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May 20, 2009 > Documentary teaches tolerance

Documentary teaches tolerance

By Miriam G. Mazliach

One of the more ominous episodes to come out of Germany in the period preceding the start of World War II had to do with the Law for Preventing Overcrowding in German Schools and Colleges. Enacted in April of 1933, it restricted enrollment of Jews, leading to the dismissal of Jewish professors from universities.

A documentary, "From Swastika to Jim Crow," relates the story of how some of these expelled scholars came to teach at predominately African-American colleges in the segregated South.

The film recounts the plight of 1,200 scholars who fled Nazi Germany, scientist Albert Einstein among the most notable. Subsequently, 40 academics were hired at African-American colleges needing qualified teachers. These colleges saw that the refugee scholars, having fled oppression, might have special sensitivity to the experience of their students who were living under Jim Crow laws, which mandated segregation.

"Although the Jim Crow and Nazi Germany laws were analogous, they were not exactly the same," according to Jack Weinstein, director of the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves. "Yet this situation created a relationship based on caring and concern between the African-American students and their Jewish teachers."

During this period in the United States, the scholars also faced anti-foreign sentiment but many stayed for their entire teaching careers at the colleges, later becoming involved in the Civil Rights movement. Many of the professors didn't fit in with their white neighbors because they associated with African Americans, were more liberal and a few had Socialist leanings.

Throughout the evening, Weinstein served as moderator and answered questions from the audience. His organization teaches civic responsibility and social involvement to young people around the world, based on its motto, "helping classrooms and communities worldwide link the past to moral choices today."

The documentary was shown at Temple Beth Torah in Fremont. The Women of Temple Beth Torah and program organizer Janice Fonteno felt it would be an enlightening and educational learning experience for the public.

Based on Gabrielle Simon Edgecomb's book by the same name, "From Swastika to Jim Crow" utilizes historic footage and firsthand testimonials to tell the story of these scholars. Former students speak respectfully and lovingly of those professors who, at a time and place where black and white were not allowed to mix, encouraged them to follow their dreams and taught them so well they could achieve their goals.

"The Civil Rights movement gave these professors a unique opportunity to lend their voices," Weinstein adds. One of them, Ernest Borinski, taught for many years at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. He was a civil rights agitator and had a passion for equality and integration even before the movement began. He created "Social Science Forums" to bring people together to talk about the issues and invited influential people, both white and African American, to share ideas.

Eventually, the Civil Rights movement lead to the Black Power movement in the late 1960s, encouraging more of a separation between whites and African Americans to empower them to have their own voice, separate from whites.

"What occurred is the penultimate story of what happens when membership in community is taken away," Weinstein states to the attendees. "Social justice is extremely important for all of us."

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