Looking back, Dr. Jacob Ari Labendz has his doubts as to whether his visit to Auschwitz as a 12-year-old was age-appropriate.
On the other hand, his childhood visit to Poland, which included the stop in the extermination camp, set the Montville native on the career path that now has brought him back to New Jersey as director of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College in Mahwah.
“It was late August 1989,” Dr. Labendz said. “Communism was in in the process of falling.” And a family friend wanted to see the cemetery where a relative — the first Jew in that town to be murdered by the invading Nazis — was buried. Dr. Labendz’s father was invited along, and he brought young Jacob.
In Poland, they met with the people who had taken upon themselves the task of caring for the Jewish cemetery. And they learned that a trove of old Torah scrolls was stored in an old mikvah building that had been repurposed into a factory and apartments.
“We went in the cover of darkness and found all of these Torah scrolls, and we smuggled them back to the United States” — where they were repaired and donated to area synagogues. He read from one of them a year later, at his bar mitzvah at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell.
But the memory that stuck with him most from the trip to Poland “was the kiddush we had at the JDC cafeteria in Warsaw,” Dr. Labendz said; the JDC is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “I met very old Jews. It was nice to be in their presence, nice to see that life had continued.
“I became hooked. And so I went back on the March of the Living and USY Eastern European pilgrimage.” On that trip to Eastern Europe, Prague captivated him. So after he graduated Brandeis — he had gone to the Hebrew Academy of Morris County and then the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange — he wanted to go back to Prague. “I called up everyone I knew. My rabbi, Rabbi Alan Silverstein, who was the head of the Rabbinical Assembly at the time said they needed a field worker in Prague, and I went,” he said.
That led to a job with a Jewish study program in Prague, and meeting with the Jewish scholars involved with the program. “That sparked a passion I never knew I had” for history, a topic he had never studied in college, Dr. Labendz said. But with the encouragement of the professors he got to know, he applied to Washington University, where he studied for a Ph.D. in Jewish history.
His research topic: how the Czechoslovak state tried to manage the reintegration of Jews after the Holocaust and through four decades of communist rule.
“There was an ambivalence regarding the Jews,” he said. “There was both a commitment to their integration and profound and lasting doubts in the viability of that project.”
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the new Czechoslovak government expelled ethnic Germans and Hungarians; there was no space for national minorities. Jews could remain, but they had to accept that Judaism was their religion, not their nationality; their nationality was Czech or Slovak. This had been the bargain by which Jews had been accepted in France in Napoleon’s day, but it was new in this corner of Eastern Europe for Jews to be told, “You have to say your national identity is the same as your neighbor’s. But you have freedom of conscience, you can believe in the Jewish God, you can go to synagogue. In fact, they relied upon the Jewish communities to take care of a lot of the needs of Jewish survivors, which would have overwhelmed the state,” Dr. Labendz explained.
But after the communists took power in 1949, they followed the lead of the Soviet Union and embarked on an anti-Zionist campaign, “because the Soviet bloc needed a unified enemy,” Dr. Labendz said.
However, this did not translate into a unified policy regarding Jews.
“Antisemitic show trials took down the top leadership of the Communist party who were of Jewish descent,” Dr. Labendz said. “At the same time, the communist government was dedicated to protecting Jewish religion. It made exceptions for Jews in nursing homes to ensure they got butter instead of lard. In 1953 there was a meat shortage and a subministry in Slovakia cut off kosher meat production, saying they couldn’t privilege one religious group by allocating for kosher slaughter. The central government in Prague overturned it and guaranteed kosher meat.
“So there was an antisemitic regime, but it was a special kind of antisemitism.”
Some of this support for Jews practicing Judaism was premised on the idea that “the next generations would not follow in their parents’ footsteps,” Dr. Labendz said. “They would be raised in a socialistic society and because their needs were being met, there will be no material drive to become Jewish.”
That didn’t happen.
