Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD
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When Black Americans saved German Jews from Nazi murder

African American History Month is a good time to remember the heroes who offered sanctuary to Jewish Lives that no longer mattered in Europe
John T. Biggers. Photo is from Wikipedia
John T. Biggers. Photo is from wikipedia.

Faced with Jewish Scholars being sent to murder camps, The American Friends Committee, along with the Rockefeller foundation’s Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, turned to Universities to provide work visas for targeted Jewish professors in Nazi Germany. 

White University officials balked at taking these Jewish Professors, who would soon be sent to murder camps. White American Professors also worried, feeling threatened by the idea of reallocating resources for refugee Jewish Academics. Fortunately, Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) administrators took them in, 53 of them. These 53 Jews were not the famous Jewish scholars found on the rescue list of American journalist Varian Fry, such as Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall and Walter Benjamin.

Before fame noticed him, and right after the 1938 Nazi-directed Austrian pogrom, Viktor Lowenfeld, a Jewish professor of art education, was lucky to be one of the fifty-three. Virginia HBCU, Hampton University, embraced him, offering the 36-year-old Lowenfeld a job as an assistant professor in industrial arts. On June 20th, 1939, Lowenfeld accepted Hampton’s offer:

“I very gladly accept your offer as a teacher for Industrial Arts at the rank of Assistant Professor. As I understand, my duties will be the preparation in the practical arts of the elementary classroom, of teachers of elementary children and how the illustrative instructional materials which have to be prepared in the industrial arts classes can be used or made by the elementary children in the training school. I also have to supervise the Winona School in art work, and finally I hope I will get a voluntary class in art of college students who have talent.” 

Before fame found him and right after the Austrian pogrom of 1938, Lowenfeld was headed to the pre-civil rights South of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Upon arrival, Lowenfield was reminded of Nazi Germany, but here he was not the first target of ethno-white racist nationalism, his students and colleagues were. Imagine, soon after being expelled from one of the great art and intellectual centers of the West, Vienna, Lowenfeld discovers the Nazis initial approach to “The Jewish Problem” was appropriated from the United States. Nazi leaders literally copied Southern segregation and Jim Crow legislation. 

WIthin two years, one of the most important encounters in 20th-century education and art came to be. Famed African American artist and professor John T. Biggers (1924-2001) met Professor Lowenfeld, who quickly became Biggers’ mentor. Biggers would get his doctorate in 1948 at Pennsylvania State University, where Lowenfield had gone to teach. 

Biggers would go on to mentor many artists at Texas State University while making images of the tragic conditions engulfing black people suffering from systemic economic deprivations. Hampton University Professor Carlton Long reflected: “Lowenfeld smuggled his own art out from right under the noses of the Nazis, and subsequently encouraged John Biggers not to study plumbing at Hampton, but art!  Then to go get a PhD in art and to teach/mentor for a lifetime.”

The 52 other Jewish academics also found new homes at HBCUs such as North Carolina Central University (NC Central) in Durham, Tougaloo College in Mississippi, Howard University in Washington D.C. among others. Professor Ernst Manasse, who taught at NC Central from 1939-1973 said, “If I had not found a refuge at that time, I would have been arrested, deported to a Nazi concentration camp and eventually killed.”

In these trying times, times in which Jews around the world are feeling unsafe, I want to give a shout-out to the African American heroes who offered sanctuary to Jewish Lives that no longer mattered in Europe. Our Jewish debt should have us all protesting against the seemingly never-ending systemic abuse of Black Americans. Say it with me, #Black Lives Matter.

It is hard to miss these two refugees, Lowenfeld fleeing Jew-hatred in Germany for a safe world and Biggers looking for a safe world at home. Together, Lowenfield and Bigger created a semblance of a safe home. 

This African American History Month, I urge you to make a donation to Hampton University’s art department, not only because of our debt, but to also celebrate aspiring young African American artists to make blessings of the memories of Viktor Lowenfeld and John T. Biggers.  

Finally, I learned of Lowenfeld from Dr. Carlton Long when he gave the tenth annual Cynthia and Edwin T. Johnson lecture in Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College (Spring 2022) on HBCUs’ rescue of 53 Jewish German academics from the murderous clutches of Nazism.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College