A few weeks ago, I spoke to a customer care person at United Airlines, going over the details of my flight from Newark to Krakow and my return to Newark from Prague.
She asked me if the trip was for business or pleasure. Knowing that it was only half true, I replied, “For pleasure.”
I did intend to do some touring and bought a new camera to record the sights. That was not the main purpose of my trip, though. I was going on a pilgrimage. After I toured Auschwitz/Berkenau and Oskar Schindler’s factory, I would visit Pacov, a small town of about 4,000 residents, in southern Bohemia, some 50 miles southeast of Prague.
Once there was a thriving Jewish community of about 200 people in Pacov. Today, there are none. I went there to participate in the annual Czech Day of Jewish Monuments and to connect more closely to the history and memory of those Jews.
How did that come about? In 1978, Ed Davidson, a member of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel, traveled to London to bring us a Holocaust Memorial Torah. It was one of some 1,600 Torah scrolls that had been brought to Prague in 1942 after the Nazis closed down all the synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia. In 1964, a British philanthropist arranged to have the scrolls taken to London. Many were sent on permanent loan to any Jewish organization that would display them as a memorial to the victims of the Shoah.
Our Torah came from Pacov. When Ed brought it home, the airline gave the Torah its own seat. It has been on display in the main sanctuary ever since.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Torah scrolls’ arrival at London’s Westminster Synagogue, each congregation that had one was asked to create a poster about it. Before undertaking that task, I decided to find out a little bit about ours with a Google search.
I found many photos, articles, and even home movies from the Jewish community of Pacov. I learned how to pronounce the town’s name. I had not realized that in Czech, the “c” in Pacov has a “tz” sound. I found a 1934 article, in Czech, about the history of the Jews of Pacov. I had it translated into English and published it in a booklet in 2016.
A little over a year ago, I decided to work on a second book about the Jews of Pacov, with a list of all their names and as much information about each of them that I could find. I had been in contact with two people, Pavel Tychtl, who grew up in the Czech Republic and spent his summers with a relative who lived just outside of Pacov, and Karen Koblitz, an American artist and professor, whose great-great-grandparents had been married in the Pacov Synagogue. Working to preserve the memory of the town’s Jews, they created the Tikkun Pacov Synagogue Association.
August 13 was the annual Czech Day of Jewish Monuments this year. I went to Pacov to participate in the ceremony and to see the town’s synagogue, its rabbi’s home, and the Jewish cemetery there.
Before I went, though, I spent several days in Krakow where I toured Oskar Schindler’s factory, now a museum, and saw the city’s old Jewish section, with its synagogues, cemeteries, and memorials to what was once a thriving Jewish community. And I went to Auschwitz and recited a memorial prayer there to those murdered by the Nazis. I also traveled to Tabor, a small city in the Czech Republic. There, I saw a parking lot with a large photo of the synagogue that once had stood at the site, serving the town’s 500 Jews. I was pleased that the town had marked that place to recall its lost Jews, but I was a bit disturbed that the text next to the picture of the synagogue read in part, “The synagogue was used as a place of worship until the 1930s. The following years were not kind to the synagogue.”
I walked two blocks to where a large school building stands. Ninety-seven Jews from Pacov spent a night there after being uprooted from their homes in November 1942. The next day they were deported to Terezin, the concentration camp primarily for Jews from Bohemia and Moravia. From there, almost all were sent to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
On the morning of August 13, I arrived in Pacov. I stood outside the synagogue. It survived World War II but had been used for various commercial purposes in the intervening years. It had been neglected and in need of repair. Tikkun Pacov was able to purchase the building, have it declared an official Czech historical site, and complete some preservation work. It had a new roof. Four of the 10 windows had been replaced and two exterior walls were renovated. There was still much to be done, but the hope is to make it both a memorial and a community center.
I walked around the building, pausing for a few minutes to sense what this place meant to the Jews of Pacov. I took a breath and finally stepped inside.
It looked familiar from the photos I had seen. Pavel Tychtl had created six large posters using photos of the Jews of Pacov and the posters hung on the walls. He had sent me several of those pictures and I recognized many faces. There they were, posing for the camera, standing with their families at a simcha, playing musical instruments, riding bicycles, or simply enjoying a vacation.
As I had known and the photos confirmed, the Jews of Pacov were very modern and well-integrated into Czech society. This was not a shtetl. I also knew that only seven of those Jews survived the Holocaust. One of them, Vera Lederová, appeared in several photos with her large extended family.
I looked around at the walls and the ceiling. Decaying plaster covered some of it, but the bricks below the plaster often pushed through. There had been 100 seats on the main floor and 60 in the women’s balcony.
I thought about how this space had been a sanctuary filled with warmth; a place where families and friends came together. There is a unique feeling that occurs when a small community gathers. The total number of Jews in Pacov and the surrounding towns had peaked at a little over 200 in the late 19th century. Many of them lived in even smaller towns in the surrounding area, and at least a third were related by blood or marriage.
I thought about what it must have been like during the High Holidays, when the synagogue was the most crowded. No doubt the younger Jews who had moved away as opportunities became available to them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came back home for the holidays. As they gathered, it was not only the prayers they offered but the smiles, kisses, hugs, and the feeling of truly being at home that made their gathering emotionally powerful.
On August 13, the seats in the synagogue were full as the program began. Stefan Bader sat in the front row. His father, Hanus Bader, was a prominent citizen of Pacov who survived Auschwitz, forced labor in Germany, and a death march at the end of the war. The Swedish Red Cross brought him to Sweden, where he lived out his life and where Stefan still lives.