Yet rather than reacting to the failure of Judaism to fulfill the ideological predictions of decline by forcibly suppressing it, “there’s a relaxation of the regime. There’s even acquiescence to provide cultural training in history lessons for young Jews,” Dr. Labendz said. “It’s a very complicated history.”
Dr. Labendz said that the details of the history of Jews in post-war Czechoslovakia tie into the “central questions of modern Jewish history: Can Jews join the nation? What is expected of Jews?”
He sees the questions as reflecting not straightforward antisemitism, but rather ambivalence, with “antisemitism emerging from a more complex system.”
Dr. Labendz’ father was born in 1945 in Bolivia, to two 20-year-olds who had fled with their families from Germany after Kristallnacht and met as children on the boat to South America.
“In 1947, they all immigrated to the United States of America, which apparently had been my grandfather’s dream his whole life,” he said. “And that was thanks to my Aunt Betty and Uncle Hans, who had been in Cuba and got to America first. So they sent for them and my father’s family has been first in New York and then in New Jersey ever since.”
On his mother’s side, his family came from Nova Kiliya, which now is in Ukraine but had been part of Russia when they left around 1910 and part of Romania when Dr. Labendz’ great uncle went back for a visit in 1927 — and took a small movie camera with him.
Dr. Labendz has uploaded the film to YouTube.
“You can get a sense of how they lived,” he said. “They were religious but not very religious. They seem to be middle class. They had a nice house. It’s my great-grandmother on video, which most people don’t have. We got a nice sense of who they were.”
The bulk of his work at the Gross Center will be arranging programming. Dr. Labendz hopes to increase cooperation with other campus departments and to continue the center’s work with the surrounding community. He has begun meeting with the rabbis of local congregations to discuss cooperation.
He will teach two courses a year, starting in the fall semester with a course about the Holocaust. He has taught this in in different forms since he was a teacher’s assistant at Washington University. There, “I was grading papers and I read a shocking first line,” he said. “One student wrote, ‘Unfortunately, I didn’t have any family who died in the Holocaust.’ That speaks to the centrality of the Holocaust in contemporary Jewish life and the way that Jews understand themselves as Jews.”
Before coming to Ramapo, Dr. Labendz was the director of the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies at Youngstown State University, where few if any of his students were Jewish; some thought they might have a Jewish grandparent. He has also taught students whose grandparents survived the escape from Treblinka — and would talk about those stories only in private assignments, not in the class discussions.
“There is a real challenge in Holocaust education as the Holocaust is moving from memory into history,” he said. “It’s the duty of those of us who do this professionally to acknowledge the anxieties around that and then move beyond. So many of us came to know about the Holocaust by talking to survivors — and that’s no longer going to be viable.
“We in the older generation have to let go of our expectations about what it means to learn about the Holocaust and try to meet these students where they are. Maybe it’s a great- grandparent, or maybe they spent a week on it high school because New Jersey has a Holocaust education mandate. And that’s it. And they don’t see survivors, they see well entrenched and relatively safe Jewish communities in the United States, where my mother, who’s now the grandmother in the family, had a very nice life growing up as a young woman in America.
“I try to give space for students to relate it to their own lives, while at the same time reminding them of the importance of context. History does not repeat itself, but it can set patterns and in studying the similarities and differences we can learn about our own world.
“Importantly, I really stress that students have to learn about the communities that were destroyed. Otherwise we’re just talking about the human capacity for evil writ large. If you want to think about the Holocaust as an attack on Jews, you need to understand the place of Jews in European society before the war.
“We owe it to them to learn something about them.
“This relates to a major theme in my work on Czechoslovakia. In the 1960s and 70s, the young Jews started complaining that they weren’t being educated about Jewish life. They stopped going to the annual Holocaust memorials because they’d gone every year, they knew everything about the Holocaust, it was a natural part of their lives as an entire community emerging from a genocide.
“They complained to the older generation: You never told us how to pray, you never told us our history.”