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"From Swastika to Jim Crow" a Documentary

04/11/02 12:00AM By Lois Eby

(Host) Commentator Lois Eby recently saw a new documentary that tells the story of an unusual partnership between a handful of American colleges and Jewish teachers fleeing the holocaust.

(Eby) In late March, the 2002 Green Mountain Film Festival at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier showed a documentary which explores a fascinating but little known aspect of both Jewish and African American history. I've long been interested in the African American artist John Biggers and his contribution to American art. In the film, Biggers talks about his art teacher at Hampton Institute, Viktor Lowenfeld. Lowenfeld was a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust of World War II, and it turns out that Lowenfeld was not alone.

Black colleges hired about 50 Jewish refugee scholars during the 1930s and 1940s. The film tells about some of these scholars and their influence on Black students. The transition each refugee scholar made from the racial persecution of Hitler's Germany to anti-Semitism in the United States and racial persecution in the South is a gut-wrenching part of each story.

The title of the film, "From Swastika to Jim Crow," is taken from the title of a book by Gabrielle Edgcomb. Shortly after discovering the book, the creators of the documentary decided to track down these teachers and their students for a film. One interesting aspect of the story is that shortly after Hitler came to power, he issued a ruling expelling all Jewish scholars from German universities. This action resulted in many refugee scholars arriving in the United States.

The prestigious northeastern universities did not hire them, however, in spite of their credentials. Anti-Semitic sentiment was strong in the United States and jobs were scarce. That's how it happened that these highly qualified refugee scholars went to teach at schools like Howard University, Talladega College in Alabama, and Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where their plight was understood all too well.

The film includes interviews with the Jewish scholars and the African American professionals who studied with them as young students. Footage of Nazi storm troopers is juxtaposed with Ku Klux Klan rallies. Images of massacred Jews are interspersed with those of lynchings in the United States.

John Biggers tells of a time when Viktor Lowenfeld received a letter informing the teacher that members of his family had been burned in the ovens of a concentration camp back in Germany. Biggers says he realized at that moment that race prejudice goes beyond black and white and is "one of the truly great tragedies of the human family."

By the 1960s and the rise of the Black Power movement, African Americans had become determined to define their own history and identity. Thus the involvement of Jewish refugee scholars at Black colleges began to decline. However, "From Swastika to Jim Crow" tells a story which remains an instructive example of how much different groups can give to each other, when they create opportunity out of mutual need.

This is Lois Eby

Lois Eby is a painter who comments on the arts, women's issues, and civil rights.
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