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  • "In unserem Kreise":Czech-Jewish Activism and Diaspora in the USA, 1933–1994
  • Jacob Ari Labendz1 (bio)

Well over ten thousand Jews from Czechoslovakia immigrated to the United States between 1933 and 1950, first fleeing Nazism, then Stalinism. A minority within this minority, predominantly from Bohemia and Moravia and numbering no more than a few hundred, distinguished themselves by founding and joining a series of Czechoslovak-Jewish organizations. These individuals wrestled with nostalgia until the century's end, fighting to implant and preserve their lost culture in a new American home. They clung to each other, to identities rooted in a shattered world, and to a fading tradition of bourgeois, Jewish, associational life. The following investigation into their activities and motivations (distinct from others in their immigrant cohort), offers a window into processes of homemaking and memory construction that echoed through the lives of a broader community of mid-century Jewish immigrants to the United States. With the war's end, these Czech-Jewish activists (as I will refer to them) adapted the European-Jewish political strategies that they had imported to the United States to cultural practices for constructing a diasporic community rooted in a nostalgic attachment to the interwar Czechoslovakia of their memories.

The first years of Czech-Jewish activism in the US, therefore, also offered a final glimpse of European-Jewish diaspora-nationalism, displaced across an ocean by genocide. Diaspora nationalists held that Jews around the world composed a single nation, and that this entitled them to enjoy rights to political and cultural self-determination as a national minority wherever they resided—alongside other national minorities. In Czechoslovakia, this ideology was meant to have offered Jews, as a collectivity, an opportunity to profess loyalty to their state as citizens and to find there unambiguous welcome as the Jews of Czechoslovakia.2 During the [End Page 371] war, Czech-Jewish activists advocated for the Jewish national minority of Czechoslovakia from the safety of American and British exile.3

The elimination of national minority rights in postwar Czechoslovakia, the reemergence there of Jewish communities that could represent themselves, and an appreciation of wartime losses engendered a shift in the orientation of America's Czech-Jewish activists towards memory work.4 As they grew more comfortable in the United States and abandoned national-minority politics, they developed an idiosyncratic diasporic subjectivity. Theirs was a diaspora of both space and time, bound to a nostalgic rendering of Czechoslovakia's First Republic (1918–1938), conceived as the nation's highest point of development and self-realization. To borrow from Svetlana Boym, Czech-Jewish activists began mourning the lost potential future that they had imagined for themselves in the past.5 Building upon Boym's work, Vanessa May has shown that a "temporal displacement [italics in the original]" can manifest in "place nostalgia," when "a sense of belonging to place is not anchored in the place as it is now, but in memories of the place as it was in the past."6

Boym divides nationalist nostalgia into "restorative" and "reflective" modes, neither of which captures fully the Czech-Jewish-activist experience. She explains:

Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos [return home] and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia, in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance. The first category of nostalgics … believe that their project is about truth [End Page 372] … [reflective nostalgia] lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time.7

Czech-Jewish activists, like many non-Jewish exiles, defended a mythologized past and insisted that communism contravened the democratic character of the Czechoslovak nation. Unlike non-Jews, however, Czech-Jewish activists could not dream of restoration. Their Janus-faced preservative nostalgia (a term I hesitantly introduce) thrived in a community of past experience marked also by the playfulness of reflective nostalgia and its use in processes of reorientation and homemaking in New York.8 If Czech-Jewish activists dismissed Czechoslovakia's postwar present as illegitimate, they did so only to be free of it.

Czech-Jewish activists in New York City founded successor organizations to...


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