Hearing about the past is one thing, but sometimes a story isn’t as powerful as a physical, tangible piece of history, when it comes to understanding it.
Jacob Ari Labendz has seen that firsthand.
Dr. Labendz is the director of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College in Mahwah. The center recently welcomed a Torah scroll that was used in the Czech town of Kolin, about 40 miles west of Prague, before World War II, and Dr. Labendz saw the effect of that physical object almost immediately. “The questions I got about the scroll, the Holocaust, and Jewish history were so much deeper, and more empathetic, than the ones I usually received before I put the scroll up,” he said.
“It’s not that students didn’t care before,” Dr. Labendz continued. He has, in fact, found that the students at Ramapo are extremely concerned. “Everywhere in the news, you hear about crises of antisemitism on college campuses,” he said. “But when the Kanye West incident was happening last fall, students asked me to bring in lecturers to talk about antisemitism, so people could learn what it was, so they wouldn’t do what Kanye did.”
Dr. Labendz also talked about the time that students asked for his help when they were writing a resolution for the student government. A group of students had been walking on campus near a statue commemorating the Holocaust. “The statue is appropriately disturbing, and the sign explaining it was hard to see because it was poorly lit,” he said. “One student said, ‘I don’t know why they need such an ugly statue here.’ Another student explained, but members of the student government worried that people might not understand the reason for the monument. They introduced a resolution to put in better lighting around the sign, and the resolution received unanimous support. So it’s not that students didn’t care, it’s that the scroll inspired curiosity, and perhaps more importantly, real empathy,” Dr. Labendz said. “It was something they could see and touch.”
Dr. Labendz’s own interest in Jewish history and the Holocaust was sparked by Torah scrolls that had been rescued from the Nazis. He grew up in Montville; his Conservative community was insular. “I really didn’t have non-Jewish friends until I was 19,” he said. “Everything I did was within a Jewish setting. We weren’t raised to think poorly of non-Jews, quite the opposite, but my frame of reference was very Jewish.”
In 1989, when Jacob was 12, he travelled to Czestochowa, Poland, with his father, Ralph Labendz, and a family friend, Harry Rapaport, to rescue Torah scrolls that Jews had hidden during the Holocaust. Mr. Rapaport’s family had lived in Czestochowa before the Holocaust. On September 4, 1939, his grandfather, Eliezer Hersh Rapaport, was the first Jew in the town to be shot dead by the advancing Nazi troops, in what became known as the Czestochowa massacre. According to family lore, Harry Rapaport’s father, Moishe, 30 at the time, took his father’s body, found a rabbi, and the two buried his father in the Jewish cemetery at night. He couldn’t put up a headstone, so he found a landmark and counted the paces from the fresh grave to the landmark. That way, he would be able to find the grave later. Moishe promised to come back after the war and place an appropriate headstone.
Of course, Dr. Labendz said, no one could imagine what the war would bring, and that Mr. Rapaport’s father would survive concentration camps, end up in a DP camp in Germany, and then immigrate to the United States. Moishe, later Morris, never made it back to Czestochowa. But in the 1980s, his son Harry did. He wanted to find his grandfather’s grave — and he succeeded. Mr. Rapaport put up a headstone; in the process and he met a group of Polish gentiles who had taken it upon themselves to clean up and restore the Jewish cemetery of Czestochowa. “For them, this was part of their heritage, and they mourned the loss of a multiethnic Poland,” Dr. Labendz said. They told Mr. Rapaport about the Torah scrolls, which still were hidden, and he smuggled some of them out.
Mr. Rapaport later told Dr. Labendz’s family about his trip. “My family was excited, and I was about to be bar mitzvahed,” Dr. Labendz explained. “So my father said, ‘let’s go.’ We visited Jewish sites, we went to Auschwitz, we went to cemeteries, we went to synagogues, and we smuggled out six Torah scrolls.” That was in August 1989, as communism was collapsing.
And this sparked Dr. Labendz’s interest. “The scrolls were a sign of life,” he said. “Growing up in a Jewish community, I always heard of Europe in terms of death. But here, we saw the Holocaust, not marked by death camps and survivors, but by scrolls that I knew how to read. So these were living documents for me.” He, his father, and Mr. Rapaport went to a synagogue in Warsaw, and met members of the remaining Jewish community, witnessing Jewish life in what was still communist Poland.
