Local man makes film about ‘a different time for blacks and Jews’
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Local man makes film about ‘a different time for blacks and Jews’

It’s an opportunity for both blacks and Jews to learn a little part of their history they didn’t know before," said filmmaker Steven Fischler, of "From Swastika to Jim Crow." The film, to be screened at the Jewish Center of Teaneck on Sunday, April 15, at 10 a.m., will be followed by a discussion afterward that Fischler, a Teaneck resident, will lead.


Producer Steven Fischler will lead a discussion about his film, "From Swastika to Jim Crow," on Sunday.

The hour-long video, first broadcast in ‘000 on PBS, was germinated years earlier, said Fischler, after Khalid Abdul Muhammad, national spokesman for the Nation of Islam, raised hackles with an inflammatory 1994 speech at Howard University in Washington containing negative references to the Jewish community.


Prof. Ernst Borinski with some of his graduating students at Tougaloo College. PHOTO courtesy Pacific Street Films

A letter to the editor of "The New York Times" by a refugee from Nazi Germany shed light on a very different time in black-Jewish relations. The letter, by John Herz, detailed how black colleges and universities lent a helping hand to young scholars who fled Germany in the late 1930s after they were dismissed by universities there no longer employing Jews.

Herz cited a book by Gabrielle Edgcomb, a Jewish immigrant and civil rights activist who published his account and those of dozens like him in "From Swastika to Jim Crow" (Krieger Publishing Company, 1993). Fischler and Joel Sucher, his partner at Pacific Street Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., spotted the potential for a film.

Since they completed production, the filmmakers have screened the film at colleges, houses of worship, and community centers across the country, hoping audiences will draw inspiration from the stories it tells. For about a year, these events were sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League to foster dialogue between African-American and Jewish groups.

Now, said Fischler, they have partnered with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and are developing an exhibit that they expect to open within the year. It will include an installation video, photos, artifacts, and profiles of some scholars who had to be cut from the film, for example, one of the few female scholars, Erika Thimey, a dancer and choreographer at Howard.

Issues raised in the film will also be a focus of the exhibit, said Fischler. "What we were trying to get and explore was the double exile experience. They were persecuted by their own country and ended up [being] some of the few whites on a black college campus in highly segregated Jim Crow South. It was a very unusual situation."

In the United States mostly on tourist visas, the scholars were desperate to remain, but found few doors open to Jews here as well, particularly in the more elite academic institutions. Fortunately, through word of mouth and action on the part of some organizations, like the Rockefeller Foundation, and individuals, like Ralph Bunche, then head of the political science department at Howard, their plight came to the attention of administrators at historically black colleges. With additional assistance from refugee organizations, introductions were made, leading to offers to some 60 to 100 scholars to join the faculties at no fewer than a dozen schools throughout the South. While many eventually transferred to other institutions, at least half, said Fischler, spent their entire careers teaching at the schools that first hired them despite later overtures from more prestigious universities. "They developed very strong emotional roots in the community," Fischler said.

One of the most important things to emerge from the experience, Fischler said, were the relationships with their students, many of whom became prominent figures in the black community.

Herz, a political scientist who was hired by Bunche, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work at the United Nations, was the first person the filmmakers interviewed. Four other scholars are featured, three of them posthumously, along with a number of their former students who describe the professors in glowing terms as nurturing mentors.

For example, there is sociologist Joyce Ladner, the first female president of Howard, later a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington. She recalls in the film how Ernst Borinski, with whom she studied as an undergraduate at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., was the first person she called after successfully defending her dissertation at Washington University in St. Louis. He was so proud of her, he sent her a check for $100, she said, instructing her to go out with her friends to celebrate.

Another, the late painter John Biggers credited his success to Victor Lowenfeld, an Austrian Jew who taught him at Hampton Institute in Virginia. Biggers was planning to be a plumber until he enrolled in Lowenfeld’s art class.

Conversely and not surprisingly, their students had a strong effect on the scholars. Borinski, who never married, became involved in the civil rights movement, traveling on occasion with students to the Mississippi State Legislature. When confronted by police or state officials, he pretended not to understand English, answering them in German, said Fischler. The sociologist lived in a house the college built for him, right on campus.

Philosopher Ernst Manasse remained at North Carolina College for Negroes, since renamed North Carolina Central University, long after he became a world renowned Plato scholar.

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