‘From Swastika to Jim Crow’

‘From Swastika to Jim Crow’

Film by Teaneck documentarian recaptures the story of Jewish academic refugees and their lives in the Deep South

Documentarian Stephen Fischler of Teaneck kneels at the headstone of Professor Ernst Borinski, buried on the campus of Tougaloo University in Mississippi.
Documentarian Stephen Fischler of Teaneck kneels at the headstone of Professor Ernst Borinski, buried on the campus of Tougaloo University in Mississippi.

In the 1930s, life started getting harder for Jewish academics in Germany.

Not as hard as it would get for all Jews in Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe, of course. They weren’t herded into ghettos. They weren’t sent off on cattle cars to extermination camps. That was still a few years off.

Still, they were expelled from German universities, which were hotbeds of Nazi ideology. It became clear that their careers would wither, and their lives would dwindle into less and less fulfilling dead ends — if they were lucky, that is.

Some of them were able to see what was coming and escape to the United States. Some of them were able to get teaching jobs at historically black colleges. Extraordinary relationships and discoveries and lives came from that.

In 2000, Stephen Fischler of Teaneck and his business partner, Joel Sucher of Hartsdale, N.Y., completed a documentary, “From Swastika to Jim Crow,” that told the stories of some of these Jewish academics. On July 18, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the March on Washington Film Festival will screen the film in Washington, and a panel of experts, including Mr. Fischler, will talk about it.

“We started to work on the film probably 20 years ago,” Mr. Fischler said. “We read a letter to the editor in the New York Times from Professor John Herz, who was one of the people profiled in the film.” Dr. Herz was a political scientist who fled Dusseldorf, went to Howard University, and then later on to Princeton. Dr. Herz’s letter was in response to stories about black anti-Semitism, in response to genuine black anti-Semitism from the Nation of Islam. “He wrote that we were forgetting that there was a time when black institutions lent a helping hand to ‘Jewish refugees like me,’” Mr. Fischler remembered. “And he mentioned a book about that history, called ‘From Swastika to Jim Crow.’ The book’s author, Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb, was a refugee from Germany. She said that Howard University had saved her life.” (Howard University, in Washington, is one of the historically black colleges.)

Mr. Fischler and Mr. Sucher made their documentary based on Ms. Edgcomb’s book. “It’s a hidden story,” Mr. Fischler said. “It’s about how many of them went from being oppressed in Germany as Jews to being the only whites on campus during segregation.

“The film is about what happens when they get to these black colleges, and the relationships they have with their students. It’s very dramatic, very emotional, and very powerful.”

About 50 German Jews taught at historically black colleges, the film tells us. They found themselves in an odd situation, at once a minority and a majority, sort of able to pass as long as they kept their mouths closed, but quintessential outsiders nonetheless.

Ernst Manasse, standing, left, with students at North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University.

One of the speakers in Washington will be Joy Ladner, who was Howard University’s first woman president. “She had a very significant role in the civil rights movement, and she is an amazing person,” Mr. Fischler said.

“She is in the film, because she was a student of one of the refugee scholars,” he continued. That was Ernst Borinski, who spent his entire career at Tougaloo College, a historically black institution in Jackson, Mississippi. “Joy Ladner was like an 18- or 19-year-old student, from a small town in Mississippi,” Mr. Fischler said. “Borinski became her mentor, and they developed a deep relationship. She tells a story of how, when she eventually defended her dissertation” — she earned a doctorate in sociology from Washington University in St. Louis in 1968 — “the first person she called was Ernst Borinski. And he sent her a check for $100, and said she should use it to take her friends out to dinner. You earned it. You deserve it, he told her.

“And all these scholars — they got paid bubkes,” Mr. Fischler added. One hundred dollars was a lot of money.

Dr. Borinski never married. His family remained in Germany, where they were murdered. He got to the United States in 1938, enlisted in the United States Army and spent four years there, and then earned his doctorate, in sociology, from the University of Pittsburgh. Then he went to Mississippi. “His teaching became his life,” Mr. Fischler said. “He was buried on the campus, at Tougaloo.”

In the film, Dr. Herz tells a story “about how he was at Howard, talking to a student at the dental or medical school, and asks if there are a lot of white students there,” Mr. Fischler said. “The student says there are not a lot of white students, but there are some Jewish ones.

“Jews were seen as sort of halfway.”

Mr. Fischler is “kind of excited by the fact that the whole idea of the screening is that now we’re looking at the relationship between the civil rights movement and this group of Jews,” he said. “Borinski, for example, was very important to the movement, behind the scenes.”

Why did the historically black colleges take the Jewish academics in the first place? “One reason was a desire to help out the refugees,” Mr. Fischler said. “There was a real sensitivity to the issue of racism by people like Ralph Bunche,” the African-American leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, for mediation work he had done in Israel in the 1940s. “There was a real attempt to do something right by them.

“And there also was a quid pro quo,” he added. “The college had very small budgets. Some of them really were technical schools. And they were getting world-class scholars who they never could have attracted otherwise.”

Professor Donald Cunnigen of the University of Rhode Island visits the gravesite of Dr. Ernst Borinski.

Take, for example, Ernst Moritz Manasse, who taught at what then was called the North Carolina College for Negroes. (It’s now North Carolina Central University.) “He taught philosophy, German, and a variety of subjects,” Mr. Fischler said. “He became a well-respected scholar of the history of philosophy. He had offers from a lot of other schools, but he said he couldn’t ever leave North Carolina. How could he? ‘I owed so much to the school,’ he said. He stayed there his entire career.”

There was no real community of Jewish refugee scholars, Mr. Fischler said. “There was no Facebook group for them. They didn’t identify as part of a group — but it was pretty clear that there was a group.

“When we showed the film at black colleges, invariably there would be one teacher there who would watch it and say, ‘You know what? There was a teacher where I went to college who probably was part of that group.’”

Life was different for professors in the rural south than it had been in Germany, Mr. Fischler said. “Professors were venerated in Europe. A professor would walk in, and the students all would stand up. They would never talk while a professor was talking.” In North Carolina or Alabama or Washington? Not so much.

Also, the Jewish refugees had to adapt to the realities of the Jim Crow south. “There was one of the teachers; she and her husband had lunch with a black colleague, and they were arrested and had to pay a $25 fine for eating lunch with him.”

Things have changed immeasurably since then, Mr. Fischler said. In general, they have gotten better. And the relationships between blacks and Jews have gone back and forth since then, but on the whole, he thinks that there is reason for hope now.

“Yes, there is anti-Semitism in some black communities, and there is racism in some parts of the Jewish community,” he said. “But in general, things are getting better and better.”

He’s glad that “From Swastikas to Jim Crow” is being revived. “I think it’s kind of cool that people can see it again,” he said. “So that people can see what it was like in the 1940s and 50s and early 60s.” So that things can keep getting better.

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