“I was young, so I didn’t have the ability to contextualize this in world history,” Dr. Labendz said. “But it got me interested.” He returned to Poland twice on Jewish programs — March of the Living, and USY’s Eastern European Pilgrimage.
After college, Dr. Labendz wanted to spend a year in Prague. He had visited the city on the USY trip and thought that it was gorgeous, with an astounding energy. His first visit had been in 1994, and the area had just become a new country for the second time in four years – Communism fell in 1989, and on New Year’s 1993, Czechoslovakia separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. His rabbi, Allan Silverstein, who led Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell at the time – he’s now the synagogue’s rabbi emeritus — told him that the Conservative movement was looking to send a field worker to Prague, so he went.
A year morphed into four years working in, and around, the Jewish community in Prague. For a year and a half, Dr. Labendz taught the parshat hashavua – the Bible portion of the week – and led services and holiday celebrations. Then he ran a program that focused on Jewish studies. During his time in Prague, he made a lot of friends and learned the language. Once he returned to the United States, he earned a Ph.D. in history from Washington University in St. Louis. His doctoral dissertation was about how the Czechoslovak communist state sought to manage the reintegration of Jews in society, and to manage its role there. In other words, “how the communist state for four decades wrestled with its own version of the Jewish question,” he said.
When he was in Prague, Dr. Labendz also learned about the collection of Czech Torah scrolls that had been rescued from the Nazis.
When the Germans were starting to deport Jewish communities, the Jewish Museum in Prague convinced them to allow the museum to collect and catalogue ritual objects from around Bohemia and Moravia — the regions that form the Czech part of what was Czechoslovakia — as part of the deportation process. “So not only were Jews as individuals removed from these towns, their communal belongings would have been archived, and sent to what became the central Jewish museum under the Nazis,” Dr. Labendz said.
Why would the Nazis allow this? “There’s a myth that they were forming a museum to the extinct race, meaning the Jews,” he said. “That is highly unlikely, and there’s no evidence to support that claim. The Nazis, some scholars believe, were hoping to sell or ransom these materials to the West. Remember that it was not only Torah scrolls, which had material value, but a tremendous amount of silver; in fact, one of the most impressive collections of the contemporary Jewish Museum in Prague is its collection of silver Judaica from around the country. So it had quite a bit of value.”
A little more than 1,800 Torah scrolls survived the war, Dr. Labendz said. In the first postwar years, more than 200 of those scrolls were redistributed to Jewish communities around Czechoslovakia so they could be used in synagogues. “And there were some really fascinating debates about what to do with the remaining Torah scrolls,” he said. “There were Jews who wanted the scrolls to be used, and there were other Jews who wanted the scrolls to be preserved as a memorial — as the last remnants, in many cases — of communities lost to genocide.”
Some of the scrolls were sold, one by one, to people abroad; there was a Torah shortage around the world after World War II so this collection had real value and meaning. In 1964, the museum sold the remaining 1,564 Torah scrolls to the Westminster Synagogue in London for $30,000.
Since then, the Westminster Synagogue has cared for the scrolls. It arranged to have many of them repaired by a sofer — a scribe — and shortly thereafter, began distributing them around the world on a permanent loan basis. The Gross Center applied to receive one of them.
Dr. Labendz emphasized the importance of the center receiving a scroll that had not been repaired. He wanted to make sure it was not kosher — that it could not be used in a synagogue. “I felt that people would be justified in believing that if a scroll could be used for ritual purposes, it belongs in a community that will use it,” he explained. “Our scroll, unfortunately, is grievously damaged and can’t be repaired.”
Normally, the appropriate thing to do would be to bury a scroll like this one, Dr. Labendz continued. “According to tradition, we treat Torah scrolls that are no longer kosher the same way that we treat human bodies; they once were these vessels of holiness, and we continue to treat them with respect when the soul has left the body, or the Torah is no longer kosher. Instead of burying this Torah, we’ve put it on display, and we’re using it as a teaching tool.”
The scroll now on exhibit at the Gross Center dates from the late 18th century. The city of Kolin, where it came from, once had one of the larger and more consequential Jewish communities in the region, Dr. Labendz said. Jewish settlement there likely started in the 15th century and peaked in the 19th, when Jews, like other urban groups, started moving to even larger cities. “So from Kolin to Prague was a normal trajectory.”
When the scroll arrived at the center, Dr. Labendz felt it was important to do something substantial to mark the occasion. “There was a lot of receptivity to my work here at the college,” he said. “So I thought we could turn this into a community-wide event that could be used to educate. I wanted to mark it on campus so that my colleagues, and students, and community members, could understand the weight of this object, and what it means to have it, and the responsibilities of having it on campus.”
