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Faces of discrimination
October 13th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Shining light on Emory school's past anti-Semitism prompts healing – and, for one man, questions

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

Atlanta (CNN) – Sixteen years after Susan Shulman Tessel lost her father, she sat on a Southern college campus Wednesday night and couldn't stop thinking about him. Surrounded by hundreds in a packed ballroom, she cried because he was missing. He should have been there with her and her mother. He deserved to be.

The late Irving Shulman was the only Jewish man to enter Emory University’s School of Dentistry in 1948. That was the same year someone else came to the school: the newly appointed dean, John E. Buhler.

After one academic year, Shulman flunked out. Buhler stayed on for 13 years, leading what some Jewish students would refer to as a “reign of terror.” Between 1948 and 1961, when Buhler left, 65% of Jewish students either failed out or were forced to repeat up to two years of coursework in the four-year program.

Those who lasted often paid. There were insults from professors such as “dirty Jew,” accusations by faculty of cheating and questions from the dean like, “Why do you Jews want to be dentists? You don't have it in your hands.”

Tessel's dad earned the distinction of being the first who failed.

Irving Shulman's widow, Irma Shulman-Weiner, and daughter Susan Shulman Tessel came to Emory last week because he couldn't.

His daughter, who lives in New York, heard him tell stories about the constant reminders of how awful he was. His molds of teeth  which he was so proud of  would either get crushed by hands or grades. Convinced he wasn't being treated fairly, a non-Jewish classmate agreed to turn in one of Shulman's molds under his name. Shulman's handiwork earned that student an A-minus.

“At least he knew he didn't make it up,” Tessel said.

Her late father gave up his dentistry dream and moved on to pharmacy school. But, she said, being at Emory last week would have helped him make sense of what had transpired. That's when 19 former Jewish dental students who had experienced that era came together and finally received the apology and recognition they had never thought possible.

“He didn't have the benefit of knowing he wasn't alone."

'A fraternity of silence'

Three years after Shulman was dubbed a failure at the end of his first academic year, Perry Brickman got his surprise letter from the dean telling him the same. Unlike Shulman, though, he had never been told he wasn't doing well.

Stunned. Embarrassed. Brickman was both. But he wasn't beaten down enough to give up on dentistry and was accepted to the dental school at the University of Tennessee, where he graduated fourth in his class. He would go on to have a 43-year career as a respected oral surgeon in Atlanta. He knew he was no failure. He also knew he wasn't alone. He was one of four Jewish men who entered the school in 1951; two years later they were all gone.

Brickman, 79, wasn't one to bring up the past. In 2000, he went to a reunion of his Jewish fraternity brothers from their Emory undergrad days. It turned out eight of the men in the room had been scarred by the same dental program, but it's not something they talked about. Brickman's wife, Shirley, would later start calling the former dental students “a fraternity of silence.”

It would be years before that would change.

In 2006, Emory University celebrated its 30th anniversary of Jewish studies. Eric Goldstein, a Jewish history professor, set up the exhibit to coincide with the event. He called it, “Jews of Emory: Faces of a Changing University.”

Most of the exhibit was a celebration of the campus’ Jewish life, Goldstein said, but a small section jumped out at Brickman.

He stared at statistics, a bar graph that illustrated what happened at the dental school between 1948 and 1961. The image had been featured in a chapter of “Some of My Best Friends...,” a book published by the Anti-Defamation League in the early 1960s. Like a skyscraper among short buildings, he said, the bar showing the numbers of Jews who failed out of the school or repeated coursework towered above all others. He couldn't believe what he was seeing.

The visual highlighted what Brickman always suspected about the dental school leadership and how that period was handled at Emory: “I wasn't a failure. They were a failure.”

He knew there were stories behind those numbers  not just of those who hadn't made it but also of those who did. Between the statistics and a conversation with a still-burdened classmate, Brickman set out on a path to find them all.

Making waves

A month before one man got his degree, he was forced to stand before the dean and assembled faculty for an hourlong dressing down. Later, one of the professors pulled the student aside and apologized, saying he had a wife and children to think about and had no choice but to play along.

Another said the day he got his diploma he felt like he'd been released from prison. A third repeated what a professor used to call him, "my little black sheep,” and then, bothered by the memory, muttered under his breath, “son of a bitch.”

