Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota
Minnesota Jews and Antisemitism from 1920-1948
Jews arrived in the Twin Cities and other regions of Minnesota as a result of immigration from German lands and Eastern Europe from the mid Nineteenth century to the closing of Eastern European immigration in the 1920s. By 1910, the Twin Cities Jewish population had doubled to 13,000 people, reaching a peak of 44,000 people in 1939.
The “tribal twenties” were marked by racism, antisemitism, and anti-Catholicism. The Depression era of the 1930s further magnified discrimination. During that difficult decade, virulent antisemitism was advanced by the Silver Shirts, a popular fascist organization with a strong following in Minnesota. Jews, particularly in Minneapolis, were shut out of civic life and social organizations. Discrimination in employment and housing was legal and accepted. Jews in the Twin Cities were restricted from buying homes and property in many parts of the cities, and few Northern Minnesota resorts welcomed them.
In this period, the majority of Jews worked in blue collar jobs. There were, however, Jewish professionals—doctors and lawyers—and they were excluded from law firms and hospitals. Their exclusion led to opening law firms where Jews could practice, and to building Mount Sinai hospital in 1951, a non-sectarian, private hospital.
Deep bonds of association were a part of Jewish life historically, and intensified in the face of virulent antisemitism. Synagogues, educational institutions, philanthropic and social organizations, and the Minnesota Jewish Council (now the Jewish Community Relations Council), a defense organization, as well as Zionist groups, were all part of Jewish life in the Twin Cities and in other areas of the state throughout the interwar period and beyond it. Minnesota Jews were very active in political life in this period, often associated with Farmer-Labor and ultimately the Democratic-Farmer Labor party.
As discrimination was outlawed beginning in the 1940s, opportunities for Jews increased and antisemitism slowly—but never entirely—disappeared, until its resurgence as a result of the rise of white nationalism and neo-Nazism in the first decades of the 21st century.
Jewish Students at the University of Minnesota
During the 1930s, Jewish students had been attending the University for many decades. They came from the Twin Cities, from the smaller towns and cities of Minnesota, and from out of state as well. Because of pervasive antisemitism, Jews were viewed as different from other white students for many reasons. They were not Christian; many of them were urban, and many supported left-wing causes, particularly in the 1930s. Many Jews from the northeast were active in the labor movement, in the fight for racial integration, and human rights. They were the objects of antisemitic stereotypes that viewed Jews as misers, unscrupulous in business, and immoral.
Jewish students were treated by University of Minnesota administrators and many of their peers as “different,” “inferior,” or even “dangerous.” Nevertheless, Jewish students were admitted to most of the University’s colleges, including its professional schools, where there were rigid quotas to keep their numbers to a minimum, and medical internships were sometimes made “proportional” to the number of Jews in the state. The nation’s quota system that began in the late 1910s dramatically limited the number of Jewish students who could attend private colleges and many professional schools.
The undergraduate world of the University of Minnesota was built on social fraternities, sororities, and many interest groups that were rigidly separated by religion, race and gender. The Minnesota Daily, honor societies, clubs and political organization did include Jews, but only a few African Americans. In this world of parallel organizations, minority students often found a sense of security and community by establishing their own separate groups, not the least because they were barred from all others. The Menorah Society, founded for faculty and students in 1903, and then Hillel, founded in 1923, were both national movements to enable Jewish students to connect with one another.
The University of Minnesota had Jewish and African American social fraternities and sororities because both groups were barred from entering the Greek system. Jews also created their own pre-professional organizations for the same reason. The University had chapters of a Jewish engineering fraternity, Sigma Alpha Sigma; dentistry, Alpha Omega; medicine, Phi Delta Epsilon; and pharmacy, Alpha Beta Phi.
This parallel structure reflected the larger society in which Jews and African Americans created their own philanthropic, religious, professional and social organizations that were rarely integrated with the majority culture. But separation also limited opportunities and access to all of University life. At the University, Jews were treated like “white” students in many parts of campus life. But they were categorized as “different” for others.
When students, parents or members of the Jewish community complained about their exclusion to administrators their concerns were explained away as the fault of employers, householders who ran boarding houses, or students’ intolerance. Jewish students, like African American students, were called to task for having the wrong expectations. Because many of them embraced the same prejudices toward Jews, University administrators rarely took a stand or used their leverage to change policies related to Jewish or African American students until well into the 1950s.
The Case of Coffman Union: Unwanted Jewish Students
One of the most disturbing expressions of campus antisemitism in this era is visible in a correspondence between the directors of the University of Minnesota’s Student Union and Cornell University’s Union. It was found in Coffman Union around 2000, hidden behind a folder marked “X” in a long-forgotten file. When the newly built Student Union’s director, G. R. Higgins, wrote to Cornell’s director Foster Coffin to complain about the “Jewish use of the building,” he remarked that “their person is diluted with a tremendous amount of non-Jewish students.” Jews were rendered as alien and repulsive. They were racialized by reference to blood (diluted). The director could not find them “committing a specific sin,” but felt burdened by their presence. This exchange took place in 1941 when a Nazi ideology focused on racial genocide against Jews was firmly in place. The language of the letter is disturbingly close to that of the Nazis.
The Case of Jewish Students and Housing: “Too Many Jews.”
From the 1920s to the 1950s, boarding houses offered rooms and meals to students throughout Minneapolis neighborhoods. Until well into the 1950s, “householders” who ran these homes had the right to reject Jewish and African American, and also foreign students. The University, only under pressure from student members of the NAACP, stopped giving householders “preference cards,” which allowed them to refuse boarders on the basis of race, religion, or nationality.