The center hosted the welcoming ceremony on May 1; more than 100 people, including students, administrators, professors, and guests from the community, were there. The heart of the ceremony involved moving the Torah scroll from the student center to the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, housed in another building on the campus. The procession escorted the Torah to its new home under a chuppah — a wedding canopy — in accordance with tradition, Dr. Labendz said.
There were two things about that ceremony that Dr. Labendz found particularly moving. There are now more than 1,000 Czech scrolls in the United States, and two of them, at Congregation Beth Chaverim Shir Shalom — were brought to Ramapo for the celebration. Beth Chaverim Shir Shalom is in Mahwah, just down the road from Ramapo College. One of its scrolls is from Pilsen and the other is from Vodňany.
“This is a sign to me of how effective this programming is,” Dr. Labendz said. “It was fantastic. We marched three scrolls together.”
The chuppah was also meaningful, he continued. The piece of cloth suspended between the four poles was brought to the United States from Czechoslovakia in 1939 by Frank Kraus. Mr. Kraus’s father, Arnold Kraus, owned a textile plant in Czechoslovakia, and the younger Mr. Kraus had come to the United States to sell textiles. While he was here, the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia and Frank Kraus couldn’t go back home, so he stayed. In the 1980s, Mr. Kraus became mayor of Mahwah. His family remains in the area, and his daughter, Alice Palmer, is married to Tom Palmer, a member of Ramapo’s board of governors.
Looking ahead, Dr. Labendz hopes the Gross Center will help other communities connect with their Torah scrolls’ communities of origin. “There are all these wonderful connections we can make,” he said. “And they are things that we can do that not only will help us understand more about European Jewish history but will likely help us understand more about ourselves.”
Dr. Labendz has spoken at local synagogues that have scrolls from the collection; he researched and discussed the history of each scroll’s community of origin. When those communities were small, as often they were, at times he can get a list of every person who was deported from them, he said. He also has learned that there usually was one deportation day in those small towns. In those cases, he encourages the synagogue to use that day to say yizkor for the people who were deported and murdered from that town.
He also is trying to convince people to think differently about their Czech scrolls, or Holocaust scrolls in general. He wants them to understand that their ties to their new scroll’s community of origin are not the whole story, because the story did not end there. Instead, their own relationships to the scroll are the next chapter.
Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne has a scroll from the Czech city of Brno. When Dr. Labendz spoke at Beth Tikvah, he talked about the history of Jews in Brno, and about the scroll and what it can mean for the Beth Tikvah community. He suggested that the congregation consider the scroll “as much a Wayne scroll as it is a Brno scroll” and stressed that like the Brno community, the Beth Tikvah community is the scroll’s custodian. “You become one in a chain of custodians,” he said. “If we tell Jewish history through this Torah, you become part of this chain, and so your story matters.
“And I think Torahs are unique in that way, because it’s not just a memento, it’s not the picture that hung in this hall, or the doorknob that went into that room,” Dr. Labendz continued. “The scrolls, as Torahs, mean the same thing to us as they did to them. We cherish them in the same way. There is something ineffable about these scrolls, whether as a symbol of the covenant, whether as a foundation of Jewish culture and heritage, that is timeless and out of history.
“At the same time, these are physical objects, which means this scroll has a story of why and how it moved, so we are bound to these earlier custodians across time, in a way that doesn’t erase the Holocaust, but also doesn’t reduce the scroll’s entire essence to the Holocaust.
“It allows us to live with the memory of the Holocaust, to live with the communities that we lost, to keep on living, and to focus on life and culture rather than only on death.”
Dr. Labendz hopes the Gross Center eventually will function as the nexus of a multisite exhibit about the Czech scrolls, and their past and current custodians. The idea is for local communities, perhaps working with some of his students, to research the histories of their scrolls, and to write those histories, along with histories of their own synagogues. The plan is for the exhibit to include a mapping component, so people can see where each scroll originated, where it is now, and where it stopped along the way. The center is piloting the first steps of the project with Temple Beth Tikvah.
The center also is partnering with Beth Tikvah to mark the 60th anniversary of the sale of the Czech scrolls in October 2024. It wants to host a meeting that will bring together all the scrolls from the collection that now are in the area. In the meantime, Dr. Labendz is working on involving other local communities that have scrolls from the collection in the project.