These men said they were the "lucky" ones; the ones who actually made it through to earn degrees from the school. The 39 Jews who Brickman said enrolled during the Buhler era were all men; few women attended the school back then. Of that bunch, a dozen flunked out. Only three of those 12 became dentists. At least 15 of the Jewish dental students who lasted were forced to repeat coursework – and in some cases a year or two of study.

Art Burns, 80, of Jacksonville, Florida, flunked out in 1953 but went on to be first in his class at Temple University's dental school. The retired orthodontist recalled later bumping into the Emory dean in an Army base dental lab. Buhler looked at him and said, “Burns, I'd recognize that nose anywhere.”

Another who didn't fail – but who Buhler insisted didn't have the hands for dentistry – found himself being asked to treat dental school faculty throughout his senior year. Crowns, restorations, fillings. You name it, Ronald Goldstein did it.

“I must have had good enough hands for them,” said Goldstein, 78, of Atlanta, who lectures around the world, is considered a pioneer in his field and wrote the first comprehensive textbook on cosmetic dentistry.

The men were accepted to the school because admissions were handled by the broader university and not the dental school alone, said history professor Goldstein (no relation to Ronald). While quotas worked against Jews in many institutions at the time, the Emory dental school story was unique in that these students faced discrimination after they arrived.

Art Burns, with his wife, Olly, and daughter Marlēn, failed out of Emory's dental school but was first in his class of 131 students at Temple University.

The issues were talked about in small circles, but they weren’t discussed loudly.

What student would announce he'd flunked? What parents would talk about such news, especially in a community that put such emphasis on academic achievement? And this was Emory, a hometown liberal arts jewel many local Jews attended; who would criticize – or believe criticism about – such a place?

Beyond these hangups was the worry about backlash that permeated Atlanta's Jewish community. It was rooted in fears born of history and reality – Atlanta's infamous lynching of Leo Frank in 1913, the ongoing activity of the Ku Klux Klan, the 1958 bombing of the city's most prominent synagogue. Israel was still a fledgling nation. This was also the immediate post-Holocaust era, a time when Jewish people in America were just starting to understand the magnitude of what had happened abroad, said Deborah Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League's civil rights director.

“It was a real period of insecurity for the Jewish community, and that didn’t really shift 'til 1967,” after the Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbors, she said. “With a war victory came a newfound confidence of Jewish people.”

But a small handful of Atlanta Jews refused to let go of what was happening at the dental school. Art Levin, 95, paid attention to every snippet. Then the Southeast regional director of the ADL, Levin was determined to make Emory own up to and deal with the dental school's anti-Jewish bias. He collected graduation programs, which included lists of students in all four years, and studied how the Jewish surnames disappeared or were held back while their classmates moved ahead. He nurtured contacts who helped get him inside information from the registrar's office to back up his calculations. He wanted to make the case not by outing any victims but by presenting irrefutable facts.

When the local Jewish Community Relations Council wanted to tone down pressure on the university, Levin's response, as he stated in an Emory-commissioned documentary that premiered Wednesday evening: “Screw that. This guy has been torturing students for 10 years.”

Photos: Faces of discrimination

Levin, at the time, was “villified” by segments of the Jewish community for making waves, said ADL’s Lauter, a former Atlanta resident who, like Levin, did a stint as the organization's Southeast regional director. “But that's why we're here for people who face discrimination. Sometimes ADL has to be the tough guy. We take no prisoners in the fight against anti-Semitism.”

While Levin takes great satisfaction in knowing the story is finally getting public acknowledgement, Lauter said it's “bittersweet” for him. “He did feel stung by the whole experience." In 1962, after nine years in his position, he left the world of Jewish community work.

Levin, who now lives in Florida and is hard of hearing, was not able to be interviewed for this story.

A form devised by Buhler, which at the top asked students to check a box – Caucasian, Jewish or other (Emory was not racially integrated at the time) – ended up being his downfall, many say. The university president, S. Walter Martin, had been dismissive of the concerns Levin and some others raised. So when Martin was out of town, Levin brought a copy of the form to Judson “Jake” Ward, the dean of faculty, and Ward grew incensed. He marched down to see Buhler, who resigned soon after.

Emory's president still refused to acknowledge what had been going on and wrote off Buhler’s resignation as coincidental. Martin even insisted to local press, Goldstein said, that Buhler could have stayed at the dental school as long as he wanted.

With the dean gone, Atlanta's Jewish community essentially closed the book and put it away.

Not the man he knew

That book only recently opened for the former dean's son.

