You might not think of describing an octogenarian as destiny’s child unless you hear the story from the beginning. This story began when a ten-year old named Gustave Jacobs first recognized that the protective hand of God was the only barrier sheltering him from death. When Mr. Jacobs and his entire family managed to survive, he spent the rest of his life proving to be worthy of that protection, and has indeed succeeded in that mission.
On March 27th, the Orthodox Union will honor Gustave Jacobs with a Lifetime Achievement Award at its 112th Annual Dinner and Awards Presentation, but if you ask Mr. Jacobs to elaborate on some of those achievements, he’ll modestly redirect the conversation with recollections:
On a cold night in the winter of 1933, a massive torchlight parade in Berlin was organized by the Nazis to celebrate the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. That was a tip off to many Jews, including the Jacobs family. When it became clear that Jews could no longer walk the streets without fear of being attacked, Gustave’s father, the well respected Rabbi Jacobovitz of Cologne, uprooted the family and relocated just across the border to Strasbourg, France. Six years later, when France declared war on Germany, the family tried to secure their safety by moving again, but by 1942 they’d become fugitives in hiding, frantically trying to evade the authorities.
While the French police were readily deporting Jews to Auschwitz, the Jacobs family fled to remote locations and eventually, in Marseilles, they found temporary shelter and were able to establish contact with the Jewish underground. Possessing forged papers with minimal documentation and knowing that the authorities could catch up to them at any moment, it was only through a series of miracles both large and small that they finally arrived at the border and sought asylum in Switzerland. Of the 90,000 French Jews who were ultimately deported to Poland, only 8,000 survived; the Jacobs family, however, were still considered refugees, and as such were interned in various Swiss camps.
Making the best of a difficult situation, and forced to engage in the charade of meaningless labor, Mr. Jacobs had enough courage, tenacity and humor to ask the camp’s commandant if it would be possible to obtain skiing lessons! The commandant agreed, but only if young Gustave could procure his own skis – which he did with the help of a Jewish agency (note: although Mr. Jacobs maintains Swiss labor camps were relatively humane, he also cites the fact that JDC – the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – was required to reimburse the Swiss government to facilitate the housing of Jewish inmates). Gustave not only learned to ski; he obtained permission to leave the camp, used his skis to locate a notary, obtained proper identification papers, orchestrated an official high school matriculation document, and then enrolled in Geneva University.
These are Gustave’s childhood memories. When he, together with his parents and four younger siblings, eventually obtained US visas, they were finally able to immigrate in 1945. Gustave arrived in the U.S. at the age of 22, and quickly dedicated himself to building the Jewish community in his new home; two weeks after arriving in New York, he participated in founding Young Israel of the West Side Synagogue. Today Mr. Jacobs resides in Forest Hills (Queens, NY) and is a supportive member of the Queens Jewish Center and Talmud Torah. Well into his eighties, he continues to be an active world traveler, but he still remembers a time when he traveled with nothing more than one nearly empty suitcase; only his tefillin were inside.
“My family survived by miracles only. All the time we were wondering how we managed to escape when others didn’t. The only explanation is hashgacha prati (divine individual intervention), so we concluded we have a mission in life. That mission wasn’t just to become successful and live well. At the time I arrived in the United States, there was still a lot of groundwork necessary to strengthen Jewish life in America. We decided our mission must be to further Yiddishkeit for post war Jewish survival.”
After establishing a livelihood from the import of fine Japanese pearls, Mr. Jacobs continued to take an active leadership role in the New York community until 1963 when business interests required relocation to Europe. Mr. Jacobs settled in Geneva for five years and describes the peculiar contrast that existed between local and international Jewish interests. Although Geneva’s Jewish community was small, the city became the location of choice for prominent Jewish organizations; participants flew in from across the globe to attend meetings.
“It was quite odd. There were very few Jewish families and no large kosher facilities, and yet Geneva was constantly guest hosting large Jewish organizations and missions that needed to establish a broader presence or expanded international profile. Switzerland was the gateway, so we had many guests who came to attend conferences and needed accommodations. We spent many wonderful shabbosim with our guests, exchanging information and discussing issues. “
This particular set of circumstances brought Mr. Jacobs into contact with numerous influential Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Samson Raphael Weiss, then chief executive of the Orthodox Union and a staunch advocate of Jewish education. Impressed with many of Mr. Jacobs’ astute suggestions, Rabbi Weiss urged him to become involved and Mr. Jacobs followed through by representing the OU at meetings throughout Europe. When Mr. Jacobs returned to the U.S. in 1968, he became a member of the OU Board- a position he has held ever since. For the past four decades, Gustave Jacobs has maintained his commitment by attending consequential meetings, making connections with other key organizations, supporting OU programming and advancing OU interests in any way he could.
In 2006, the OU acknowledged Mr. Jacobs and his wife for their ongoing generosity by naming and dedicating the Henriette and Gustave Jacobs Chair in Kashrut Education. A plaque honoring the couple now graces the entrance of the main conference room at OU world headquarters, and the memory of Henriette (z”l), niftarah in 2008, continues to shine through a growing variety of educational programs offered by the OU’s Kashrut Department. Popular initiatives include “ASK OU” and “Coming to a Yeshiva near You” events, when OU rabbis visit communities and Jewish schools across North America to shed light on the ever more complex world of kosher certification in view of new foods, ingredients, and machinery which are continually coming into existence.
According to OU Board Chariman Stephen Savitsky:
“Some individuals are born leaders who step up to the plate and serve, but Gus Jacobs is one of the rare few who did this without fanfare or titles. He’s evolved into the role of elder statesman, the kind of person who spans the generations. His worldly knowledge, success and activism make him the perfect advisor; we all look to Gus for advice and guidance.
He continues to be a worldwide traveler, but most of us don’t know how he manages to outpace everyone else. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him attend plenty of missions; no matter how late an evening goes, he’s the first one there in the morning, dressed to the nines, fresh as can be. He’s a real trooper and a gentleman in the old school tradition of proper European manners.”
Mr. Jacobs has been honored by serving as gabbai – the official who assists in the synagogue service and stands alongside the Torah reader to correct him when necessary – at every OU Convention since 1969. But Gustave Jacobs continues to insist his philanthropic spirit grows from a deep and ever present awareness of divine destiny:
“If we were saved from the Shoah in Europe and escaped at so many different moments, while many of my friends who were cleverer than I were caught, it was for a purpose. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of this.”
Gustave Jacobs has always recognized himself as one of destiny’s fortunate children. The Jacobs family of seven who arrived on America’s shores after the war has grown to 250 – all of them shomrei mitzvot. But as much as he considers it a privilege to have helped the OU touch so many Jewish lives, it is really the OU’s privilege to have partnered with Gustave Jacobs; a man who has proven himself worthy of God’s gracious protection.
The OU’s 112th Annual Dinner and Awards Presentation will be held on March 27th at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Grand Ballroom, New York City. To find out more, please visit: OU National Dinner OR Online Dinner Registration
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.