FILM RECOUNTS HISTORY; SCHOOL APOLOGIZES
With the simple words “I’m sorry…we’re sorry,” Emory President James Wagner brought a measure of closure to a shameful chapter in Emory’s history.
The period of time referred to entails a long and tangled story brought to light by Dr. Perry Brickman, himself a victim of the anti-Semitic atmosphere fostered at the Emory Dental School by one man, Dean John E. Buhler. It began with Emory flunking some 65 percent of Jewish dental school students between 1948 and 1961; many who were not thrown out were forced to repeat one or more years.
The men who failed did not understand; many of them, like Brickman, had been top students. Still, embarrassment and shame led to a wall of silence: They feared telling their parents. They were humiliated and kept their secret from wives and friends.
Then, later – after many went on and received dental degrees elsewhere and founded thriving practices – they continued to keep their secret, this time from patients. They feared what might happen if their patients found they had been deemed “not good enough” for their profession.
Early Efforts Silenced
An attempt was made in the early 1960s to expose the facts. Art Levin, head of the Anti-Defamation League at the time, said:
“A young man came to me and said he’d been flunked out. He’d been to the Jewish Community Council, the Jewish dental fraternity and the Jewish War Veterans. None of them believed him.
“They said he was making up an excuse for his inability. I was able to show that 65 percent of the Jewish students had flunked out.”
Wanting to confront Emory himself, Levin was instead convinced by the Jewish Community Council to let them take the lead. The dean they spoke to denied any anti-Semitism but also said he wouldn’t do it anymore.
“They were triumphant,” Levin remembered. “[But] he’d been torturing Jewish students. I didn’t accept it as an excuse, so I went up to see the president with a friend, Morris Abram.”
University President Sidney Walter Martin was out of town, but the information eventually made its way to Dean Buhler, who soon resigned. Sadly, when asked if there was any relation between charges of discrimination and Dr. Buhler’s resignation, Dr. Martin replied:
“Absolutely not, there’s no substantiation to those charges. Dr. Buhler could have remained if he chose to.”
End of story? So it seemed.
The Jewish community allowed the story to die a quiet death. “Don’t make waves” was the prevalent attitude among many of Atlanta’s powerful Jews at the time. Some felt happy the situation was resolved, and some were upset that there was no acknowledgement, but it was over.
Fast forward to just a few years ago. Eric Goldstein, who had studied as an undergraduate at Emory, returned as a professor. In 2006, he curated an exhibit, “The Faces of Emory,” which included some information on the dental school statistics.
Brickman attended the exhibit, and there was the story he had known about, the history he had experienced personally and painfully.
Coming to Emory in 1949, Brickman studied as an undergrad for two years and then entered the dental school in 1951. Seeing the exhibit brought back those years, and he began wondering what happened to the other people who had been forced to leave.
He started talking to people and found that the entire chapter had been submerged. He even uncovered the application form Dr. Buhler had used, with a place for race that gave the options of “Caucasian,” “Jewish” or “other.”
That form, presented to Dean of Faculty Jake Ward, had been the nail that sealed Buhler’s coffin – even though the University denied the connection.
Brickman decided to approach Goldstein – who at the time was teaching a class on the history of Emory with a focus on Jews – about the situation. Shortly thereafter, they began to work together, discovering Buhler’s papers and tracing former students who had been affected by the anti-Semitism, while Brickman began keeping a record of the men he interviewed, recording many discussions on video.
A subsequent meeting with Provost Earl Lewis led Brickman and Goldstein to Emory vice president Gary Hauk, with whom the pair shared the short film Brickman had compiled from his research. Thus, the three began a discussion of what Emory might do to acknowledge the history and do the right thing to try to repair its damage.
“This is a piece of Emory history comparable to Emory’s entwinement with slavery before the Civil War. It’s there,” Hauk said recently. “It has been acknowledged but has lain quietly in the archives in most respects. Like all chapters of human history, it’s better talked about, looked at and dealt with as best a community can.”
Hauk had Brickman edit his video down to about an hour.
“It’s hard to view,” he said. “There’s a lot of bitterness and heartache. I thought it would be good to bring in a professional filmmaker to use that material and augment it with material, other images, and comments by Emory people like professors Deborah Lipstadt and David Blumenthal.”
Brickman and Goldstein heeded the advice and brought in documentary filmmakers David Hughes Duke and his son John.
“He tells the story in a compelling way,” Hauk said of the Duke’s work on the finished product. “It’s a positive story. This is an overlooked chapter that has come to light in a constructive way, with an end to repairing the damages that were done to relationships, building new bridges between the Emory community and other parts of our community.”
Hauk’s office sent out a letter several moths ago to approximately 50 individuals that Brickman had identified as former students or next-of-kin to those no longer alive. The message was one of acknowledgment of the incidents and an invitation to a reception and viewing.
The response was remarkable.
“Some longish letters, speaking with pride of their ability to succeed; some saying they never expected this day to come,” Hauk said of the replies received. “Some said, ‘I’ll be there with bells on.’
“Our actions have to match our rhetoric,” he continued, speaking to the University’s responsibilities. “Our mission statement says that we are an ethically engaged, inquiry-driven community. We know we have to wrestle with the big questions, never ducking the moral questions of our time.”
The Long-Awaited Apology
Finally, on Oct. 10, came some sort of closure. At a private reception in the Woodruff Library, about 100 people – many of them the formerly disgraced dental students, along with their families, some friends, and members of Emory’s administration – met to talk openly about that era in their lives. There were tears, laughter and gratitude to both Emory and to Brickman for making the evening possible.
Yes, there was still anger and frustration; but there also was pride at how so many of them had overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to become leaders in their field and successful professionals in spite of the deep scars inflicted by John Buhler.
As part of the reception, President Wagner offered a heartfelt apology. Knowing he couldn’t atone for the pain and suffering, he instead welcomed those in attendance, saying what they couldn’t have heard half a century ago:
“The Emory community claims you as one of its own.”
Wagner, like Hauk, made a comparison between this issue and that which the university faced for its involvement in slavery.
“The university is opening a window into another regrettable chapter of its past, and it is similarly important to acknowledge and state our regret for it,” he said. “The university’s silence on this matter meant that many former students not only struggled to get their careers back on track, but also dealt with lingering feelings of shame and anger because the true causes of their experiences were never publicly acknowledged.
“By recognizing this chapter in the dental school’s history, we may help in some small way to heal the wounds felt by thee former students. We also need to cure the infection – or excise the tumor, if you will – that has affected the institution itself…
“As president of Emory University, I hereby express in the deepest, strongest terms, Emory’s regret for the anti-Semitic practices of the Dental School during those years. We at Emory also regret that it has taken this long for those events to be properly acknowledged…
“Emory can never totally repair the impact that discrimination had on Jewish dental students more than a half-century ago. But we can use the opportunity provided by Dr. Brickman’s research to reflect on these events in ways that make us more vigilant. We owe him thanks for helping to remind us that events like these will never be possible again.”
Professor Lipstadt was part of a panel discussion that followed a screening of the film.
“We have 20 faculty teaching the broad range of Jewish studies, a magnificent Marcus Hillel Center, a Chabad House, a university that bends over backwards to do whatever it can to make Jews, though not just Jews, feel comfortable here. That’s a whole lot more important,” she said. “But tonight is historical . . . Speaks volumes about our university.”
BY SUZI BRONZMAN / AJT Columnist