A sister-in-law sent John E. Buhler Jr., 65, a copy of a recent story in the The New York Times about the episode. What he read “caught me completely off guard,” he said. “I was completely unaware of that situation.”

He was a kid when his father landed at Emory and always believed politics in academia prompted his departure, nothing more. Everything he ever knew about his father, who died on Easter Sunday in 1976, belied what is being discussed now.

The former dean of Emory's dental school, John E. Buhler, was a different man to Jewish students than he was to his son.

The younger Buhler, a retired oral surgeon living in Huntington, Indiana, said he grew up with a man who cared about “helping kids stay in school and not throwing them out of school.” When he got into the field himself, he proudly watched how former students sought out his father at conferences, showering him with gratitude. One even boasted that he had named his child after Buhler.

“It just sort of blows me away. … He did so many positive things for dentistry and students,” the younger Buhler said. “It's hard to believe.”

Trying to make sense of it all, Buhler Jr.'s daughter sent her father an article that appeared in The Spartanburg Herald in South Carolina in 1964. It was written soon after the older Buhler assumed the dean’s post at the new dental school of what was then known as the Medical College of South Carolina – and after the Jewish community there weighed in with concerns about past anti-Semitism, demanding his appointment be rescinded.

The 1964 article quoted the chairman of the Medical College's board of trustees defending Buhler, saying he was recommended for the new position after a committee concluded the Emory charges were “not as serious as painted at one time."

The former dean's namesake doesn't remember his father ever saying a derogatory word about Jewish people. In fact, he's quick to point out that when the family lived in Atlanta, some of his parents' closest friends were Jewish.

These sorts of claims get former students like Brickman, who led the charge to humanize the dental school’s history, riled up. He has collected too many stories and seen too many documents, including incriminating notes written by Buhler himself, to call the former dean anything but an anti-Semite.

But for Buhler Jr., none of this adds up. Really, how can it?

“If this situation did exist, it was certainly out of character of the man I knew,” he wrote CNN the morning after the Emory event. “If indeed these events did occur, I feel badly for the individuals involved. Last night’s event might have made them feel better but didn't compensate for their injury.”

I am sorry. We are sorry.’

Facing its history is something Emory isn’t afraid to do.

In 2011, it issued a statement of regret for the school's involvement with slavery. The Southern institution once had slave laborers on campus and faculty members who owned slaves.

Earlier this year, Emory fessed up to fudging data to boost its ranking.

Meantime, the university boasts a Center for Ethics, campus dialogues on matters like race, sexuality and gender, and has long-proven its support for Jewish studies and community. It has 20 full-time faculty members dedicated to the field, including world-renowned Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt.

The school seemed ripe for the resurfacing of the dental school's history, which is why Goldstein, the Jewish history professor, placed a call last spring to Gary Hauk, Emory's vice president and deputy to the president. He said he had a friend Hauk needed to meet.

With testimonies he had recorded with his Flip camera, Brickman showed Hauk videos of men in their 70s and 80s, their negative Emory dental school experience still etched in their faces and emotions. Hauk didn't need convincing that something needed to be done.

A documentary incorporating Brickman's footage was commissioned, resulting in “From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory's Dental School History.” A plan was developed to invite the former students, their families and their widows to come together on campus for an apology that was half a century overdue.

What had happened to them at the dental school, which closed in the early 1990s for unrelated reasons, had never been formally acknowledged. It was time.

Blue ribbons were strung along aisles to reserve seats for the special guests, who first met privately with Emory President James W. Wagner. The men, some of whom hadn't returned to Emory since the day they left, arrived with family members from all over the country. Many went on to become great successes in dentistry. Those who gave up that dream excelled as physicians, lawyers, CPAs and computer experts. One man who flunked out tried his hand at painting, wanting to prove he had the manual skills the dean said he lacked; he won art show awards.

The experience had been a guarded secret for some – a chapter in life they hid from parents, friends, future spouses and their children. One woman in attendance said she had only learned the day before that her father failed out of Emory. For other former students, their time at Emory haunted them. One of their daughters – who refused even years later to apply to Emory when she went to dental school – dubbed herself and others like her “children of survivors,” a term often linked to the Holocaust. An 18-year-old man, who is gay and faced plenty of bullying, realized he could relate to the grandfather sitting next to him in new ways.

Widows and children of deceased former students showed up for those who didn't live long enough to see this day. One man, who was young when his father died, came to hear stories no one else in his life could tell.

