Jews in the Civil Rights Movement
Thank you for the excellent issue covering Jews in the civil rights struggle. The article evoked many memories for me. Following my discharge from the Army Air Force, I enrolled at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. As someone who grew up in a diverse community in Massachusetts, I had never encountered extreme, or even nominal, racism. D.C., in 1946 had segregated transportation, the drinking fountains and toilets in department stores were segregated, and even my university enrolled no African Americans. I was both shocked and ashamed by it. As a Jew who spent time in Germany in World War II, I often guarded German soldiers. That experience strengthened my conviction that I would oppose segregation wherever and whenever it occurred. Your article made me very proud of the Jews, many of them unknown, who courageously sacrificed their lives to oppose policies that degraded human beings.
Samuel L. Simon
South Nyack, NY
I enjoyed two articles in the summer magazine which are seemingly unrelated, but actually have a very interesting connection. The cover shows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holding a picture of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, the civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964. Elsewhere, there is a wonderful article about my friend, Harold “Hesch” Steinberg, entitled “A Lifelong Dedication to Judaism.”
Both Mickey Schwerner and Hesch Steinberg were members of Alpha Epsilon Pi at Michigan State University. Schwerner transferred to Cornell University after his freshman year in 1957, and his association with Michigan State was largely unknown until a few years ago. As a direct result of Hesch’s efforts, Michigan State University has become aware of and embraced this connection, honoring Schwerner at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, and the local AEPi chapter hosted a Shabbat dinner and presented a plaque to Hillel in his memory.
In May 2012, I had the honor to represent AEPi International and MSU Hillel at an extraordinary program in New York City, cosponsored by the Cornell University AEPi, Hillel and Black Alumni Association. The program called “The Impact and Legacy of the Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney Case,” featured a panel composed of David Goodman, Ben Chaney and Stephen Schwerner, brothers of Andrew, James and Michael, respectively. These gentlemen, now in their 60s and 70s, shared some very unique perspectives on the Jewish role in the civil rights movement, the movie “Mississippi Burning,” their brothers and the impact of the murders on their families. The warm hospitality of the hosts, Ellen Braitman of Bloomberg TV, and her husband, David Shapiro, provided an intimate setting and allowed a rare and unique view into history.
Keego Harbor, Michigan
Past International President, Alpha Epsilon Pi
Member, Board of Directors, Michigan State University Hillel
My contribution in shining a light on the connection between our late Brother Michael Schwerner, Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity and Michigan State University has been greatly overstated. Past Supreme Master Steve Bernstein also shared the credit.
But there is a sidebar to the cover story (Summer 2012): Among those who resisted the inevitable march for the struggle for Civil Rights were the members of a quasi-governmental agency established by the State of Mississippi: the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. In December 1961, more than 225 Jewish teenagers and their advisers attended the Cotton States BBYO convention in Biloxi, Miss. The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission sent spies to the convention hotel to determine if these young Jewish BBYO’ers (myself included) were intent on wreaking havoc on their way of life. Of course, we weren’t and we were not harmed. But it is easy to speculate on the mindset of the hate-mongers who followed and, a few years later, brutally murdered Brother Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis pays tribute not only to Dr. King, but also to all of the brave men and woman...black and white, young and old, Jew and Gentile...who left their blood along the long road to freedom. Brothers Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, along with many other Freedom Summer workers, are prominently featured in the museum’s exhibits.
Harold “Hesch” Steinberg
The “Aliyah Bet” seamen operated ships that ferried Holocaust survivors from the displaced persons camps of Europe to then-Palestine shortly after World War II.
Aliyah Bet was the name given to the operation run by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that transported the refugees to the future state of Israel. Of the fewer than 250 volunteers from North America, most had served in the U.S. Merchant Marine or U.S. Navy during the war. The majority were Jewish and American.
As many as 120 vessels—purchased and refurbished in secrecy—were used in the operation. In order to make their way to Palestine, they had to run the British blockade. It has been estimated that approximately half of them were intercepted, and the captured refugees were sent to internment camps on Cyprus, Germany and Palestine.
