Exiled Jews found black bridge
Religion News Service
John Herz did not expect to find difficulty landing a teaching job in the United States when he immigrated to the country in 1938.
He had earned a doctoral degree from Cologne University in Germany, studying international law and political theory, as well as studying at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.
But Herz was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and he was Jewish.
And to many at the predominantly white universities to which Herz applied, his faith mattered a lot more than any degree from Germany's esteemed Cologne University.
"There was a considerable amount of anti-Semitism in many American colleges," recalled Herz, who became an American citizen in 1944. "A college in Connecticut hired me as a substitute teacher for the summer but wouldn't employ me full time after that. One of them told me later - rather shamefully - that me being a Jew in addition to being a refugee was the reason."
A black welcome mat
Universities for blacks in the South had no such reservations about hiring Jews, however, and in 1941 Herz joined the staff of Howard University as a teacher of international relations.
His addition to the staff of the Washington, D.C., university entered another chapter in the little-known story of a few dozen Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany and found welcome in the classrooms of Southern universities for black students.
"Most people don't know anything about this whole phenomenon of refugee scholars at black colleges," said Steven Fischler, co-producer of the film "From Swastika to Jim Crow," which documents the refugees' story.
"But it shows that there was a time of real understanding between Jews and African Americans in the United States - they were from different places geographically and culturally, but they sort of came together with their own histories of oppression."
That point was not lost on the refugees when they arrived in the United States. Some, such as the late Hampton University art professor Victor Lowenfeld, specifically sought employment at black universities. Others began to feel a kinship with blacks in the United States as rejection letters trickled in from white universities.
"In Europe we knew that there had been slavery in this country and after that there was still discrimination, especially in the southern part of the country," said Herz, who had one of his first scholarly articles written in English published in the Journal of Negro Education.
"But when I came over here, I had not expected it to go so far - it really reminded me in a way of Nazi discrimination, and that gave me even more of an urge to work with blacks because we had a common interest."
Lore Rasmussen remembers feeling the same as an elementary- education teacher at Talladega College in Alabama in the early 1950s.
"What I didn't know when I came here was that the same kind of feelings against Jews in Germany were here in the United States against blacks," said Rasmussen, who left Germany at the age of 17 with just $4 in her pockets. "Black people were rejected in the white community the way I had been rejected in Germany, so I had a lot of empathy."
Often refugees found their experience in the United States unsettling, feeling as if they lived "in a strange country within a strange country," noted historian John Hope Franklin, a Duke University professor emeritus, in the documentary. A persecuted minority in their home countries, the refugees shared a European heritage with racist oppressors in their adopted country.
Eugene Eaves, a former student of Professor Ernst Manasse at North Carolina Central University in Durham, remembers that his German teacher "made mention of that issue many times."
Manasse taught German, Latin and philosophy at the university from 1939 until his retirement in 1973, serving as department chairman for a time.
Through the looking glass
"He said he found it strange that he had come to the United States because he was oppressed and yet here he was a member - ethnically - of the group that oppressed the groups he was teaching," said Eaves, who worked alongside the late professor after returning to Central in 1964 to teach. Eaves is now the school's director of international programs.
The professors still found themselves trapped in the crossfire of the racism once they stepped off campus. Manasse was threatened with physical harm after inviting black students to his home in a white neighborhood. Rasmussen remembers being ostracized by white people in the community.
"They just wouldn't associate with us," she said. "We taught at a black school, and we were Jews, so they certainly stayed away from us. It was like living on an island with no bridge going across."
But on campus, friendships between the races could take shape free of social restraints, and the professors found themselves forming lasting bonds with the university and with their students. Sociology Professor Ernst Borinski, who taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi from 1947 until his death in 1983, was even buried on the university campus.
"I'm still in touch with many of my students," said Rasmussen, who left Talladega in 1955. "We developed such wonderful relationships with each other."
Teachers who cared
Eaves said he relied a lot on Manasse's encouragement while pursuing a doctoral degree in romance languages. Manasse frequently invited Eaves to his home for private Latin lessons.
"We were quite fortunate to have these outstanding scholars join our faculty," said Eaves, who studied in France on a Fulbright Scholarship after graduating from North Carolina Central and worked for years in that country as a language teacher at the Sorbonne and other schools. "These teachers cared for us, they demonstrated a recognition of the barriers we had to confront and committed themselves to arming us with what we needed to survive it all."
So committed was Manasse that he refused to leave Central despite interest from schools such as Princeton, Eaves said.
"He told me he knew his credentials qualified him to work at any number of universities, but he could never leave Central," Eaves said.
"He said he would always be grateful to Dr. James Shepard (the founder of North Carolina Central) for giving him a job."
Herz said, "Blacks and Jews have a common history of persecution - they should never view one another as enemies. How easily people forget what they have in common."