National Museum of American Jewish History CEO Ivy Barsky said it’s not often that there is a Holocaust story with a happy ending.
But that is exactly what will be on display for the next six months at the Philadelphia museum’s latest exhibit, “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars At Black Colleges.”
The exhibition illustrates the struggles faced by Jewish refugees and African-Americans in the Deep South during the early years of the civil rights movement.
Specifically, the exhibit, which opened Jan. 15 and runs through June 2, details how Jewish academics from Germany and Austria immigrated to the U.S. after being dismissed from their posts by the Nazis in the 1930s. Of the several hundred refugee scholars who came to the country, about 50 found work at historically black colleges. For many Jewish scholars, it was the only work they could find, as the U.S. was in the midst of the Great Depression, and unemployment, xenophobia and anti-Semitism were prevalent.
“Very little is known about this relationship between Jews and African-Americans during this time,” Barsky said. “Many of today’s Jewish and African-American scholars were not even aware of it. Our hope is to use the exhibition to build a bridge with the African-American community and show the commonalities of the struggles we shared during the Jim Crow era.”
Barsky said this story shows what can happen when two groups that normally wouldn’t be together spend time with each other and learn from one another.
“In many cases, lifelong friendships were forged just by coming together and forgetting about differences,” she said.
Barsky said the exhibit was inspired by Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb’s 1993 book “From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges” and a follow-up PBS documentary by Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler of Pacific Street Films.
The exhibit includes more than 70 artifacts and documents, photographs and two new films by Sucher and Fischler that include interviews from both the professors and the students of that period.
Among the artifacts in the exhibit is a receipt for the $28 in fines two professors paid after being arrested for the “crime” of having lunch with a black civil rights colleague at a black cafe in Birmingham, Ala. At the time, eating in a public place with someone of another race without a 7-foot-high separation wall was considered “incitement to riot,” Barsky said.
There is also a 1938 column from The Afro-American newspaper that read, “We think Hitler is a beast and a moron who would be better off dead.”
Josh Perelman, the museum’s chief curator, said that article was just one example of how blacks at the time began to understand the struggles Jews faced. He added that many of the scholars who found work at black colleges felt more comfortable in that environment, that they could relate better to their black counterparts and students because each were dealing with prejudices and persecutions.
“There was a true communal engagement between the Jewish professors and the African-American students during this time period,” Perelman said. “Their story is a relatively unknown, but it’s a powerful tale that really helped lay the early foundation for the civil rights movement. It was really a case of the teachers teaching the students and the students teaching the teachers.”