by Constance Garcia-Barrio
The best museum exhibits engage both the heart and eye of the beholder. That goal must have guided designers of “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” an exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) on Independence Mall, two blocks from Independence Hall.
“‘Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow’ tells the little-known story of Jewish professors who were fired as teachers by the Nazis, then came to America and joined the faculties of traditionally black colleges,” said Alisa Kraut of Mt. Airy, a curatorial assistant at NMAJH. “The exhibition shows a common history of oppression and provides an opportunity for dialogue.”
The exhibition grew from Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb’s 1993 book on the scholars which, in turn, inspired filmmaker Steve Fischler to make a documentary on them. It aired on PBS in 2000. Fischler and his colleague, Joel Sucher, worked with New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, to develop this traveling exhibit, now on display at NMAJH through June 2.
For Kraut, 35, the Black-Jewish connection reaches back to her childhood in Mt. Airy. Kraut, her parents Marilyn and David Kraut and twin sister Rebecca lived at Sherman and Ellet Streets, near the Germantown Jewish Centre, where they were, and remain, members. Kraut’s younger brother, Larry, hadn’t been born.
“Our house was on the corner, and we had a backyard,” Kraut said. “One day all the kids on the block, a mixed group and mostly older than us, knocked on the door and made a deal with my parents. They promised to take care of us if my parents let them play in the backyard. They taught us to roller skate, and we ran around in a big pack. It was great. When we moved away, we lost that.”
Kraut’s parents fostered her love of the visual and performing arts with trips to Broadway shows, summer art camp and weekend classes at Moore College of Art. Those passions dovetailed with a major in theatre set design at Carnegie Mellon University. “It was a rigorous program,” said Kraut, who graduated with honors.
One test of Kraut’s ingenuity involved a tight turnover between two plays at Arcadia University. “We’d done a traditional set for ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ with arches, columns and faux marble painting,” she said. “Warm colors and greenery suggested spring in Verona.” There was no time to build a whole new set for “Catholic School Girls,” the next play of the season. “We adjusted the arches so they felt more like a church, and we painted the set a granite color because of the play’s darker edge and the religious and emotional conflicts portrayed. Logistical challenges interest me.”
Kraut has freelanced as a scenic artist, worked for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and as an interior decorator for Ikea. She took time off when her daughter, Jocelyn, 5, was born. Kraut, who enjoys cooking and baking, is married to Chris Rugen, 34, director of Design and Creative Communication for Columbia University’s School of Continuing Education.
While museum exhibitions, like theater, involve storytelling, at NMAJH Kraut entered a new arena. “I’m learning how a museum works from the inside out,” she said. “There’s the chief curator, the associate curator, the exhibition coordinator and consultants. The curatorial team decides on the goals of a project, the artifacts and text. The team also considers labels, case heights, lighting and interactive media, and they internalize all the elements and develop an environment to give the visitor the best experience.”
“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow” unfolds through a range of artifacts. A Ku Klux Klan robe, film footage, photos, letters and newspaper articles evoke the era when the scholars arrived. Mementos like a silver spice box and a menorah suggest the choices they had to make about what to take from their European homelands.
The scholars’ arrival sometimes meant an intellectual bonanza for the colleges. Lore Rasmussen, for example, became associate professor of elementary education at Talladega College in Alabama. Rasmussen developed the “Miquon Math” series, a hands-on approach that guides children to math insights through their own observations. For their part, the scholars found a new home, a livelihood and acceptance.
Some refugee scholars became involved in the Civil Rights movement. Ernst Borinski, formerly a lawyer and judge in Germany, advised students about the legal consequences of their actions. A 1958 secret report by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission labeled Borinksi as “a race agitator.”
Kraut helped to develop “Conversation Cards” that invite visitors to reflect on aspects of the exhibit. Visitors can record their responses and see what others have said at video viewing stations.
Though grounded in the past, “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow” conveys a message for the present. “Intercultural dialogue through this type of programming broadens understanding,” Kraut said. “We gain strength through our shared experiences and learn from our differences.”
The National Museum of American Jewish History, at 5th and Market Streets on Historic Independence Mall, will continue exploring the Black-Jewish connection with an upcoming exhibition on the late Ezra Jack Keats, a pioneer in including children of different ethnicities in his book illustrations. More information at 215-923-3811 or www.nmajh.org