|Directed by:||Lori Cheatle and Martin D. Toub||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||2000||Running Time:||60 mins.|
|More Info:||Filmmakers have received Guggenheim Fellowship, Emmy Awards and the prestigious John Grierson Award for Social Documentaries Wikipedia||Category:||America|
When the Nazi government expelled Jewish scholars from German universities, those professors struggled to find a new home – until they arrived in the segregated American south. From Swastika to Jim Crow tells the story of the roughly fifty Jewish professors who fled from discrimination to find teaching positions in African-American universities, where they sympathized with the plight of their black colleagues and students.
“After, maybe, one or two weeks I became color blind,” one professor explains. “I didn’t have the impression any more that there were different people sitting in front of me. It was like any other kind of students.”
When Germany forced its Jewish intellectuals to flee, America embraced high-profile thinkers like Einstein, but the vast majority of lesser-known Jewish intellectual refuges struggled in the United States. Not only were jobs scarce because of the Depression, but prevalent anti-Semitism and anti-German sentiments made it even harder for these immigrant Jewish professors to find positions. They took teaching jobs in the South not because of the prestige, but rather because African American schools were the only ones willing to hire these normally discriminated against German Jews.
Exploring the similarities between German anti-Semitism and Southern racism through a rich compilation of interviews, archival film footage, and photographs, From Swastika to Jim Crow reveals the ways in which both African-American students and their Jewish professors faced a prejudice that isolated them from white southern society. Their common understanding bonded them together to create a safe haven of interracial, intellectual dialogue and friendship.
But gaining acceptance among their black students and colleagues wasn’t easy. These German professors brought their strict teaching style with them to America. They approached the classroom with greatest formality — wearing three-piece suits, and insisting that students rise when answering questions. Although the students were not accustomed to such an approach in the classroom, with time they grew fond of their foreign professors’ quirks.
These Jewish professors also hoped to become a bridge between the African-American and white communities. In one instance, a professor organized a gathering with both African-American and white families — asking the African-American guests, who arrived first, to sit in every other chair, so that when the white guests arrived they would be forced to interact with one another. The professor knew he couldn’t force people to give up their prejudice, but he was committed to doing whatever he could to encourage tolerance.
The horrors of prejudice became a common thread that could bind these exiled Jewish professors with their black students and colleagues. The film pairs shocking archival footage of the KKK dressed in costume and carrying torches with footage of Nazi salutes and marching German soldiers to compare the barbarity of both sick ideologies. A picture of a lynching shows a mob of average white citizens standing around casually and looking up at the tree, while photographs of the Holocaust depict emaciated corpses piled on top of each other.
And while these blacks and Jews grew beyond their horrific pasts to create a trusting society on campus, a confrontation with white southerners wouldn’t be far behind when they ventured beyond the idyllic settings of their university campus. When one Jewish professor invited a black colleague over for dinner, white townspeople rioted outside his home. At another time, a Jewish couple went out to dinner with their African-American friends to a black restaurant — and were arrested for breaking sanitation laws. The simple act of sharing a meal challenged the south’s social order and undermined notions of inequality that the segregated society refused to abandon.
It was through these simple acts that Jewish intellectuals planted the seeds that would develop into the Civil Rights Movement. By treating their African-American students with the respect and dignity they deserved, Jewish professors acted as catalysts for a progressive thinking that recognized all citizens as equals.
One African-American student explains in the film that, having spent his youth feeling oppressed by the white southerners, he had assumed humanity’s conflict was derived from skin color. but his interactions with his Jewish professor offered him a more complex understanding. “Suddenly,” he says, “I realized it went beyond black and white.”
By sharing in each other’s frustrations and fears, these Jews and blacks began to realize that the “tragedies of the human family” extended beyond the persecution of their own race.