Old-World Profs and Their Black Pupils: Documentary Traces Poignant Wartime Relations in the Deep South
Mr. Martin, who has written about television for the past 15 years, is the
co-writer of the daily On2Night, a syndicated television-review column that
Irony is a word too often misapplied to coincidence or odd circumstance.
Promulgated by 6 o’clock news anchors who find “irony” in a highway
fatality involving an 18-wheeler en route from a shoe factory and a car
driven by a retired podiatrist, this abuse of usage is further evidence of
our slide into the hellhole of mediaspeak and tel-illiteracy.
True irony is not all that frequent; profound irony is rare. Knowing the
difference, public television has identified the latter in the insightful
and illuminating documentary “From Swastika to Jim Crow,” which will be
airing nationally this month.
Based on the late Gabrielle Edgcomb’s book of the same name, the hour-long
show explores the lives of German Jewish intellectuals, scholars and
artists who, expelled from universities within weeks of Hitler’s rise to
power, fled Europe in the early 1930s and took jobs as professors at
all-black universities in the Deep South. As one can easily imagine, the
refugees were taken aback by everyday racism in America that — fiercely
supported by redneck law enforcement and decades-old “race laws” — was a
harrowing reminder of the thuggish tide of Nazism they had so narrowly
That, to be certain, is irony. But it is not irony alone that makes the
telecast so affecting. The Jewish professors’ dismay is not fully the
point. Rather, it is bonds formed between the educators and their young
black students that give this film its heart. The stories that unfold
recall a fascinating period in American racial history. But the memorable
events and ugly truths about the treatment of blacks are only a backdrop
for the reflections on student-teacher relationships that, based on common
experiences and mutual respect, have endured over the years.
“They found a place where they could make a contribution,” says Ismar
Schorsch, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “They found a
place where they could pursue their intellectual life. They found a place
where they could make a difference in American society.”
In April and May of 1933, the Nazis purged Germany’s universities of Jewish
scholars. At the same time, Jews in Germany were being forced to ride in
the backs of buses and were restricted from most restaurants. By the late
1930s, an estimated 1,200 German professors had come to America. About 50
found their way to the all-black campuses.
“They had lost their country. They had lost their homes. They had lost
their jobs. They had lost their culture,” Edgcomb said in an interview
before her death. “They had undergone brutality — many of them did not
know where their families were of if they were surviving.”
They arrived in an America recovering from the Depression, where jobs were
scarce and anti-Semitism rampant. Ku Klux Klansmen marched the streets like
so many brown shirts; the documentary shows the disquieting image of a
handbill of the time — a crude caricature of a Jew with the warning, “Help
Save America: Don’t Buy From Jews.” Major universities courted some famous
German Jews, Albert Einstein among them. Less famous academics, unwelcome
at the top-drawer universities, sought work wherever it was available,
including the small struggling black colleges in the South.
Culture shock was instant. “Not only are they in a strange country,”
explains Edgcomb, “but they are in a strange country within a strange
country. It is a double exile, in a sense, or a double-exile experience.
All of a sudden they are in the American South in a time of racial terror.”
Shortly after Ernst Manasse, a professor of German, Latin and philosophy at
North Carolina Central University from 1939 to 1973, innocently invited a
black student to his home for dinner, he heard complaints from neighbors.
When the student returned for a second visit, Mr. Manasse says he received
a call from someone saying that he and his guest would be killed if it
In 1942, Lore and Donald Rasmussen, teachers at Talladega College in
Alabama, joined a black colleague for lunch at a black-owned restaurant.
They were summarily arrested for violating the city’s sanitary code and
charged with inciting to riot. When police learned they were German, they
were accused of being spies.
“The first question was, `How’d you get that way?’ They just couldn’t
understand a college professor doing such a stupid thing as eating with a
black friend in a black restaurant,” Mr. Rasmussen recalls.
“When I told them I had escaped the Nazis and was a refugee,” Ms. Rasmussen
says, “they said, `Well, you should be glad to be in a place where there’s
democracy and freedom.'”
Despite these and other chilling accounts, the film’s strongest statement
remains intact. In interview after interview, students talk about the
friendships forged with their Jewish mentors. The tears of the students and
the warmth of the professors’ smiles communicate a depth of feeling that
one does not often see on television. It is real, and it makes the mind
The black campuses changed in the late 1960s with the student
radicalization and the rise of the black power movement. The film suggests
that this marked an end of an era for the aging Jewish professors, who were
near unanimous in denouncing violence and rejecting black separatism. Two
decades after World War II, student radicals increasingly saw these Jews as
part of the white establishment. No longer perceiving them as refugees who
understood racial oppression, they challenged their perspectives and, in
some instances, resented their very presence.
Think of it: Jews, rejected in their homeland, are transplanted to America
where, faced by unanticipated anti-Semitism, they assimilate on black
college campuses only to be later rejected for being too closely associated
with the white majority.
Perhaps the ironies are inescapable. Yet at least one of the surviving
refugees remains undaunted. Academic freedom is its own reward. “It was a
difficult world,” Mr. Manasse says. “When I came, the college had about 500
students. It was a little country college. But it was my salvation.”