Švihov Torah Dedication

One month ago, I started a journey with a group of students researching a Holocaust Torah. Today, the torah was dedicated and officially took up residency at Shir Shalom in Woodstock, VT.

I want to congratulate all these students for a job well done. Thank you! With everyone putting in a little time you were able to search on-line and find all kinds of information. You worked together to record the information and then turn it into an interesting presentation.

The following is what the group said during the ceremony:

The beautiful script and fine quality parchment of this torah are indicators of a prosperous time and place in Jewish history. There was a thriving Jewish community in Švihov, which was founded in 1570 in the Klatovy District of what is now the Western part of the Czech Republic.

This synagogue was very special because 8 towns went there to pray. There are over 200 people buried in the Švihov Jewish Cemetery. The community had a Jewish street and a butcher. While there had been 79 Jews living in Švihov in 1890, by 1930 only 20 Jews were living there with many having moved elsewhere – mostly to larger cities.

After WWII the synagogue was used as a warehouse and a barn. Today there are no Jews living in Švihov.

The Jewish people of Švihov lived happily until November 1942 when they were deported to an assembly point in Klatovy. Many of the older Jews held there died or experienced deterioration of their health as a result of the poor conditions. Many of the deportees were moved from Klatovy to the Terezín Ghetto.

Map of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, indicating the assembly points for Jews and showing the number of people deported.
Jewish Museum in Prague

The Terezín Ghetto was used as a central transit camp for Czech Jews because it was a former military fortress with numerous barracks. About 140,000 Jews in total were deported to Terezín. Many were deported from there to other concentration camps or ghettos. 84,000 were killed after deportation, while about 35,000 died in Terezín itself due to the bad conditions.

We know of 17 people from Švihov who were killed during the Holocaust.

The Nazis didn’t just take the Jews. They also took all the Judaica from the community. There are records saying that they looted the Švihov synagogue and took many items including the following:

  • 5 Torahs,
  • 43 Prayer books,
  • 1 Eternal light,
  • 4 Shofars,
  • 1 Megilla,
  • 13 table settings,
  • 1 Basin,
  • 1 Talit bag and 4 Talit
Interior of Švihov synagogue in 1942 – Photo from archives of Jewish Museum Prague – PHOTO.JMP.F/789

We know of two survivors who were born in Švihov: Oswald Strass and Nina Weil.

Oswald Strass was born in 1903, the son of Bernard and Rosle, and brother of Karl and Rudolf. He was married to Josefa Maier. In 1939 he was sent to a concentration camp – Sachsenhausen. From there he was sent to several other camps and managed to stay alive until liberation. After the war he hardly spoke any Czech and had trouble assimilating in Czechoslovakia. In 1949 Oswald and Josefa sought assistance from the International Refugee Organization.

Nina Weil spent time in three different concentration camps. Nina came to Theresienstadt as a 10-year-old. When she was sent to Auschwitz the number 71978 was tattooed on her arm. She says in remembrance of that time, “I cried a lot. Not because of the pain, no, because of the number. Because I had lost my name. I was just a number.”

After the war ended, Nina was taken to a Catholic orphanage in Prague and then later to a Jewish Boarding School. She lived in Prague until the Soviets invaded in 1968, when she and her husband moved to Switzerland.

Portrait of Nina Weil from website https://www.last-swiss-holocaust-survivors.ch/en

The scroll is well over 200 years old, probably, mid 18th century.  One indicator is the way in which the panels are sewn together in a way that was in style before 1800. At some point there was a repair by a scribe who was no longer even familiar with the old style, or he would have resewn it in the old way, but he used a post 1800 “blind stitch” style.

One panel of the Švihov Torah

Before circa 1850 there was much more variation is exact layout of Torahs than ones written later. The number of lines per column, 52, indicates it was written before 1850 as well. We have noticed that there are different column-widths, and this probably reflects efficient usage of pieces of certain size skins. 

The script itself has a distinctive element that strongly suggests it was written locally, in Bohemia/Moravia aka former Czechoslovakia.  That is the upper right “yud” of the aleph reaches high, clearly above the top line of the letter. Moreover, the fairly consistent 90-degree upright angle of the pen is a German element. So, it is a German-Czech script. 

Close up of the Švihov Torah

According to scribe, Kevin Hale, because of the damaged condition of this torah, it is not considered kosher. However, as Rabbi Hale wrote to me, “a torah, kasher or not, is to be loved, revered, learned from, and of course danced with.  And this torah teaches what every torah teaches, …while at the same time bearing witness to a beautiful world that is otherwise lost.”

L’dor v’dor: students passing the Švihov Torah during the dedication

Individuals from Švihov who were murdered during the Shoah:

  • Marta Bickova born 1908
  • Alfred Eisner born 1867
  • Emil Kohn born 1894
  • Kraus, first name unknown, born 1890
  • Kraus, first name and year unknown
  • Kraus, first name and year unknown
  • Olga Krausova born 1910
  • Lio Shabat born 1891
  • Shabat, first name and year unknown
  • Frantisek Stern born 1903
  • Bertha Wachtl born 1928
  • Helene Wachtl born 1895
  • Richard Wachtl born 1885
  • Rudolf Wachtl born 1887
  • Vera Eva Wachtl born 1925
  • Wachtl, first name and year unknown
  • Amelia Weilova born 1905

2 thoughts on “Švihov Torah Dedication

  1. Miriam Greenwald says:

    Dear Heidi and Students.
    Congratulations on a project well done!
    How special to have explored the history and to share it with us.
    May we never again bear witness to the horrors of a holocaust

    Peace and L’Shana Tova.
    Miriam and Sy Greenwald

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