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Jüdische Weisheit


Cultural Heritage:
The Wooden Synagogues of Lithuania

by Joyce Ellen Weinstein

The only thing one can say with certainty about the wooden synagogues of Lithuania is that they are rotting away. Some years ago efforts were made to raise money for their restoration, but nothing came of it, for the most part because the remaining Jewish community is much too small to mobilize efforts. Money is in short supply, and no one is certain whether the buildings belong to the municipality, township or region in which they are located.

According to Rosa Bielioiskiene, Chief Curator of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, the newest of the synagogues is close to one hundred years old. The oldest of these Baroque buildings, dating from the seventeenth century, were in Valkininkai, Jubarkas, Saukenai and Vilkaviskis, villages that are scattered throughout the country. These villages had sizable Jewish populations; in some cases they were completely Jewish. Construction of wooden synagogues continued until the early part of the twentieth century, with more than twenty-three constructed between the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. After WWII, only stone structures were constructed. After WWI almost nine percent of the total population of Lithuania was ethnic Jewish and up until the Second World War there were 500 to 600 different kinds of Jewish prayer houses in the country. Today there are ten synagogues or community centers in use.

Records show that Jews were already settled in Lithuania well before the fourteenth century. In the mid-sixteenth century Lithuania and Poland merged under common government and legislation. During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the complex political relationship of Poland, Lithuania and Russia, a subject well outside the pervue of this article, brought many more Jews to Lithuania, mostly from Poland. One of the first buildings constructed in each new Shtetle was the synagogue. Because of the proliferation of forestland in Poland, the settlers were experienced in using wood. Lithuania's vast woodland, similar to Poland's in its magnitude, made construction of the synagogues cheap and easy. There is no definitive evidence as to whether Jews or Lithuanians actually built the structures. It is generally assumed that Jews at least ordered the construction to their specifications. They were able to tell the workers how to build what they wanted. Later, into the twentieth century, professionals and architects were hired.

The interiors of some of the synagogues were elaborately decorated. It is probable that except for very early on, Jews painted the interiors. They might have seen the elaborate ornamentation inside a church. Inspired by that model, the artists taught themselves how it was done. One must bear in mind, however, that there was no special tradition or imagery for the Jewish artist to draw upon, and he had to invent the imagery as he went along. The artist would work on the decoration after finishing his day's work. It is possible that someone a little more prosperous in the village requested and paid for the work, but most probably it was purely a labor of love. (This is only an educated assumption with no definitive corroborating information.) Experts now characterize the decoration in the synagogues as "folk art."

The synagogue in Pakruojis

Today, there are only eight wooden synagogues still standing in remote villages: Pakruojis, Tirksliai, Seda, Zeizmariai, Kurkliai, Alanta, Rozalimas and Kaltinenai. With my guide and interpreter, Lilia Jureviciene, provided by Europos Parkas Open Air Museum of the Center of Europe, I was able to visit five of the eight synagogues. It was an affecting adventure. Upon arriving at a village, Lilia would ask a local where the wooden synagogue is located. Typically, the first response would be, "I don't know-- there is no wooden synagogue here." Eventually, someone would recall the location of the building.

In Kurkliai, a village of 117 families, located about 100 kilometers northwest of Vilnius, we found the synagogue behind several very old wooden cottages. Built somewhere between 1915 and 1939, it is similar in style to eighteenth-century Romanticist/Historicist architecture. The almost square building is one story, although the little corner tower with a small peaked roof accommodated stairs that led up to the women's balcony. The façade is plain with some elements of Moorish styling in the windows; that is, they are narrow and high with a peaked triangle as a crown. It is not known what the glass in the windows actually looked like. Today the windows are boarded up.

The synagogue in Kurkliai

Generally, wooden synagogues took on the appearance of barns so as not be conspicuous. To avoid competing with the churches that were located in the center of town, synagogues were usually erected in areas reserved for the Jewish quarter. But there are conflicting stories about where Jews lived. According to some people we interviewed, Jews were scattered throughout the village and lived near their shops, wherever they were located. Others claimed Jews lived in specific areas. In either case, for safety, buildings were enclosed and monumental. In earlier times there were no significant details on the façade to identify them. However in Kurkliai, because the synagogue is of a more recent date, a Star of David can be seen on the facade of the building. In Kurkliai the foundation is made of bricks, although other foundations were made of stone. Each construction is characteristic of building foundations.

