a Howard University law student in early 1994 led a cheering crowd of 2,000 in denouncing Jewish control of banking and media, among other classic anti-Semitic canards, a German Jew who had taught political science there decades earlier wrote a letter to The New York Times pleading, "The helping hand stretched out by black colleges and black scholars should not be forgotten."

Mr. Sucher happened to notice the letter. He telephoned its writer, John Herz, who lived near the filmmaker's office in Westchester County and was by then almost 90 and so hard of hearing that he initially thought Mr. Sucher was trying to sell him film. Mr. Herz steered the producer to Gabrielle Edgcomb, the author of an obscure 1993 book titled "From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges." And from both Mr. Herz and Ms. Edgcomb, the documentary team soon realized that the letter may have been unduly optimistic in one regard: to forget something, you have to have known it in the first place.

Of the 1,200 Jewish professors driven from German universities in the mid-1930's, the most prominent, including Albert Einstein, were welcomed in the elite reaches of American academe. Others, Hannah Arendt among them, founded the University in Exile, which became the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. But about 50 of the uprooted, facing a Depression economy and discrimination in hiring at Ivy League schools, landed in such farflung black colleges as Tougaloo in Mississippi and Talladega in Alabama. There they lived what Ms. Edgcomb calls in the film "double exile," sundered both from Germany and from the refugee community and regarded in the South, by whites and blacks alike, as not quite Caucasian.

A GERMAN Jewish refugee herself, Ms. Edgcomb had first heard of these scholars while active in the civil rights movement and devoted 12 years to researching her book. It was published by a tiny press and ignored by reviewers. When Mr. Sucher and Mr. Fischler first met with her in 1995 to begin developing the documentary, she warned them, "You'll never get the money to do it." While she readily passed along addresses and phone numbers for some refugee scholars to be interviewed, she said of the rest: "I don't know where they are. You'll never find them."

Patching together a series of small and moderate grants from foundations interested in Jewish history, the filmmakers launched their search. After Ms. Edgcomb died in 1997, friends of hers raised about $12,000 at a screening of a 25-minute segment of unedited film. But it took a $150,000 infusion in 1998 from the Independent Television Service, an organization established by Congress to support programs that "involve creative risks and address the needs of underserved audiences," for the hourlong documentary to be completed in late 1999.

Over their years of fitful research, the filmmakers tracked down four living scholars and the surviving spouses or children of several others. Ms. Cheatle, brought on as director, unearthed still photographs, home movies and television news footage from archival sources and personal collections. One of the most significant personages in the finished film, the sociologist Ernst Borinski, died in 1983, after a 37-year career at Tougaloo, and exists in the film only through such materials.

The filmmakers also found a number of former students, now professors themselves, who spoke admiringly of their unlikely mentors. William Jackson, now the chairman of the German department at the University of Virginia, recalled Manasse pushing him to apply (successfully) for a Fulbright scholarship. Calvin Hernton, a professor emeritus from Oberlin, recounted how Fritz Pappenheim, his professor at Talladega, arranged for him to meet Langston Hughes.

In their classrooms and the surrounding towns, the refugee professors attacked segregation at some peril to their tenuous place in the South. Mr. Pappenheim, a socialist, had to testify before a Congressional committee investigating supposed Communist subversion in the civil rights movement. Two faculty members at Talladega, Lore and Donald Rasmussen, were charged with inciting to riot for eating in a "colored only" restaurant.

AT the same time, the black college campuses offered the only genuine community the refugees knew in America. Local whites considered the Jews everything from Marxist agitators to Nazi spies, while blacks tended to view them as kindred souls, even racially. Black neighbors taught one of the refugees how to cook. As a Howard professor, Ralph Bunche assigned Mr. Herz to write about Nazism for the Journal of Negro Education. When Viktor Lowenfeld, an art professor at Hampton, learned that his family had been murdered in Nazi death camps, he confided it to his student prot´g´, John Thomas Biggers.

"This notion of man's inhumanity to man was not foreign to African- American citizens," Clint Wilson, now a journalism professor at Howard, says in the film. "So, yes, there was not so much shock as there was empathy. Because when you've been through slavery, you're not shocked by anything that people will do."   

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of ĀĀJew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.''

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