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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow; An Inspiring Exhibition Presented by The National Museum of American Jewish History

A Review by Sojourner Ahebee
Professor Ernst Borinski teaching in the Social Science Lab, Tougaloo College, Miss.

Howard Zinn  wrote “Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated ... And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.” 

Albert Einstein giving a physics lecture at Lincoln University, a
historically African-American University.  At this time, Einstein was on the
staff  of Princeton University.

There were many kinds of horrific events that preceded the ultimate horror of the Holocaust.  One of these was the dismissal of Jewish academics from German universities. During the 1930’s, Hitler and the Nazi party had  gained much influence in Germany, and many Jewish professors and scholars were expelled from their educational positions at universities. Because these scholars experienced the country’s rabid hostility and rightfully feared what was to come next, they fled to the United States and hoped to find teaching positions at American universities. While well-known Jewish academics, like Albert Einstein, were hired by major universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford, it was hard for other professors to find jobs stateside. As a result of this, many Jewish scholars found refuge and positions at Historically Black Colleges/Universities, where they discovered that the same battle they were fighting back in Germany was not too different from the struggles of African-Americans.  

The National Museum of American Jewish History hosted an exhibition entitled “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow”,  from January 15 to June 2, 2013, which highlighted the lives of some of these German scholars who found refuge and kinship at many African-American institutions and established enduring relationships with their African-American peers and students. The exhibition featured several memorable and engaging Jewish academic refugees like Ernst Borinski, George Iggers, and Lore and Donald Rasmussen who were welcomed by various African-American colleges, many of them located in the deep South ,at the height of the Jim Crow era. These intellectual powerhouses rigorously challenged their African-American students in such subjects as the Sciences,  Latin and Philosophy as well as the Arts.  These Jewish  professors not only found a safe haven at these institutions, they also found an opportunity to take an uncompromising stand against the  prevalent and insidious racism faced by African-Americans, especially in the South. 

These Jewish scholars immediately recognized the common battle they shared with African-Americans in their fight for equality and  they were moved to directly confront and challenge the mean and dehumanizing racism of the United States. They were actively involved in civil rights campaigns off campus and supported their students in public venues, even when it was illegal and dangerous to do so. Also, they were active participants in organizations like the NAACP;the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  

Viewing the photographs of these transplanted scholars and some of their personal belongings such as their letters, religious objects and even  videotaped interviews with some of these scholars was so moving and placed me right in the middle of a history that I am connected to also.  Equally compelling were the video interviews of several former African-American students who expressed both their love and joy for their beloved professors who had come so far and fleeing such horrors to arrive in a place to offer their light.  Their testimonies were so candid, heartfelt and inspiring all at once.  

Last summer I traveled France and took a course exploring the history of the lives of American expatriates in Paris. It was from this course that I discovered the non-fiction of James Baldwin. James Baldwin fled the United States at a time when the state of affairs for African-Americans was at its worst. It was in Paris that Baldwin first experienced that freeing feeling of not always being identified and received as a "Black" man, but simply as a human being. After his experience in Europe, he came to the conclusion that “the past is what makes the present coherent.” I think Baldwin’s experience is something that these Jewish refugee professors might have really related to in terms of their reception at these African-American colleges where they were not just Jewish scholars , but welcomed sources of enlightenment. 
James Baldwin in Paris

Even though this particular exhibition has closed , I highly recommend making a visit to this phenomenal  museum. It is imperative that we are aware of what has taken place before us to be able to digest and understand what is happening in the present . Through being conscious observers and analysts of history, we join the fight in eliminating the struggle between victims and executioners. Below you can find the link to the museum’s website, where you can access the museum hours, ticket rates, information on exhibitions, and the museum’s location. Stay Zen!
Museum Website:

National Museum of American Jewish History
101 South Independence Hall East
Philadelphia PA, 19106