Film on Black Liberators of Camps Brings Blacks and Jews Together

It was an unlikely picture: the Rev. Jesse Jackson and New York Mayor David Dinkins clasping hands tightly with Satmar Rabbis Leib Glanz and Hertz Frankel, their heads bowed in prayer on the stage of the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

After praying, they sang the civil rights movement anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

It was the culmination of an often emotional evening for them and for 1,200 invited guests attending a special screening of “The Liberators,” the story of the all-black Army divisions that liberated the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps during World War II.

The audience at the Apollo on Thursday night included survivors of the camps and veterans of the 761st Tank Battalion and the 183rd Combat Engineers, men who were victims themselves of racism in their own army and country, and were the first Americans to witness the horrors that the Nazis’ anti-Semitism had wrought.

A small group of Jews attended from the embattled Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, which in recent months has become the focal point of black-Jewish tensions in the city.

The group from Crown Heights included 15 Jewish teen-agers who came with David Lazerson, the Lubavitcher who founded Project C.U.R.E. and the black-Jewish basketball games that have become well-known outside Brooklyn.

The unusual evening was pregnant with hope as speaker after speaker, before and after the screening, spoke of the need for reconciliation between blacks and Jews, of the need for healing the deep wounds that have riven the two ethnic groups apart.

Jackson, who first conceived of the idea for the Apollo screening, described the event as one of “healing and redemption” and spoke of plans to hold similar events in 25 cities around the country.

“We must unify, coalesce in mass action. We must make right popular. In our common quest for change and social justice, when we stand together, we win,” he said, even as he acknowledged “our mutual vulnerabilities.

“The wall that came down in Buchenwald must not be resurrected, in any place.”

Dinkins said that he is exploring the possibility of showing the film in every high school in the city, and exhorted the African Americans and Jews present to “close ranks against intolerance and hate.”

Dinkins then proceeded to quote the Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel by asking, “If not now, when?”

Jackson told the African Americans and Jews present that his own father had served in the army and “was part of this.”

But when he told the story of the Nazi death camps and how they were liberated first by black soldiers, “no one believed,” said Jackson. “He was still very much `a nigger.’”

In more than 100 homes, synagogues and churches around the city, groups of blacks and Jews gathered to watch the screening and a discussion that followed, moderated by talk-show host Charlie Rose. The screening and discussion were broadcast over public television.

The audience at the Apollo was studded with individuals who were instrumental in forging the close relations between blacks and Jews during the heyday of the American civil rights movement. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, and Carolyn Goodman, the mother of Andrew Goodman, one of three young Jewish civil rights workers murdered in the summer of 1964, attended the screening.

Others present included the Rev. Al Sharpton, Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem and Peggy Tishman of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council.

After the screening itself, guests were invited to a reception in an enormous tent erected adjacent to the famous black theater. Traditional African American and Jewish foods were served as audience members gathered around tables to talk about the evening.

On the menu were collard greens, fried catfish and corn bread; kishke, kasha and kugel.

Kim Fisher, 32, works with a youth group in Staten Island and was one of the area activists who was invited to attend.

Clutching a copy of “The Liberators, ” the film’s companion book which was given to each audience member, Fisher promised to teach her kids about what she had learned through the documentary.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t really learn about the Holocaust growing up. I will let my young brothers and sisters read the book so that they can see that we must love one another, and that we helped the Jews,” she said.

Kathleen Taylor, a black Brooklyn therapist who works with the deaf and who counts several Holocaust survivors among her clients, came away from the evening hopeful but realistic.

“We have to get past the pigmentation and get to the pain that’s still there,” she said. “I hope this is just the first step.”

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