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Intersecting pasts

Members of the Northeastern community congregated at the Amilcar Cabral Center on Wednesday, April 10 for a screening of the documentary, From Swastika to Jim Crow. Part of Northeastern Holocaust Awareness Week programming, the film tells the story of Jewish refugee scholars who sought positions in American universities to facilitate visa acquisition and escape persecution in Europe.

Stotsky Professor of Journalism and Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies Laurel Leff introduced the film, pointing out the challenges facing Jewish academics who were excluded from German universities—the most prestigious in the world at the time—with the introduction of Nazi policies in 1933. The harsh reality for these scholars was potential death in a concentration camp if they were not able to secure a position in the United States, where universities were cutting faculty due to lingering effects of the Great Depression and where anti-Semitism in American academia was rampant.

While many American universities were able to procure some of the world’s top Jewish scholars at discounted rates, other academics were deemed “mediocre” or “too Jewish” and remained in Germany or Eastern Europe where they stood little chance of survival. Black colleges opened their arms to a number of Jewish academics and their families, exposing scholars and students to unlikely cross-cultural exchange. Interviews with both Jewish professors and black students detailed these interesting encounters, where each group identified with forms of social and racial segregation. First-generation black college students were exposed to the highest quality training from prominent figures like Ernst Borinski, who taught sociology at Tougaloo College in Mississippi.

Following the screening, Leff, Charissa Threat, professor of history, and Margaret Burnham, professor in the School of Law and founder of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, offered commentary. Burnham, a graduate of Tougaloo College, studied directly under Borinski and cited his strong influence in pushing her to apply to the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was admitted and earned a law degree. Burnham recalled that Borinski was extremely important for opening the campus to a number of important figures and for acting as a bridge between black and white communities during the era of Jim Crow laws that institutionalized segregation in the United States.

– By Burleigh Hendrickson

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