Audrey Knoth, her husband, Phil, and their nephew, Tristan, sat toward the back. Her grandfather, Josef Robitscek, a brilliant and accomplished engineer, was the only Jew from Pacov to escape to the United States. Part of his professional training was in Germany in the 1930s. He saw Nazi antisemitism firsthand, and knew he had to leave. He converted to Catholicism, his wife’s religion, and had his daughter converted as well, shortly before they left Czechoslovakia. They changed their last name from the Jewish sounding Robitscek to his wife’s maiden name, Lucas. He never told his grandchildren that he was Jewish.
Recently, Audrey, her brother, and her sister-in-law did some genealogical research. They found me because of my book about Pacov’s Jews. We spoke on the phone last November, and I was able to confirm what they had suspected, that her grandfather was in fact Jewish.
I also told them that I had discovered that Josef’s mother, their great-grandmother Cecilie Robitscková, had been murdered at Auschwitz. That was a shock to them.
Audrey, Phil, and Tristan came to the Czech Republic not only to be at the Pacov program, but also to visit their great-grandfather’s grave, to see their great-grandfather’s home in Pacov, and to find out more about their family.
I had asked to speak briefly and to pray at the beginning of the program. After Pavel introduced me, I spoke about the book I am working on, listing all the Jews of Pacov and their fates, as Pavel translated my words. I noted that much information about them has been lost. All I could find about some of them were their names and when and where they were born, when they were sent to a death camp, and little else.
The Hebrew word for soul is neshamah. Its middle two letters, shin and mem, are at the neshamah’s core. Together those letters make the Hebrew word shem — name in English. Your name is the key to your soul. It is a reflection of your being. In my new book, I will list name after name. I hope that recording them maintains some small portion of the essence of each person. I recognize that those who read the book will not necessarily go over every word on these lists. No, it is not scintillating reading. However, I like to imagine that the readers will peruse at least some of those names and the details of their lives, imagining what has been lost. I have dedicated the book to the hope that not only the names, but at least part of the essence of each of the Jews of Pacov is never lost.
After I explained what my new book will be, I chanted the Hebrew words that had not been heard in that holy space for so many years — the Mourner’s Kaddish, the traditional memorial prayer for the dead. I added words for the victims of the Holocaust. I repeated it in English and paused. The words of the Kaddish had to be recited at this place, at this time, for the Jews of Pacov.
Some thoughts quickly came to mind. Was there a minyan of 10 Jews, the quorum required for the recitation of the Kaddish, in the room? I knew there were a few Jews present, but maybe not 10. Then I told myself how foolish I was being. It did not matter how many Jews were there, because this was a rare time when the necessity of the moment superseded the traditional rules of Jewish law. I had to recite the Kaddish, and I did.
It was one of the most emotional moments of my trip. I spoke the words slowly and deliberately. It took some effort as I thought of the souls of those who had once graced this space. Afterward, when the program was over, the wife of the rabbi of the Czech city of Brno, who knew many of those present, told me we did indeed have a minyan of 10 Jews in the synagogue. While I was glad to hear that, I was certain that on the one hand it did not matter, and on the other hand, it was a tribute to those departed souls.
The program also included readings by students from the local high school. One of them was from a family of Vietnamese refugees who settled in Pacov.
Two survivors from Terezin, Lucie Ledererová and Helena Glancová, spoke. There was a video of a Czech children’s story and a puppet show about a Jewish couple in the Czech Republic. I could not understand much because it was in Czech. Pavel translated some of those words. While I was listening, I could not continue to look at the photos of the Jews of Pacov on the walls. It was too difficult. I knew so much about them and how cruelly their lives had ended. So I just kept looking at the crumbling walls and the peeling ceiling.
When the ceremony ended, I went to the rabbi’s home in Pacov, also maintained by Tikkun Pacov, and to the Jewish cemetery. The only remaining survivor from Pacov, the rabbi’s daughter, Nelly Prezma, lived in that house after the war. She survived Auschwitz/Birkenau, and she survived being taken from there to Germany as a slave laborer. She was liberated when she was on a death march to Bergen Belsen.
After the war she returned to Prague, but did not feel at ease living there as a Jew. She finally was able to leave for Israel, using a false name, just before the Communist government stopped all immigration to the Jewish State. She settled in Kibbutz Dorot, in the Negev, less than five miles from Sderot. She felt comfortable there because many of the residents were originally from Czechoslovakia. She now has two sons, six grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren.
On October 7 Hamas terrorists reached Sderot and came within a few miles of her home, but her kibbutz was not attacked. I cannot imagine her fear when she realized how close the terrorists were to her home.
While I was in the rabbi’s home, I saw a tray holding black and white stones. Pavel had arranged for children in Pacov to paint them. The black stones were decorated with white paint and the white stones with black paint. Many were adorned with the word “Tikkun” and a Jewish star. He told me to take some, so I picked two, a black and a white one, held them in my hand, and put them my pocket. They are now on a bookshelf where I can see them when I sit at my computer. To me, the white stone is a symbol of life and the flourishing of the Jewish community of Pacov, and the black one is a reminder of its tragic end.
My pilgrimage is over. I will return to work on my book about the Jews of Pacov. Now that task has become even more necessary and urgent.
I will give an illustrated lecture about my trip to Pacov on Monday evening, January 22, at 8 p.m., at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel. The program — both in person and livestreamed — is one way our congregation is honoring International Holocaust Day, January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz/Birkenau. More information about the program will be available soon.
Ronald S. Roth is rabbi emeritus of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel.