Last November, on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a black man was elected president of the US. You could say that the ascension of Barack Obama into the White House has nothing to do with the Nazi assault against the Jews. But there is a sliver of European Jewish and African-American history that is the intersection of two racist regimes - when European Jewish scholars escaped to the US and became revered professors at the historically segregated black colleges.
And as we commemorate Kristallnacht this year, we would do well to remember the refugee scholars who fled Nazi tyranny and terror. Some, the renowned, found careers in prestigious institutions in the US. Others found safety within the tyrannized and terrorized black communities of the American South.
These scholars were between the swastika and Jim Crow, the term that connotes discriminatory laws, policies and social customs in the American South that were intended to denigrate, dehumanize and ensure the absolute separation of blacks from the white society.
Earlier this month, New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage hosted a panel on the Nuremberg and Jim Crow laws, in conjunction with the exhibit "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges." The exhibit, which will run through January 4, was inspired by Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb's 1993 book From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges and a subsequent documentary by Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler.
The intent of the panel was to examine some aspects of shared suffering of Jews and blacks under anti-minority legislation in different countries. It was not intended to romanticize relations between blacks and Jews, but to challenge some of the enigmas, what Robert Burt of Yale Law School called puzzles.
America, Burt noted, was a refuge for oppressed Jews, but it also was a place of oppression for African-Americans. He challenged people to ponder this contradiction.
STERILIZATION WAS illegal in Germany; voluntary sterilization was authorized in 1933 and after the Nazis came to power, the sterilization laws were compulsory; an elaborate scheme of "genetic courts" was established. These relied on the American example, specifically that sterilization laws, which targeted blacks, had been upheld by the US Supreme Court, Burt noted.
Jim Crow was tailor-made for Germany's Nuremberg laws. It provided a convenient model from the "land of the free" that the Nazis used to craft racial rules designed to disenfranchise, demonize and deprive the Jews of their possessions. "Germans who advocated laws against intermarriage between Jews and Aryans - who laid the intellectual groundwork in the early 20th century for the laws that were enacted by the Nazis - specifically relied on the American laws as policies to be imitated, as evidence that we had successfully addressed our race problem and the Germans should follow our example," Burt said.
In the 1870s, not long after the Civil War, America's southern states began to pass laws that whittled away the rights of blacks; required the separation of races in schools, on public transit and in other public places; and barred interracial marriage. It was nearly 100 years until the last of those laws were overturned, through court cases and street confrontations - but they are not entirely dead. Only this month, a white justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, refused to issue a marriage license for an interracial couple, saying he feared that biracial children will suffer later in life. Clearly, he has not considered Obama's achievements.
The Nuremberg laws codified Germany's anti-Semitic policies and immediately segregated the Jews from Aryan society, much like Jim Crow divided blacks from American society. So then, what was the difference in policies between Germany and Dixie, as the American South is known?
Not much, with one profoundly important exception. Although the American South tolerated the lynchings of blacks, there were no systematic roundups, deportations or state-sanctioned mass lynchings.
Something remarkable happened during the Nazi era. Two disenfranchised groups, from different continents, came together. An invitation to teach in the US could save a European Jew from the concentration camps. It did not go smoothly at the outset. Economic conditions were rough in the US; one excuse in denying refugees invitations was that jobs were scarce.
True enough, but there always has been suspicion that resistance to refugee aid grew out of economic fear as much as it stemmed from rank anti-Semitism.
OF SEVERAL hundred refugee scholars who came to the US, more than 50 taught at historically black colleges. Among them was sociologist Ernst Borinski, who taught at Tougaloo College, near Jackson, Mississippi. He stayed for more than 35 years and is buried in the campus cemetery, where his tombstone, with its Star of David, reads: "Ernst Borinski, Inspiring Teacher." One of his students, Dr. Joyce Ladner, was the first female president of Howard University in Washington. She said Borinski had "an affinity with blacks because they experienced a similar persecution." Officials identified Borinski as a "race agitator" for promoting integration both on and off campus.
He invited top writers and thinkers to his Social Science Forums, ensured his Tougaloo students arrived early and seated themselves around the room, forcing white participants to sit among the blacks. In many cases, it was the first time members of the two groups had substantive conversations with the other.
But if this was a good period for blacks and refugee Jews, it still requires a great deal of thought about the puzzle, Burt noted. "In Nazi ideology, Jews and blacks were the same - racially diseased groups that threatened the health of the society. And the links between American practice regarding racially diseased groups and Nazi extermination of the Jews were not just parallel conceptions, but mutually supporting and interlocking ideas," he said.
He did not suggest that American society prepared to exterminate either group. "I only mean to point to ways in which racist ideology in both America and Germany locked arms and together marched resolutely toward horrific policies."
For Henry Feingold, a German-born professor emeritus of history at Baruch College, City University of New York, there was quite a paradox.
America entered the war because of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet, "the war became an extraordinary campaign to unconditionally destroy a nation whose primary war aims from the Final Solution to the Lebensborn program were racial. The paradox was that the American effort frequently seemed equally racist," said Feingold. "Its armed forces were segregated and plagued throughout the war by racial tensions. It interned Japanese Americans, but not Italian or German Americans."
There is no one way to think about race and race relations. History is not, if you will forgive the expression, black and white. But there was this one moment when, despite the puzzles and paradoxes, despite American racism and anti-Semitism, endangered European Jewish scholars found a haven and home on southern black college campuses. And we are all the better for it.