The Calmenson Sisters Could Not Find Housing
In 1923, the daughters of Phil Calmenson, of Montevideo, were excluded from a boarding house near campus because, they were told, they were “of Jewish descent.” Mr. Calmenson felt the need to turn to the local School Superintendent, Mr. Bohlander, for help in addressing the problem. He appeared to believe he could not be effective if he contacted the University himself.
Boarding houses were given “rankings” by the University of Minnesota, and the woman who ran the one where the Calmensons were roomers appeared to worry about her standing. The presence of “too many Jewish girls,” she explained, lowered the ranking, imperilled her ability to succeed financially, and thus explained why they should be excluded. The Director of the Housing Bureau, Mary Staples, claimed she never said “Jews downgraded a house.” She met with Miss Calmenson and the woman who ran the house but “it did not succeed in clearing it up.”
The Case of Jewish Students Being Invited to Leave the Dental Hygiene Program “For your Own Good”
Jews had limited work opportunities in Minnesota because employers had the right by law to exclude applicants on the basis of race, religion and gender. The University made no effort to challenge racism and antisemitism, and instead warned students to give up their studies. That was the case with three young women who were asked in 1939 by Iona Jackson, head of the Dental Hygiene Program in the Dental School, to leave the program to which they had been admitted. She invited Renee Rappaport, Rose Olesky, and Rosa Lee Feinberg to withdraw after a month in classes on the basis that no dentist would hire a Jewish hygienist.
Renee Rappaport gave a statement as a deposition to an attorney, Samuel Schiner, about what transpired. The newly formed Jewish Community Relations Council, which emerged in 1938 to combat antisemitism in Minnesota, addressed the problem and contacted the University. Schiner led the JCRC. In her statement, Rappaport reported that she was asked if she was Jewish. Then she was told no Jewish girl had been hired in the school system as a dental hygienist, and even Jewish dentists would not hire one, because of a fear of “over balance” with gentile patients.
All three young women did drop out of the program after only a few weeks. Renee Rappaport’s tuition was refunded when she explained “the work was too hard,” not that she had been counseled to leave.Laura Weber. “Gentiles Preferred: Minneapolis Jews and Employment.” Minnesota History, spring 1991 pp 167-182
Nazism Arrives at the University of Minnesota with the Third Reich’s Ambassador Hans Luther
In the fall of 1935, the University of Minnesota welcomed the Nazi Ambassador to the United States, Hans Luther. Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in the 1930 election in the midst of economic depression. A politically chaotic time followed with competition for the chancellorship, which Hitler assumed in 1932, and the dissolution of the Reichstag, the democratically elected national assembly. The Nazi platform was based on unifying a German nation that was racially pure. Jews were its enemies.
Just a few months prior to Ambassador Luther’s November visit, the Congress of the United States had declared that the nation would remain “neutral” in any war. Long-standing allies England and France were facing fascist nations, which included Germany, Italy, and Spain. American neutrality meant that fascism could grow unhindered. Few Americans, following WWI, wanted to engage in war again. Many Americans supported Adolf Hitler and Nazi policies of racial hierarchy and anticommunism.
Hans Luther was appointed Ambassador to Washington in 1933. In all of his public statements and speeches he insisted that there was no religious discrimination in Nazi Germany, no persecution of dissidents, and “internal matters” in Germany should be of no concern to others.
Hans Luther Visits the Midwest
The University of Minnesota genially hosted Ambassador Luther on November 19, 1935 as part of his tour of Midwestern cities and universities intended to counter a national campaign to boycott the Berlin Olympics scheduled for the summer of 1936. Many Americans questioned if participation in the Olympics would sanction Nazi policies, particularly around race and religion and the Third Reich’s treatment of political dissidents. Luther went to the Midwest because of the strong German heritage of its citizens. He expected sympathetic treatment on campus and in community organizations. His first stop in Madison, Wisconsin proved that he had misjudged the popularity of Nazism.
In September, 1935, just months before Hans Luther’s campus visit, the newly constituted Nazi Reichstag passed the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped all German Jews of their citizenship and outlawed marriage and sexual relationships between Jews and Christians in order to create a “racially pure” Germany.
By the time Luther made his Midwest tour Germany had also:
- Directed a purge of Jewish students from universities and cultural organizations
- Fired Jews from newspapers and Civil Service positions
- Called on Germans to boycott Jewish shops
- Denied Jews health insurance
- Undertook a massive book burning of volumes authored by Jewish and other intellectuals deemed as alien to German purity.
For more information about the Holocaust, the War Against the Jews, see “The Holocaust: A Learning Site for Students,” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/20010322-historyofholocaust.pdf)
Who Welcomed Hans Luther and Who Protested?
The University of Minnesota was one of the least hostile venues where Hans Luther spoke. He was the guest of the Civic and Commerce Club, though some of its members objected to his visit, and the German Language Clubs. The University’s German Department hosted the Ambassador for a tea in Shevlin Hall.
Rather than greeting Luther with mass demonstrations, fifty students went to Shevlin with the intention of asking questions about Nazi policies. Luther refused to answer questions from the press or from the students. Dean of Women Anne Blitz held students at bay, refusing to let them join the event, and called Campus Police to eject a student who would not leave.
Protesters Greeted Luther off Campus
The Berlin Olympic Boycott
Many students saw a strong connection between Nazi policies and the need for the United States to boycott the 1936 Olympics, which was an international movement with strong support initially in the United States.
The University YMCA hosted a gathering of thirty students representing fifteen campus religious and political organizations and fraternities. They approved a petition calling for a boycott and intended to put it to a student vote. The boycott group prepared a letter to all students to invite them to vote for or against the petition to boycott the Berlin Olympics. Their mail was refused by the University’s postmaster. Dean of Student Affairs Edward E. Nicholson supported the decision and interfered in students’ rights to condemn Nazism.