Since the interiors of most of the synagogues have been destroyed, we can only infer the layout. Based on measurements of the building in Kurkliai, technical plans were drawn by a Mr. P. Jurenas in 1935. He concluded that the synagogue was divided into two rooms, one slightly larger than the other. The plans indicate the staircase to the women's balcony. In Kurkliai, as in other villages, during the Soviet occupation the synagogue was used as a warehouse and storage building for cars, horses, pigs and other animals. What makes the Kurkliai synagogue remarkable is that the inside has been cleaned. Angele Dudiene, a secondary school teacher of the natural sciences, has become the village specialist in Jewish history. She teaches the subject in her classes. It is unclear whether her instruction is state mandated, or she has decided to make it her personal mission. A compassionate person with considerable initiative, she took it upon herself to mobilize some of the townspeople and students to do the work of clean-up. She has made the villagers aware of the building as a religious institution. "This," she says, "is reason enough to restore it." During the cleaning she found old newspapers and documents, including some unspecified objects that she gave to the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum in Vilnius. She has offered to have some of her teaching materials translated from Lithuanian to English and to forward them to me when school reopens. They are locked in her classroom for the summer.

The synagogue in Zeizmariai

It is usual that one person in the village holds the key to the synagogue, possibly the mayor. In Zeismarai, however, it is held by an eighty-two year old Russian woman who lives near the synagogue. She was once the caretaker of animals that were stored in the shul by the local veterinarian during the Soviet occupation. She says, "I hold the key because I am such a good person. Ask anyone in the village what a good person I am. They will all tell you this is true." The synagogue in Zeismarai is quite large, with three or four rooms on the lower floor. Although we were able to go inside it is impossible to tell exactly how many rooms there were. The walls and beams are collapsing, torn down or lying on the ground. Trash is everywhere. There is a second floor but it is completely inaccessible. Because of the size of the structure it is assumed that the Jews in the village were prosperous. On one of the doors one can still see a silhouette of the mezuzah (right). According to our Russian friend, the Jews here were not ghettoized but lived all over the town and owned a number of shops. Now, she says, "The synagogue seems to stand more for a monument to the killing of Jews instead of a religious institution." Last year some people from Israel, Moscow and the USA visited Zeismarai and organized a candle-lit concert on the grounds. The American supposedly left some money for caretaking.

Interior of the synagogue in Zeizmariai

Our visits to the five villages created a variety of responses. Some people were reluctant to talk with us at first, then, wouldn't stop, as if they needed to unburden themselves. Others literally ran away, when we told them what we wanted. Still others just stood nearby and listened. In Pakruojis two drunken men sitting on their porch yelled very loudly at us in a threatening way. One woman made it very clear that Jews never occupied the house she was living in, even though it was right next to the synagogue and clearly in the Jewish quarter. In Rozalimas, a woman thought it funny that she is now living in the house once occupied by the Rabbi and laughed as she spoke about it. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, most people we spoke to praised their Jewish neighbors. They said "We all loved the Jews. They always helped people by giving them things and money. We can't understand why such terrible things happened."

Because of the curious attitudes of those we encountered and the uncertainty surrounding the question of the synagogues, I resolved to learn the government's official position on the subject. I gained easy access to Ms. Diana Varnaite, Director of the Department of Cultural Heritage of Lithuania, and Mr. Alfredas Jomantas, Head of International Cooperation, Department of Cultural Heritage Protection. According to these high officials, the government of Lithuania is taking serious steps to raise awareness of the rich cultural heritage left by the Jews and their important role in Lithuania's cultural history. For the European Heritage Days, a major event planned for September, Lithuania was appointed  to choose the team for Jewish Cultural Heritage Awareness. Seminars, lectures and other events have been planned to educate and raise consciousness. According to Ms Varnaite, the launching of cultural tourism, protection of monuments and education are top priorities. She says, "It important to begin now while the material heritage is still in the memories of the people."

But a dilemma remains. If the synagogues are restored, what will they be restored to? What will they become? Some suggestions include multicultural centers, museums or art schools. One village had considered turning its old synagogue into a disco, but was short on funds.

All images © Joyce Ellen Weinstein


Joyce Ellen Weinstein
Born in New York, Joyce Ellen Weinstein later moved to Washington, DC. USA, She received her Masters in Fine Arts from the City College of New York, and attended The Art Students League. She received fellowships to Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, Israel; Blue Mountain Art Center, New York, as resident painted a mural in Prague, Czech Republic. In 2000/2004/2005 she was Artist in Residence at Europos Parkas, Open-Air Museum of the Center of Europe, Vilnius, Lithuania. Her works are in permanent collections of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; Hebrew Union College Institute of Religion Museum, NYC., Gallerie-Junge KunstWerkStart, Vienna, Austria;  The Social-Cultural Center, Prague, Czech Republic; Amnesty International; Einchen Americe, Princeton, New Jersey, among others. Works are in private collections in the US and Europe. She is included in “Fixing the World: Jewish American Artists of the Twentieth Century”, by Ori Z Soltes, New England University Press. Ms. Weinstein will be exhibiting at the Biennale Internazionale Dell’Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy December 2005.

Works of Joyce Ellen Weinstein based on the wooden synagogues

Joyce Ellen Weinstein's website 07-06-2005

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