Because this is the 20th anniversary of the Washington DC Jewish Film Festival, all of the previous festival directors were given the chance to pick their favorites from past years to put on this year’s schedule. That is how I got to see “From Swastika to Jim Crow” today.
Hitler came to power in January of 1933. In April of that year, Jewish professors started being dismissed from universities and within a month, most of them were gone. About 1200 came to the United States. And of that group, about 50 ended up at one of the traditionally black colleges. Finding themselves in areas segregated by law and culture, these “refugee scholars” were in “double exile.” They had lost their home, their country, their friends, their families, their jobs, and their language. And they were in a place where they were seen as triply suspicious outsiders — Jews, immigrants, intellectuals.
Interviews with the professors, their families, and their students and archival footage bring us into the world of these immigrants, who found they had more in common with their black students and colleagues than with the white members of the community. It is especially poignant when one explains that the black students were better able than whites to comprehend the information that came out about the Holocaust atrocities because “the notion of man’s inhumanity was not foreign” to them. The white community did not accept the refugee scholars but that does not mean they did not tell them how to live. One was threatened for entertaining students in his home. A newspaper headline notes: “White Professor Fined $25 for Eating with a Negro.”
One-time students, now distinguished scholars themselves, talk movingly about these professors, whose struggle, survival, and commitment to excellence and knowledge was itself an education.
An exhibit inspired by the movie is now at the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage and will go on tour.