Wooden Synagogues as Tourist Attractions

The Lithuanian Cultural Heritage Department under the Ministry of Culture has posted a PDF file on their website about wooden synagogues in Lithuania and their potential as tourist attractions called “Road of Wooden Synagogues”:

The Road of Wooden Synagogues

The 16th and the 17th centuries were a period of rapid growth and expansion for Jewish communities in Lithuania. These communities could not exist without a synagogue which was their socio-economic, administrative and spiritual centre. The synagogue was where members of the community prayed, studied Torah, and dealt with the problems of the entire community or those of individual members. The synagogue was the first building which a newly established Jewish community would construct as soon as possible to fulfill their vital needs, and thus, of course, they would use the most widespread and cheapest material for constructing the building. The material that served this purpose in the territory of Lithuania was wood which was also used widely in Lithuanian folk architecture. Later, after becoming economically stronger, the Jewish community would build a stone synagogue right next to the wooden one thus forming a courtyard of synagogues. The importance of wooden synagogues would then decrease slightly. Jewish people gathered in wooden synagogues during holidays. Due to the risk of fire, these synagogues would in most cases not be heated therefore they acquired the name cold synagogues (in the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.)

In the 17th and 18th centuries the exterior of the synagogues featured architectural forms and structures, made by local craftsmen, which were often a reminder of the form and structure of wooden churches or wooden buildings in the village or manor. The aforementioned buildings differed from each other in terms of their interior as in the case of synagogues, they were created following the requirements of Jewish ritual and decorated using the motifs of the Torah.

Extensive damage was caused to wooden buildings, in particular synagogues, during World War I, when the provinces of Vilnius and Kaunas were in the war zone, and in 1915 Jewish residents of these provinces were exiled further into mainland Russia. World War II witnessed the second wave of synagogue destruction, the consequences of which were particularly serious on the European continent. Basically all wooden synagogues were destroyed; only some of them have survived to this day and become unique objects of the cultural heritage of Lithuania and Europe.

It is rather unusual, but wooden synagogues have been preserved in towns where Jewish communities were fairly small because of the mass Jewish emigration in the third decade of the 20th century that resulted from the complicated economic situation of the time, forcing people to move into major Lithuanian cities or leave the country.

One of the most famous synagogues that has survived to this day stands in Žiežmariai (Kaišiadoriai District). According to historical data, there were a total of 482 Jewish people living in this location in 1766. Due to construction of the railway that passed through Kaišiadorys, Žiežmariai–once a busy commercial location between Vilnius and Kaunas (there were large markets and more than 50 shops, inns, and a postal centre operating in this town at the end of the 19th century)–lost its economic significance through the course of time. There were more than 300 Jewish families living in the city after World War I; however, on the eve of World War II there were only 200 families. Once you arrive in Žiežmariai you find yourself standing on a quadrangular square on the crossing of Vilnius Street and Kaunas Street. The Jewish quarter of wooden houses together with the one time courtyard of synagogues, and a unique wooden synagogue, which was recognised as an object of European Jewish cultural heritage, begin on the left hand side of the square. The latter cult building was constructed after World War I when the first repatriated Jewish people returned from exile in Russia. Compared to other synagogues, this building is different in terms of the large windows, the top part of which is rounded. The preserved part of the building includes the men’s hall of prayer together with remains of bimah (the place for holding sermons and learning) and a women’s gallery. Outbuildings, which most probably served the purposes of the primary school for boys, cheder, and other needs of the synagogue, have also been preserved.

The town of Kurkliai (Anykščiai District) used to have a Jewish community as well. The Jewish community was established in this location due to the privilege granted to the town by Žygimantas Augustas in 1564 and the construction of the road stretching from Kaunas to Saint Petersburg in the 19th century. In Kurkliai Jewish people were involved in commerce, and minor crafts. Synagogues, people serving at these synagogues, and the majority of the Jewish residents of Kurkliai were supported by Jewish people originating from the same area and relatives, who emigrated at the beginning of the 20th century. On the eve of World War II there were about 50 Jewish families living in Kurkliai, who constituted 20 percent of all residents of the town. Kurkliai has a preserved synagogue which was built a bit further away from the heart of the town, close to the water (which was very important for carrying out Jewish rituals) between the two World Wars. This one-storey synagogue is not very large.

Alanta (Molėtai District) is yet another town that can boast a wooden synagogue. This is where the roads leading to the towns of Utena, Anykščiai, Ukmergė and Molėtai meet. In Alanta the Jewish community constituted about half of the population. Just as in other towns of Lithuania, their main activities included commerce and minor crafts. However, after World War I the Jewish community was shrinking rapidly and just before World War II the number of Jewish families reached barely 30. There is a one-storey wooden Jewish synagogue built among wooden houses next to the main square of the town; it is a fairly large spacious building with big windows that are rounded at the top.

The roads stretching from the town of Rozalimas (Pakruojis District) lead to Klovainiai, Smilgai, and Šeduva. There used to be about 20 shops and inns, and markets operating in this town in between the wars. About 30 Jewish families were living in Rozalimas before World War II. The town had a primary school; the wooden synagogue of the town, the structure of which is similar to that of Lithuanian wooden houses or even household buildings, has been preserved to this day.

The town of Tirkšliai (Mažeikiai District) is situated on the crossing of the roads leading to Mažeikiai, Telšiai, Seda, and Viekšniai, which come to form a quadrangular square in the heart of the town. The dwellings of the residents of Tirkšliai have been built alongside these roads. The Jewish community of this town was also fairly small (there were a total of 82 people living in the town in 1921). Tirkšliai has a preserved wooden synagogue built in the first half of the 19th century, which is one of the oldest synagogues to survive.

Art critics and historians already recognized the uniqueness and importance of sacral buildings to the Lithuanian culture in the first half of the 20th century; nevertheless, the physical state of the majority of synagogues that have been preserved remains very poor to this day and they do not conform to their primary purpose. It is important to include synagogues in the Register of cultural property, and to do the necessary preservation work. These synagogues have to be adapted for cultural purposes: they could shelter libraries, or museum expositions; they could be included in local and international tourist programmes, etc. Synagogues could in this way be preserved as objects of the cultural heritage of Lithuania.

Written by Roza Bieliauskienė

The small PDF file with the text in Lithuanian and English and photographs is available here.