As the horrors of the Holocaust loomed over Europe, thousands of Jews fled the continent and a new diaspora began in North America. Two museums on the South Side are now exploring the historical moment when European Jews reached Mexico and the United States and had to redefine their identities in relation to their new neighbors. At the DuSable Museum, “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow” tours the all-black colleges of the American South, where Jewish professors struggled with the irony of finding themselves part of the oppressive majority in the land of legalized segregation. At the National Museum of Mexican Art, “As Cosmopolitans and Strangers” explores the work of Jewish-Mexican artists in the twentieth century.
The exhibits cover two very different subjects using very different approaches: “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow” presents a historical exhibit with a clear narrative arc about the struggles of segregation; “As Cosmopolitans,” an art exhibit, is more abstract and leaves the viewer to mull over ideas of identity and heritage. Still, they can both be seen as explorations of the idea of double consciousness. Members of the diaspora felt a tension between their old sense of self and their new cultural surroundings, and these exhibits suggest that such tension was often channeled into a heightened commitment to social justice.
The DuSable exhibit contains items that highlight the history of a few Jewish professors and the influence they had on their students in the midst of the Jim Crow era. In 1933, all non-”Aryans” were banned from civil service jobs in Germany and Austria, including teaching in universities; as a result, two thousand academics lost their jobs. Some intellectuals migrated to the United States, where they struggled to find new jobs and often ended up working as butlers or busboys. The collection includes a letter from Bertrand Russell’s wife, informing Professor Walter Fales and his wife that an opening in her household for two housekeepers was already taken.
“It would have given us both great pleasure if we had been able to employ you and Mrs. Fales,” she wrote, “though it would also sadden me constantly to see intellectual people compelled by painful circumstances to do work unworthy of their talents.”
Fales and some other refugee professors were eventually able to find academic work in the all-black colleges of the American South, and there they were thrown into an unfamiliar position. Before, they were Jewish; only when they got to the South did they suddenly become “White.” As one professor put it: “[In Germany] we were victims and now…I belonged not to the oppressed, but to the oppressor. And that was very, very uncomfortable for me.” Perhaps the situation reminded some Jews of the exhortation in Exodus, given after the Hebrews escaped slavery in Egypt, to “not oppress a stranger: for ye…were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In this case, they had escaped the tyranny of Hitler only to find themselves living with Pharaoh Jim Crow.
The exhibit features a few items that illustrate the well-known indignities of the Jim Crow era, including a 1952 travel guide for African Americans that promised “vacation and recreation without humiliation.” More than anything else, though, the exhibit is a testament to the impact of a caring teacher. The professors featured in the exhibit did not march in Selma or Washington, but their students did. The exhibit includes numerous quotes from African Americans who went on to become successful artists, scientists, civil rights activists, and teachers themselves, about how the professors they had in college inspired them, pushed them, and believed in them.
Take as one example Ernst Borinski, a professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. A secret report written by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission accused him of being a “race agitator,” who “fostered racial equality and integration of the races” by giving lectures for “mixed” groups of students. Donald Cunnigen, now a professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island, wrote of his teacher, “One of the things I got from Borinski was that I could do anything I wanted to do, that I was a student comparable to any other student anyway.”
As Cosmopolitans and Strangers” focuses even more on the ideas of “strangers” and “strangeness.” The title of the exhibit comes from the work of scholar Adina Cimet, who studied how members of the Jewish diaspora in Mexico responded to their new surroundings: with a feeling of being both assimilated “cosmopolitans” and unassimilated “strangers.”
None of the artwork in the exhibit deals obviously with Jewish themes or features explicit Jewish symbols; without an explanatory introduction, I would not have guessed that the art was “Jewish” at all. The art on display is highly varied, ranging from abstract paintings to woodcut prints that are almost like documentaries in their realism. As a viewer, knowing that nothing necessarily linked the artists besides their shared Mexican-Jewish heritage, it was interesting to see how a few recurring devices and themes could appear in otherwise unrelated art.
One of these devices is a detailed, observational gaze, where daily life in Mexico is portrayed with dignified realism in prints or photographs. Take, for example, the linocut “Laundress” by Mariana Yampolsky. This thick-lined black portrait on a sepia background shows a young girl working over a tub.Her face is impassive and turned away from the viewer; her shoulders are stooped over with quiet exhaustion. Yampolsky, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Europe, was deeply involved in the movement for social justice for Mexican laborers. Her view is clearly sympathetic, but is it the gaze of an outsider?
The techniques of Mexican social realism—an art form that takes the lower classes as its main subject, valorizes their struggle, and often criticizes the forces that led to their poverty—is most commonly seen in the monumental murals of the early twentieth century; several of the artists in the exhibit trained under the influential muralist David Siquieros or worked with Diego Rivera, himself a descendent of Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, many of the works are abstract or lack human representation, like the bold “Birth of Lightning” by Leonardo Nierman, an intense bolt of color that somehow retains the dramatic energy of a mural. Several of the artists take their inspiration from the Nahua codices of pre-Columbian people, pictographic writing systems that served as inspiration for a form of communication that could cross boundaries of language and culture.
The exhibits at the DuSable Museum and the National Museum of Mexican Art let the visitor view history through the eyes of people who are simultaneously outsiders and insiders. It is impossible to say with certainty how the Jewish artists or Jewish professors ultimately came to view their identities in a new culture, but the power in both exhibits lies in the fact that they let the viewer see North America as the refugee might have: as a strange, challenging, fascinating new land.
“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” The DuSable, 740 E. 56th Pl. Through April 6. Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday, noon-5pm. Free. (773)947-0600. dusablemuseum.org