All around them, as they took their seats, the ballroom filled. A standing-room-only crowd of hundreds came out to recognize them. Here, any shame from the past was lifted. Instead, these men were the picture of courage and worthy of respect – and that long-awaited apology.

“Institutions – universities – are as fallible as the human beings who populate them, and like individuals, universities need to remind themselves frequently of the principles they want to live by,” President Wagner said. “The discrimination against Jewish dental students undermined the academic integrity of the dental school and ultimately of Emory. … I am sorry. We are sorry.”

The night, which would end with a special dinner for this no-longer-silent fraternity, included a tribute to Brickman, who was called to the stage.

Norman Trieger traveled last week from New York to hear Emory's apology for and acknowledgement of past anti-Semitism. On Saturday, he passed away.

His wife, surrounded by family, clung to a tissue and dabbed her eyes. A daughter clutched her mother’s hand. A son looked up at his dad and beamed.

Brickman never did this for the Emory History Maker medal Wagner strung around his neck. Nor did he do this for the citation read to honor his work.

For him, this was a journey of discovery - one he took with the faces behind the numbers. With him that night were these men and their families, as well as the university he still loved.

Throughout the evening, and long after dinner ended, he saw tears, camaraderie, even laughter from some of the very men he feared were no longer capable of smiling.

All of this, he hoped, signaled what mattered most: Healing.

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Discrimination • Education • Judaism • Prejudice

soundoff (1,537 Responses)
  1. Anth

    their whole history is a lie, they are aggressors, they actually khazars, bidding us to do their wars, ask yourself where are the israelis that caught with a truck load of bombs on 911 on the bridge .. and then look at the tv interviews they werew on after they were released with nothing mentioning it in the news .. yur' all too easily lead :P

    October 15, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • End Religion

      The mental institution called: they want their straitjackets back.

      October 15, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  2. TheAntiChrist

    Jews!!!!!! :-(( :-() ;-O Poof they are all gone now. You can come out of the closet and eat.

    October 15, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  3. BD70

    Welcome to America.

    October 15, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  4. Mc

    Another ADL story . Some of my best friends are Jewish , not ZIONISTS ! Thank the Bauer family .

    October 15, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  5. alex_shin

    It's funny how in freedom-loving, politically correct and tolerant America an article about Jews opens a good old can of worms in the comments.
    The reader gets his good share of bias, bigotry, old lies and fresh hatred. Things don't change much over time, do they?

    How do you expect Jews to change if the hostility toward them doesn't diminish a notch?

    Of course they would stay put as a tightly knit group against all this crap, it's too early to relax and act as if everything is just fine...
    If you guys want Jews to become less focused on themselves, try treating them as you treat your fellow white americans/blacks/latino/asians, you name it ... Trust me, it would work wonders.

    October 15, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  6. Ponchos raincoat

    We are all primates. Stop the fighting and lets move on now.

    October 15, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • End Religion

      nurse, get me a banana, STAT!

      October 15, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  7. Destinatus

    QQ

    Cry more Jews. I bathe kittens in your holohoax tears.

    October 15, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  8. Just Sayin

    And now these sick racists are doing to Muslim Americans what they did to Jews back then.....Don't worry soon they will be
    working for an Asian boss or greeting at Walmart.

    October 15, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  9. jonat

    Why not put todays face on anti-semitism...Barack Obama and liberals

    October 15, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • fred

      What a terrible chapter in our history ! And especially after a jewish immigrant saved us during the American Revolution ! Google the name Haym Solomon and be ashamed of the way this man was treated !

      October 15, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • crappygovernment

      he may have cut a check but he didn't fight off the British and Hessians....

      October 15, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  10. Whenwillitend

    Look I don't mean to be insensitive, but when will the holocaust reminders stop? I know it happened. It was one of the worst times in human history and nobody should have to have gone through that, but why is it that whenever the spotlight turns to some other tragedy like 911 or the tsunami they always pop up a story about antisemitism to regain sympathy. It's really tacky at this point.

    October 15, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • The Real Talk

      Well said. Could not have said it better myself.

      October 16, 2012 at 12:46 am |
  11. Bob C.

    Now CNN is anti-Muslim. They are using Nazi style rhetoric to chastise and entire ethnic culture. Oh, yeah, I've heard Wolf "Israel" Blitzer on a rant. This after the US government carried out the 9/11 attacks on it's own people and then put the blame on people who had nothing to do with it.

    October 15, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • bannister

      Exactly. 911 was DEFINITELY carried out by Israeli and US intelligence.

