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Oral History with Drexel Sprecher

Drexel Sprecher
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

In response to Hitler's rise to power  and the first wave of Nazi antisemitic legislation in 1933 to 1934, some students at American colleges and universities organized their own groups with the goal of promoting ethnic and religious diversity on campus. Drexel Sprecher, who recorded this oral history interview in 1998, started one such group at the University of Wisconsin.

Sprecher describes the University of Wisconsin (UW) as a relatively inclusive campus during his years as a student there (1931–1935), claiming that the institution "probably had more Jews attending it than almost any other college outside of New York City." The university was, in his view, "relatively more open and tolerant than the campuses of many universities."1 Sprecher also notes, however, that no Jewish students were allowed to join his fraternity, and sometimes the "anti-Jewish prejudice" that existed at UW turned violent.2

Sprecher took various approaches to counter antisemitism at UW and raise awareness of the Nazi threat. He organized an interfaith student group called Coinose (an Ancient Greek word meaning "in common"), which drew upon both Christian and Jewish teachings to promote tolerance and inclusivity on campus. Sprecher also studied the Nazi regime and invited speakers to campus to discuss the possibility of another war in Europe. In one instance, Sprecher describes how he confronted antisemitic harassment directly. When he learned that the university's heavyweight boxing champion and his fraternity brothers had harassed and assaulted some Jewish students, Sprecher visited the boxer and warned him that any further antisemitic harassment at UW would be met with "a hell of a protest."3

Sprecher went on to earn a law degree at Harvard University and later served as a prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials of high-ranking Nazi war criminals.4 In this oral history, Sprecher draws a direct connection between his experiences as a student and his later efforts to seek justice and to expose the atrocities of the Nazi regime. His memories of his time as a student at UW highlight the presence of antisemitism on US college campuses, but also illustrate that students' efforts to organize against Nazism took shape on both the local and national levels. For Sprecher, these experiences proved formative as he began a career in law.

Wisconsin did not have the same restrictions on Jewish applicants that many other US universities (including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) instituted during the 1920s. For more on the history of Jews in American colleges and universities, see Valerie B. Kolko, "A History of Jews in American Higher Education," Journal of the Student Personnel Association at Indiana University (2003): 20–32; Dan A. Oren, Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985); and Nitza Rosovsky, The Jewish Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).

 

Sprecher, who identifies himself as a "nordic," notes that all of the fraternities on campus refused membership to Jewish students with the exception of separate Jewish fraternities.

Max Knecht—the heavyweight student boxer—encouraged false rumors that he was related to German heavyweight champion Max Schmeling, whom Nazi propagandists celebrated as an ideal "Aryan" athlete. For more on Schmeling in Experiencing History, see Program for the 1936 Schmeling-Louis Bout.

 

For more about Sprecher’s life and career, see Drexel A. Sprecher, Inside the Nuremberg Trial: A Prosecutor's Comprehensive Account, Vol. 1 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999); and Drexel A. Sprecher, Looking Backward—Thinking Forward: A Nuremberg Prosecutor's Memoir with Numerous Commentaries on Subjects of Contemporary Interest (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2005). To listen to further testimony from Sprecher, see this oral history interview in the digital archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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DS: "And I then went to the University of Wisconsin for the next three years and there I was under the influence a good deal of two other pastors, the head of the Baptist Student Union and the pastor of the largest Protestant church, the First Congressional Church.  And both of them became friends of mine and I visited in their homes and so on.

And the Baptist student minister encouraged me as a quote Nordic unquote to work with some Catholics and some Jews to form an organization which would be dedicated to tolerance among the students. At that time there was considerable anti-Jewish prejudice, even at Wisconsin, although Wisconsin probably had more Jews attending it than almost any other college outside of New York City. So I got together with some of these students. We didn't allow anyone into this group we formed which was called COINOSE.  It's from the Greek word meaning in common. About a half a dozen of us formed this group and we wouldn't allow anyone in unless they had done something on the campus that was worthwhile in the way of student activities and if you didn't have a B average. So we were kind of an elite group. We did that purposely in order to get attention. And we would meet every two weeks or so rather conspicuously in the student union and sit at one or two tables together and talk. And we also brought some speakers to speak to the students in various forums that were arranged. 

I also became the head of the conference on war which at that time drew strangely enough three different types of speakers. We wanted to be representative. We had pacifists mainly who were Christian preachers. We had the heads of two military academies who came to speak. We had people from the ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training Corps. And we had professors. And they talked about the world situation and about the possible threat of war in Europe again. Even though this was 1934. Hitler had been talking about lebensraum and so on. So I was pretty well schooled as an anti-Nazi while I was at the University of Wisconsin. And I did this paper during my senior year on the structure of National Socialism.

So by the time I got to London and to Germany, I was not without some background.

Q: The anti-Jewish sentiments, was that typical of the United States or was it Midwestern.

DS: I can't really speak with great knowledge about the entire United States. But this was visible at the University of Wisconsin in several ways.  Number one I was, I had joined one of the larger and better known fraternities, Phi Gamma Delta, which Fred Maytag, the son of the Maytag wash machine people were present, and a number of other people whose fathers were millionaires.

There wasn't a Jew in that fraternity. There were no fraternities that had Jews in them except the Jewish fraternities. So there was this bias. And I, because of having helped form COINOSE, I was asked to visit in Jewish fraternities a time or two or three or four. But I couldn't bring a Jew into the Phi Gamma Delta. It would have caused too much of a opposition by my fraternity brothers.

Now let's get real concrete about how this was carried out and the extreme and what we did about it. 

A fellow by the name of Max Knecht, which translates as Max servant, Max Knecht was the heavyweight boxing champion of the Big Ten set of universities.  And he was a member of the Xi Phi fraternity which had a nice pier running out from its house beside the huge lake Mendota along whose shores the university has its main building or many of its buildings. And some Jewish students had come walking along and walked out on this pier which had been constructed by the Xi Phis.  Max Knecht and a couple of his fraternity brothers went out there and threw those Jews into the water.  And it got around so a fellow by the name of Willard W. Blazer and I went to see the dean, Dean Goodnight. And we said we're terribly ashamed that any students would do a thing like this. And we are proposing that Bill Blazer or I should say he was the head of the Student Union, that Bill Blazer and I call on Max Knecht and tell him if there's any repeat of anything like this, he would be confronted by a number of other people who were six feet tall and that we'll make a hell of a protest.  That we think it's utterly un-American and thoroughly barbaric and so on, the way you behaved and so on. 

So Bill Blazer and I went down and asked to see Knecht and just told him this. And he was damn near threatening us and so on. And we said we aren't frightened of you and you don't dare do a damn thing to us because we have told the dean that we're going to visit you.  And we just want you to know we don't want anything else like that happen on the University of Wisconsin campus again and he stormed and turned around and went back into his fraternity house.

So that was kind of the background. There was a lot of anti-Jewish prejudice among a lot of the students. On the other hand, one of the reasons they were coming to Wisconsin is because on the whole it was relatively more open and tolerant than the campuses of many universities.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Source Number 1998.A.0231
RG Number 50.549.02.0004
Date of Interview
September 28, 1998
Duration 00:07:15
Interviewee
Drexel A. Sprecher
Interviewer
Margaret West
Language(s)
English
Interview Type Oral History
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