By the time World War II began in 1939, Germany had purged itself of its Jewish professors, scientists and scholars. Some of these academics, deprived of their livelihoods by the Nazis, found refuge in the United States. But in this new world, they faced an uncertain future.
Refugee scholars unexpectedly found positions in historically black colleges in the American South. There, as recent escapees from persecution in Nazi Germany, they came face to face with the absurdities of a rigidly segregated Jim Crow society. In their new positions, they met, taught and interacted with students who had grown up in and struggled with this racist environment.
FIU, in collaboration with the Coral Gables Museum, is presenting “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges”, an exhibit offering a narrative of the offbeat encounters of these two groups, each the object of exclusion and hatred in the segregated South.
The exhibit will be on display Oct. 5 — Jan. 11 at the Coral Gables Museum.
Bringing Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges to South Florida has been a five-year mission for professor Asher Milbauer. The director of the Exile Studies Program in the Department of English first read Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb’s book, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, and later saw the PBS documentary led by Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler. When he heard about the exhibit, he knew he wanted to see it.
“I was deeply moved by the friendship, understanding and respect that developed between the displaced Jewish German refugee professors and their Afro-American students in the historically black colleges in the Jim Crow South,” Milbauer said.
Since 2009, Milbauer has worked with numerous groups, including the Coral Gables Museum; Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, New York City; collaborators in the FIU Department of English and the Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment; and others to bring the exhibit to Miami.
“The story of their encounter represents a unique moment in American history and has significant universal implications. It points to a simple truth: to get along and live in harmony we have to recognize that each of us has a story to tell,” Milbauer said. “To have the exhibit in Miami, a city of exiles, provides us all with a terrific teaching moment.”
The Coral Gables Museum will host group tours of the exhibit and train docents from FIU and local Jewish and African-American community members to guide visitors and explain the exhibit’s highlights and artifacts.
FIU is also organizing a series of events — including panel discussions, staged readings, film screenings, lectures, an interfaith panel discussion, and a professional development workshop for Miami-Dade Public School teachers — that will highlight key aspects of this experience. These series of events will take place at the museum, on campus and throughout the local community. Several of the events will feature Guy Stern, who served in a U.S. special military intelligence unit comprised largely of Jews who fled Nazi persecution known as the Ritchie Boys. Stern is the FIU/Betsy Exile Studies Scholar in Residence, which is sponsored by the Betsy Hotel. For a detailed list of events, click here.
“There are elements in all of the events that that will appeal to different constituents,” said Michael Gillespie, director of the Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment. “The range of events approach a complex topic from a variety of perspectives and voices. The complementary presentations are important in themselves, but they are also important because of their deep connection with the exhibit. There is something for everyone to enjoy and learn from.”
The events are presented by the Exile Studies Program, Center for Humanities in an Urban Environment, and the Department of English at FIU in collaboration with the Coral Gables Museum. For a complete list of co-sponsors, click here.
“I take great pride in all the sponsors who have come together in collaboration to make these events happen. It wasn’t a tough sell because everyone understood the importance of telling this story,” said James Sutton, chair of the Department of English. “The rich program of events that so many are collaborating on exists because of the unique goodness and triumph of the human spirit this story tells us.”