      October 15, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Sheeps

      thank you. finally someone speaking out the truth than nobody wants to admit or even try to acknowledge!

      October 15, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • End Religion

      The nutters are running wild in the streets....

      October 15, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Food4thought

      And y'all know this how. I believe that you shouldn't put your mouth on every thing. In other words if you wasn't there keep your mouth closed. But thats just me.

      October 15, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  12. TT

    Not sure WHY this would be necessary. The perpetrators are dead and gone. The school's apology is not even necessary. I'm not saying an apology isn't due, but not by the school. I have ZERO intention for apologizing for any mistakes made by others EVEN if they were ancestors. I'm sure others have endured worse and unless I missed it, their fellow Jews in Europe deserve more sympathy than this ridiculous band of whiners about something trivial in comparison.

    October 15, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • tt

      Hey TT Would you apologize for your stupid asinine comment. You should.

      October 15, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  13. Marjoire

    Any type of discrimination is wrong. But, can you imagine when the reason for the discrimination cannot be hidden! That is pure and simple living in HELL. Think about it!

    October 15, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  14. Food4thought

    I'm sorry not trying to take any thing from this article or the Jewish community; what they suffered was inhumane. But this country, well I'm just going to say this country, and let you all decide on where I'm going with this conversation because really whats the point. Some point in your life when you are all grown up you realize that talking about the B.S. is pointless. Lets just dog every other country and call ours great. The hack with it.

    October 15, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  15. andres

    It is a sad commentary on the human race that discrimination every reared its ugly head. That Emory ever allowed it and that it took well over 40 years to apologize for its collective behavior is a sad commentary on the school. Can't say that I admire Emory university for it's late apology (likely coming out now that most of the effected are dead so the lawsuits will be minimal)

    October 15, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  16. Sahel

    Accept Islam

    October 15, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  17. ollie

    Anyone ever heard of Sydney Farber? Well, he was a JEWISH man who was the first to pioneer the use of chemotherapy to treat children with leukemia. In the 1940's, NO child with leukemia survived. Thanks to his hard work and dedication to a path that no one else was taking, today roughly 90% of children with leukemia survive. Thank goodness he was given the opportunity to practice medicine, and wasn't shot down because of his religion.

    -Signed, a proud Jewish woman in her late 20's who is also going into pediatric oncology, and has been fortunate enough to have never been told "you can't" based on religious beliefs.

    October 15, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • crappygovernment

      Dr. Jonas Salk started the Cancer epidemic with his tainted Polio vaccines.

      October 15, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • freebird

      did you file other under race,

      October 15, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • fred

      Google the name – Haym Solomon and learn about a jewish immigrant who saved America during the revolution ! I do not understand why this wasn't taught in high school !

      October 15, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    October 15, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but everything you have ever asserted regarding atheism and prayer is unfounded. The degree to which your assertions may represent truths is 0.0. To help you understand the degree to which your assertions may represent truths, I will access my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE). Using my IEE module, the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      October 15, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • MC

      Get psychiatric help.

      October 15, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • pj

      Religion is the opiate of the people Fairytales and religion are one and the same.
      Except religion has been used for politics , power and murder. I say, worship Hans Christian Anderson , no one ever died because of his fantasies

      October 15, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • snowboarder

      i find it difficult to believe that any christian has ever turned a critical eye upon their religious beliefs. the entire premise is absolutely ludicrous.

      October 15, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  19. Jews are perfect

    Jews are perfect and never discriminate. That's why every Hollywood film studio, without exception, has a Jewish CEO.

    October 15, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • pj

      Wrong, thats because they are smart and talented (unlike you)

      October 15, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • STOP MURDER OF CHILDREN , Human be aware of hindu filthy dog's of hindu Atheism, self center ism , DENIAL OF TRUTH ABSOLUTE GOD.

      Where ever there is hind, filth of hind's ignorant's cow mama's dung, their is a hindu parasite, and where ever their is money, their is a hindu Jew's, greedy self centered, secular with his tong hanging out like a hindu filthy hobo , hungry dog.

      October 15, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • freebird

      your named pj

      October 15, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • tt

      Actually it is because many were discriminated against in the regular professionals that they were forced into making a living in new uncharted territories i.e. motion pictures and tv.

      I guess they owe hateful bigots like you a thank you

      October 15, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  20. Peikovi

    It cheats the public to be denied work from skilled professionals, whatever the background.

    October 15, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.