Marvin “Bucky” Bacaner, a native of Chicago, served in the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II and was recruited to be an Aliyah Bet seaman. Bacanar was interviewed by writer Bruce H. Wolk for B’nai B’rith Magazine.
BBM: Where did your love of the sea originate?
Marvin Bacaner: I was initially trained to be a marine engineering officer at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, on Long Island, New York.
BBM: And your love of Israel?
MB: I grew up in the Habonim movement (a youth Zionist movement), and, from the age of 10, I was a passionate Zionist.
BBM: How did you first come to learn about the need for Aliyah Bet seamen?
MB: After the war was over I was a professional seaman and I was still sailing. I had signed on as chief engineer on a ship heading to Antwerp, Belgium. One day while I was on shore leave. I saw a British captain who was wearing kilts. He wore a Star of David arm patch. I asked the officer, “Why do have a Star of David?” He said he was a member of the Jewish Brigade (a unit of the British army that included many Jews from Palestine). I told him I had been a Zionist all my life and never heard of the Jewish Brigade. He invited me to come back to the barracks with him, and a few of us sat around a table drinking coffee. … They were looking for volunteers to bring Jewish Holocaust survivors to embarkation ports in Italy and France and then take them through the British blockade to Palestine.
When we got back to the States a letter was waiting for me at home from my Zionist youth leader. I called him, and he said, “Bucky, don’t sign onto to a new ship. Come and talk to me first.” The Jewish Agency had just bought two Canadian corvettes (anti-submarine ships that escorted convoys across the Atlantic to protect them from German submarines).
The Haganah was originally smuggling Jews to Palestine in small, often dangerous boats using [paid] crews because big boats were difficult to obtain.
BBM: As an Aliyah Bet marine engineer, what was your role?
MB: We towed the [decommissioned Canadian] ships down from Canada to City Island for rehabilitation. We needed to overhaul all the machinery. I was in charge of supervising the re-conditioning, recruiting personnel and then training the ship’s engineering crew. It was kept very secret. We couldn’t talk about it.
BBM: How did you go about recruiting seamen to work under you?
MB: I went to Hashomer Hatzair (a socialist-Zionist youth movement) and Habonim, where volunteers were training for kibbutz life. I recruited the Hashomer Hatzair volunteers from their Hightstown, N.J., farm, and we also recruited from the Cream Ridge, N.J., Habonim camp. We assembled the crew for the two ships on City Island [in New York].
BBM: You talked of working in secret. How do you keep a ship secret?
MB: As part of the refurbishing process, among other things, we cut off the guns and the torpedo tubes, so that the ships didn’t look like [military vessels].” We were registered under Panamanian registry, and we got licenses from Panama as sailors.
BBM: What was your journey like?
MB: Both ships sailed together to Europe, and then my ship went to Gibraltar. One ship set sail for Sète, France, which was a fishing village where we rescued Jews who were in the displaced person camps. My ship went to Savona, Italy, where we loaded up Holocaust survivors. The name of my ship was the Josiah Wedgwood. We set sail for Palestine, but if we got caught, we carried no papers and our instructions were to disappear into the refugees we took on board.
On June 27, 1946, the British Royal Navy intercepted the Josiah Wedgwood as it reached Haifa. (Wedgwood, for whom Wedgwood china is named, was an 18th century English potter and abolitionist.) Bacaner, his crewmates and 1,257 passengers were taken to an internment camp in Atlit, in what was then still Palestine. They would be slowly released into the population.
After independence, the ship that Bacaner refurbished would become part of the Israeli Navy and was renamed the Hashomer (“The Watchmen”). In 1998, Bacaner was present at a 50th anniversary event for the Aliyah Bet/Machal volunteers. Following the ceremony, an elderly woman and her two daughters approached Bacaner and tearfully thanked him. “I remember you,” said the older woman, a Holocaust survivor whom he had helped transport from the camps to Israel. He realized that everything he had gone through had been well worth the effort.
B'nai B'rith Magazine Blog
An archive of digital exclusive content that supplements the B'nai B'rith Magazine.
Letters to the Editor
To submit a letter to the editor, email email@example.com.