From Švihov to Vermont

I have received another interesting email.

Dear Mr. [sic] Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh,
Dear Mrs. Heidi Fishman,
Last week our town has been visited by our native born Mrs. Nina Weil-Pelc again. Since 1968 she’s been living in Zurick, Switzerland. We were pleased about her wanting to see her birthplace again and being in a good health after living through a very troubled fate. Mrs. Nina had informed us about the emails she received from you recently.
The town of Švihov has a long tradition of taking care and interest in its’ history as can be found on our webpages.
Also the story of the Švihov torah is of great interest to us. When and how it got so far away beyond the ocean? We would very much like to know more about it and spread the information among our citizens…
Looking forward to your reply,
Best regards,
Vaclav Petrus, The Mayor of Svihov

I thanked the Mayor for his email and I sent him a short history of the Torah that he can share locally in the Czech Republic. Of course I wrote in English. I then translated it through Google Translate so I hope it didn’t get completely butchered. Time will tell. Below is the piece I wrote for Mayor Petrus.

There was a thriving Jewish community in Švihov since 1570. The beautiful script and fine quality parchment of this Torah are indicators of a prosperous time and place in Jewish history. The Švihov synagogue served as a place of worship for Jews from eight surrounding towns. The community had a Jewish street and their own butcher. And the Švihov Jewish Cemetery is the final resting place for over 200 people.

Švihov Synagogue, date unknown

The story of Jews in Bohemia and Moravia during the second world war is a sad one. The Nazis invaded in March 1939. They immediately forced Jewish congregations to close, took-over Jewish businesses, and seized Jewish property. Of the 117,551 Jews living in Bohemia and Moravia before World War II, it is estimated that 26,000 emigrated, 82,000 were sent to Terezín and other camps where they were murdered, and another 7,000 were murdered without being sent to camps.

In 1942 the Nazis ordered all communities in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to send ‘historically valuable’ items to the Jewish Museum in Prague. Some leaders of Prague’s Jewish community persuaded the Nazis to allow them to bring other religious treasures from the deserted communities and destroyed synagogues to the comparative safety of Prague. Švihov, along with over a hundred other small towns, sent its judaica to the city. These 212,000 items filled 40 warehouses. Several people set to work recording the items and trying to ensure that they would remain safe. The Germans allowed the Jews to catalogue the items and then proceeded to send them to the gas chambers.

If one goes to the Jewish Museum in Prague website and searches the collection with the word SVIHOV, there are 32 hits. Looking through these images is sobering. There are pictures of the interior of the Švihov synagogue taken in 1942. There are lists of the items that were sent to Prague with estimated monetary values – these include Torahs, textiles, books, shofars, gold and silver finials, candle holders, and cups. What strikes me is that within the 32 hits on the museum page there are no people – no family portraits, no mothers holding babies, and no pictures of the thriving Jewish life that existed in Švihov before the Holocaust.

Page of items catalogued from Švihov (Schwihau) p.39

In November 1942 the Jews of Švihov were sent to an assembly point in Klatovy and from there they were put on trains to Terezín. I have written about Terezín before. The Germans called it Theresienstadt and the vast majority of the people they imprisoned there were sent on to death camps to be gassed. This was the fate of my mother’s maternal grandparents. Another 35,000 died within the ghetto itself due to the harsh conditions. My mother and her family spent nine months there. They were among the lucky ones as they survived together. The survival rate was only 12%.

Ark containing Torah Scrolls in Švihov Synagogue 1942
Jewish Museum Prague PHOTO.JMP.F/793

One picture from the JMP stands out for me. Photo #793 shows the interior of the Švihov ark with no less than five Torahs. They look haphazardly placed. The covers aren’t actually on the scrolls but only leaning against them. There are no crowns or mantels. I imagine a local townsperson, not a Jew as they would have already been sent away, taking the picture of the ark. He or she tried to make it look ‘nice’ but didn’t actually know how to dress a Torah. That same person then may have packed the items into crates and shipped them off to Prague as requested. Our Torah was in my imagined crate and was catalogued with about 1,800 other Torahs at the museum. And there it sat until the communists took over in 1948. The communists then put the sacred Torahs that had survived the Nazis in the damp basement of the ruined synagogue of Michle, a district of Prague.

In 1963 the Artia company, run by the Czech communist government, approached an art dealer from London asking if he wanted to buy the scrolls. After a thorough examination, Ralph Yablon generously agreed to fund the purchase of 1,564 scrolls that arrived in London in February 1964. They were donated to the Westminster Synagogue. Eventually, the Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST) was formed. The MST loans the Holocaust scrolls to Jewish communities around the world.

One of our long-time congregants, Zecil Gravitz, made a generous gift so that it became possible for Shir Shalom in Woodstock, Vermont, to obtain a Holocaust Scroll on permanent loan. The Memorial Scrolls Trust made the arrangements for us to receive scroll #959, originally from Švihov. The Czech scrolls are survivors and silent witnesses. They represent not only the lost communities of Bohemia and Moravia, but all those who perished in the Shoah. We will use the Torah to worship, to remember, and to teach our local community about the Holocaust.

Dedication of the Švihov Torah at Shir Shalom, Woodstock, VT 2019

Our Švihov scroll is damaged to the point that it is considered not to be kosher. It can only be unrolled to a certain point and if we were to try to open it further, we risk it tearing and splitting apart. Rabbi Haigh told me that when she examined the scroll, she could only open it so far and no further. The words on that section were some of the most important in all of Judaism. The Shema says:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד
Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

These words are considered the most essential declaration of the Jewish faith. I asked myself why is the Torah stuck in this spot. I imagine that before being hauled off by the Germans that the local Rabbi took this Torah out of the ark. He placed it on the bema and he read these words. He recited the Shema with all his soul. He declared his faith to Hashem. Maybe he was alone in the synagogue. Or maybe his whole congregation was with him. They prayed. They wanted their G-d to hear them and to save them. But it wasn’t to be. They were taken away. In November 1942 the Germans deported all 1,269 Jews of the Klatovy district – 20 from Švihov. At least 1,206 were murdered. What was left is a Torah which remained rolled to one position for twenty years and the parchment hardened there. It represents the lost Jewish community of Švihov and the men, women, and children who wanted nothing else but to be allowed to live in peace.


Published by K Heidi Fishman


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