Professor Michael Riff reflects on his time at Ramapo

Photo by Natalie Tsur

Ramapo’s halls quickly emptied in March 2020, ridding themselves of students, staff and faculty. Michael Riff, a history professor, left his office in then-operating library Linden Hall, collecting all he would need for remote instruction. When the college reopened in Sept. 2021, he found a new workspace inside the Peter P. Mercer Learning Commons to spend his final semester before retirement.

After having been hired as the college’s second director of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in 1996, Riff had worked under four of Ramapo’s presidents — Dr. Robert A. Scott (1985 to 2000), Dr. Rodney David Smith (2001 to 2004), Dr. Peter P. Mercer (2005 to 2021) and Dr. Cindy R. Jebb (present) — and been witness to some major infrastructure and curriculum renovations since.

The start of his career, however, began in childhood. He credited his father for his interest in history and recalled constantly being moved by his storytelling from an early age. 

“When anybody came to our apartment, he would tell the story of how [my parents] escaped Czechoslovakia and got to England via Poland, how they lived through The Blitz in London. I paid attention since I can remember,” he said in an interview.

Despite this, Riff initially pursued chemistry at Queens College while attending the institution’s history lectures. After his sophomore year, he settled on studying history, which would offer him life-altering experiences as a graduate student at the University of London.

Riff was accepted into the British Council Exchange Fellowship in Czechoslovakia, spending his time evaluating the country’s customs and writing his dissertation paper based on those social findings. “It was in a very fateful time. I arrived there in August of 1967,” he said. “It was like going into a different world.”

These assessments only confirmed Riff’s interest in not only the field itself, but also teaching it to others. At Ramapo, Riff has taught courses that allowed him to explore his interest in architecture. Most prominently are those that he introduced to Ramapo, including Senior Seminar: Modernism and its Discontents, and Paradigms of Genocide, which he currently teaches. 

“It also had a lot to do with the study abroad course that I did, taking students to Prague and elsewhere in central Europe,” he said. “We would look at modern architecture and all its guises.”

The college also participated in Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, initiated in 1990. Professional interviews with survivors and liberators had been conducted in one of H-Wing’s studios and preserved through VHS, DVD and digital catalogues. Riff’s titular role granted him the opportunity to sit in during these sessions.

“It was, to the extent that I was involved, very rewarding because I experienced people telling their stories in a very meaningful way. Sometimes they hadn’t done so before, and sometimes the stories were very, in a way, uplifting,” he said, referring to accounts of successful escape. 

One of his more immediate accomplishments as the Center’s director was integrating it into the college after years of it standing as a separate entity. This idea was proposed by President Scott and soon came to fruition under President Smith, though the function of the Center has remained unchanged. 

The lecture program is inherent to the Center, where select visitors speak to students at the Center. Most recently, authors Jeffery Sussman and Helen Epstein discussed separate writing pieces over Zoom, echoing the experiences of those who suffered during the Holocaust.

These dialogues have been brought to faculty attention as well. Riff refocused the Center’s teacher workshops, inviting scholarly experts within the field and survivors to deliver a talk to New Jersey teachers each semester. Despite remote sessions of these workshops having been quite unconventional, Riff considers the project overall gratifying, and hopes that it will continue.

“I consider it a gift to have been part of an intellectually and socially aware community. I have made several close friends and feel that I have had an impact on the students in the classes that I’ve taught,” Riff said before explaining the educational foundations of the Center. “Knowing that we’ve had a positive impact in this regard provides one with a unique sense of fulfillment.”